on June 29, 2003
This book touches only lightly on Charles Darwin's scientific work. If you are looking for a popular introduction to the basic mechanisms of evolution, try The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner or The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins.
This book is primarily about Darwin's family life, his religious convictions, and how his scientific work affected both.
Nearly everyone in early 19th century Britain believed in a all-powerful, all-knowing God who monitored and regulated and judged everything that happened down to the smallest detail. (As in America's Bible Belt, where putting a Darwin Fish on your car is an invitation to vandalism, people who didn't accept the majority view tended to keep a low profile.) God had created all the species, exactly as they were, all at once about 6,000 years ago. Whatever you did, God was watching and might punish you in horrible ways for some small infraction. Most people accepted the idea that if your child came down with some hideous disease it was because God was punishing you for some transgression. (It didn't seem odd to anyone that they were worshiping a God who behaved like a vengeful psychopath.) However, if you followed the rules and did what you were supposed to do (if you were a woman, that meant endless pregnancies and utter, unthinking obedience to your husband, no matter what), after you died you got to go to Heaven where you would finally be happy.
Emma Darwin, wife of Charles, although her faith became strained, believed this. Charles, although in many ways a man of his time, is more complicated. He began as an orthodox Christian, a divinity student at that, went through a decades-long middle period - which takes in THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES - of being a deist, and ended up as an agnostic who found the positions of both believers and atheists untenable because both camps claimed to know for certain things we cannot know at all. The religious tension between Emma and Charles, always there, was thrown into stark relief by the long suffering and death from tuberculosis at the age of ten of their angelic daughter Anne. This book is a study in what theologians have called the problem of evil, and how Darwin, who did as much as anyone to create the modern, secular world, wrestled with it. More than that, it is a study in how a man who loved his wife, but did not share her faith, struggled to find some way to maintain his integrity and yet give her what she needed. Whichever side of that divide you are on, you will find something for you in this book.
on August 8, 2003
My own ideas about Charles Darwin and his contributions to science were quite frankly limited to a week of study in high school natural sciences, long since forgotten. The ideas I had of him came from popular culture rather than my own investigations. Unsure whether to brand him a revolutionary atheist plotting to bring down Christianity or a zealous naturalist merely satisfying his own curiousity, I was eager to read what Keynes, a well pedigreed descendant of Darwin, had to say.
Privy to notes, letters, journals, and other information heretofor unseen, Keynes casts the familiar image of Charles Darwin in a new light. The man who emerges from this portrait is unexpected in many ways. A singularly devoted father and husband, Darwin's greatest joys came from ordinary family life. Romping with his large brood, noting details small and grand in their development and children, tenderly corresponding with his beloved wife Emma during their few seperations, Darwin was no cold and ruthless scientist out to cripple the faith of the believers. Keynes portrays him as a man brimming with affection, kindness, and love. Annie, the daughter alluded to in the book's title, remains mysterious in many ways; but what is entirely evident is that grief over her untimely death haunted Darwin until the end of his days.
Keynes so sensitively discusses Darwin's struggles with faith, God, and the human condition that he manages to obliterate the undeserved assumptions I carried with me to the biography. Darwin did not, as many assume, dismiss out of hand the notion of God. Quite to the contrary, he struggled with profound questions about God and lived out his life with a healthy respect for his wife and family's religious ideology even after he could no longer conscientiously participate in it. Darwin's struggles with the Christian faith were based on the central issue of human suffering, and its meaning. His firsthand knowledge of pain and suffering made him acutely aware of the human condition and indeed, of suffering of "all sentient beings... What advantage can there be in the sufferings of the millions of lower animals...?" Even at the end of life, Darwin remained uncertain about the existence and nature of God. Unwilling to use the framework that Neitzsche embraced by pronouncing "God is dead", Darwin instead admitted that he simply did not know and perhaps could not understand.
Keynes' portrayal of Charles Darwin is a welcome addition to any biography shelf, if only for the incredible amount of personal writings he is able to include.
on August 14, 2003
Having no real knowledge of Charles Darwin beyond myths and some sketchy memories of high school science, I was eager to read this book and finally become acquainted with the Charles Darwin, the man.
Randal Keynes did not disappoint. His access to a veritable treasure trove of family journals, letters, and records allows Keynes to develop a fully dimensional, complex individual who far exceeds the simple titles of "Evolutionist", "atheist," or any other ordinary label. Far from being a simple scientist (one of the myths dispelled in the book) or a once devout minister-in-training-turned-atheist (another myth), Darwin here is presented as a man of great warmth, devotion, and intellect.
Especially appealing to me was the emphasis Keynes places on Darwin's family life, as opposed to a lengthy discussion of his evolutionary theory. Darwin comes across as a fun, playful, adoring father whose very real grief over the death of his daughter may well have been a turning point in his thinking about God and the nature of the human condition.
Anyone who dismisses out of hand Darwin's theories as mere instruments by which to bring about the fall of Christianity must read this book. Darwin's struggles with the deepest philosophical issues, i.e. human suffering, the nature of evil, God, and redemption, are all discussed with sincerety even as they are backed up with evidence from Darwin's journals and letters. Those who insist on tagging Mr. Darwin with simple labels will be surprised by this revealing look at the real man.
The writing is clear, clever, and refrains from striking a tone either too sentimental or one inclined toward evolutionary apologetics. Definitely a worthwhile read.
on March 10, 2002
In this book you get a close up of who darwin was and what he was thinking. Numerous quotes from letters to family and friends are used. There will be no doubt after reading some those quotes that Darwin loved his family, his wive, and science. The loss of his daughter took its toll on Darwin. You can really see the change from theist darwin, before Annie's death, to agnostic darwin, after her death. That event forever changed darwin's outlook on God. Because if God does exist then why did he let his innocent daughter sufffer so much. How could pain and suffering be allowed by a righteous God, like the one Emma believed in.
The book only devotes a couple of chapters to evolution, I thought that was a problem. Overall the book isnt bad, just average. Most of the quotes Keynes uses I already read in the book Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. If you want a book that takes a deeper look into evolution, the cast of characters surronding evolution, and darwin himself go with a the above mentioned book.
on April 5, 2002
This is a well researched biographical account of Darwin, his family and the struggle he had with the death of his ten-year old beloved daughter. Her death haunted him until he himself died. The author did an excellent job of illustrating Darwin's character and his thought processes while developing his theory of species evolution through natural selection. Mr. Keynes certainly deserves five stars for his effort.
However, the attempt to tell the story of Darwin using his daughter and her death as a focal point doesn't work very well. It is almost a distraction in the first half of the book. Certainly her death was important and influenced Darwin's thinking, but her story may have been more properly placed peripherally, focusing more on Darwin himself, as was done later in the book. Dana Sobel was able to use the letters of Gaileo's daughter much more effectively in her book, "Galileo's Daughter". This is not a reflection of Mr. keyne's effort, but rather the fact that Ms. Soble had much more material to work with. There are 124 surviving letters of Galileo's daughter and she lived until age 34.
Once the book moved beyond the death of Darwin's daughter, it became more informative since Charles Darwin was now the centration point and his story became more illuminating. Of particular interest is the attention given to the recurrent mention of God and religion. Mr. Darwin had to reconcile his evolving (excuse the pun) view of God with the prevailing religiousness of society and his wife's deep Christian belief.
He managed it quite well and he was strategic in his approach to publishing his ideas. While he developed his species theory in 1838, it wasn't until 1859 that he published "Origin of The Species" and even then, he only briefly mentioned human origins in the book's conclusion. He finally addressed man's origin in 1871 when he published "The Descent of Man".
His handling of the religious question was often brilliant. Once when questioned if his species theory was compatible with a belief in God he answered "It has always appeared to me to be more satisfactory to look at the immense amount of pain and suffering in this world as the inevitable result of the natural sequence of events, i.e. general laws, rather than from the direct intervention of God." He also said at one point that "the safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect, but man can do his duty."
Even late in life Darwin recognized that "the human brain was not a perfect instrument for finding essential truths." Still, regarding his his own religious classification "he preferred the word agnostic" rather than atheistic. And finally, Mr. Keynes advises that Darwin felt that "While there was work to be done on Earth and humanity, while nature still held so many of her secrets, the effort devoted to aims other than natural could be put to better use."
In summary, the book gets off to a slow start, initially weighed down with an excess of trivial details, but eventually takes off and gives us great insight into one of science's most influential figures.
on April 27, 2004
Not long ago I reviewed a book on Alfred Russell Wallace, In Darwin's Shadow, where I suggested that Wallace's life had probably been a happier one. A reader of that review suggested that this was not necessarily the case, and suggested that I do further research on Darwin's personal life. When I discovered the book Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes, a descendant of both Charles Darwin (who was his great-great grandfather) and the economist John Maynard Keynes, I felt that I had found a gold mine. Privileged to the access to family documents and memoirs, Keynes was able to do a very thorough work on the private life of the Darwin family, and a creditable discussion of the effect of Darwin's experiences as a husband and father on his theory of evolution.
Above all the book is a charming visit to the Victorian era and a lovely story of a devoted family of that time. The more tragic events that occurred in the Darwin household were not unknown to many families up and down the social scale. The loss of their second child shortly after birth, the death of the ten year old Annie, the birth and death of a Downe's syndrome child later in their life, were all events that occurred in other households as well. Probably more unusual was the closeness of the husband and wife, and the involvement of Darwin with the upbringing of his children, although these aspects are similar to those of the lives of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. One wonders if these situations were just unusual or if one has a skewed sense of family in the Victorian age.
Above all, the intense observations Darwin made of his growing children and the sometimes painful conclusions with respect to evolutionary theory that these studies reinforced were surprising to me. I would tend to agree with the author that his family did have a profound impact on Darwin's theories.
I thank the individual who suggested further research on Darwin and his personal history.
For THOSE WRITING PAPERS: in biography, history, evolution studies, sociology. Compare some of the other biographies of Victorian era individuals. Can one create a sense of the character of a society by studying individuals? How might the fact that they were unique enough to rate a biography at all prejudice ones view of society by doing this? Were Darwin, Wallace, Victoria and Albert, and other famous individuals "characteristic" of their age? Look at biographies like In Darwin's Shadow, Victoria's Daughters, and Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution and suggest how family has an impact on scientific discovery, politics, philosophy, or other aspects of the human endeavor. Do you think that the theory of evolution would have been the same had Darwin and Russell switched places socially?
on May 3, 2003
Charles Darwin has been much vilified by creationists for the development of his "atheistic" theory of evolution by natural selection. This book portrays the true Charles Darwin as a grieving and loving father and husband, a very human and humane doubter in revealed religion, and a serious and thoughtful scientist. That people can have honest differences with a popular view of religion without having horns and a pointed tail may open the minds of some. It will, unfortunately, probably not convince those who refuse to entertain the possibility that non-believers can be moral beings.
Keynes has done us a great service by revealing the private sorrows and triumphs of his famous ancestor and their effects of his thinking. Unlike many other great men (like Isaac Newton, for example), Charles Darwin seems to be someone you might have wanted to have as a neighbor and friend.
I recommend this book without reservation to those who would like to know more about the man who revolutionize our thinking regarding man's place in nature.
There are a good many biographies of Charles Darwin. This is as it should be, given that his theory of evolution is the overarching explanatory force in biology. Darwin was a keen observer, a model scientist, and a modest, approachable man. Though the creationists then and now criticize evolution for religious reasons, they have only been able to criticize his life by deceit: Darwin was upright, fair, and generous. He was also an exemplary family man as both husband and father. It is this last aspect of Darwin's life that is admirably covered in _Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution_ (Riverhead Books) by Randal Keynes. There is ample reason for this one more book on evolution's founder: Keynes's grandmother was Darwin's granddaughter, and Keynes had access to family accounts of growing up in the Darwin household. Seven of Darwin's ten children survived to adulthood, and five of these wrote about their upbringings, and upon these accounts, Keynes has drawn heavily, to provide an intimate picture of life in Down House, and to show how family relationships provided material for Darwin's thought.
At the heart of the story is Annie Darwin, who died in 1851 at the age of ten, after a lingering, mysterious illness. The parents, Charles and Emma, were devastated by the loss of a daughter who seems to have been a particular font of joy for them. Darwin in his grief sat down to write. He first produced a moving memorial to Annie, reproduced here with its words of quiet and profound grief. And then, as he always did when he was emotionally drained, he went to work, at this time on his great species theory. The sadness over Annie's death pervaded all Darwin's subsequent thinking, but Keynes's book is not a sad one. Of course Darwin had a triumphant life, but daily life in his household was generally joyous, and the children knew it, and gratefully acknowledged it as such in later years. The children were raised in happy indulgence. They learned to read when they chose to do so, and they collected specimens and made notes as their father did. They learned to think for themselves. They often made a chaos of the house, invading Darwin's writing room, but were rarely expelled even from that sanctum. Darwin never dropped his role as investigator, and made notes on the children's development, ideas that were incorporated into his theory.
Keynes has reviewed Darwin's upbringing, education, travels, and writings, but this book will not replace any of the fine biographies we now have. Instead, it gives details about an important spark to Darwin's thinking. The details about the life within Down House are often linked with Darwin's writing, but more importantly, the archetypal great scientist is poignantly shown as a deeply human, admirable, and quite lovable, family man.
on January 29, 2002
Having long admired the ability of Charles and Emma Darwin to maintain their loving marriage in the face of the enormous difference between his commitment to a naturalistic worldview and hers to a more traditional theological perspective, I have wished for a book that would focus more upon Emma and their offspring than was done by any of the Darwin biographies I've read. At last there is such a book -- by a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, Randal Keynes, who drew heavily from Darwin family papers. Its title is: DARWIN, HIS DAUGHTER, AND HUMAN EVOLUTION (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002). It is written so well that reading it gave me a keen sense of near-personal acquaintance with the Darwins, as well as deepened insights into the thinking processes that characterised the great scientist.
on March 3, 2006
Currently, there is a lot of talk about as well as charges being hurled at the theory of evolution. There are people who are evolutionists pure and simple. There are the doubters who go along with the theory because nobody has a better explanation. And, there is the intelligent design crowd. "Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution" written by a descendant of Charles Darwin does a great service to the humanization of the misunderstood gentleman scientist. It also brings to light the social climate of Victorian England. But most of all it shows Darwin as a family man with the fears and self-doubt that all parents experience especially when confronted with illness of a child. You will learn more about the process of a genius at work as well as get to know a truly gentle man.