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68 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On barnacles, beetles and much more
"The Reluctant Mr. Darwin", David Quammen's nicely-paced half-biography of the renowned and complicated title character, provides a look into the working nature of Darwin, himself. Conscious of the times the book reflects, Quammen's effort is as much about Darwin as it is about Victorian reaction to him. This is all to the good.

Wisely leaving the "Beagle"...
Published on September 13, 2006 by Jon Hunt

16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well written but the thesis fails
Mr. Quammen confesses that he is not a scientist at the opening of this book and that is ultimately the book's greatest problem. This is not to say that a journalist is not qualified to write a book on Darwin, but rather that his lack of understanding of science and scientists prevents Mr. Quammen from understanding the flaws in his thesis. Indeed, his thesis fails and...
Published on January 2, 2010 by W. David McGuinn Jr.

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68 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On barnacles, beetles and much more, September 13, 2006
"The Reluctant Mr. Darwin", David Quammen's nicely-paced half-biography of the renowned and complicated title character, provides a look into the working nature of Darwin, himself. Conscious of the times the book reflects, Quammen's effort is as much about Darwin as it is about Victorian reaction to him. This is all to the good.

Wisely leaving the "Beagle" years behind, Quammen sets off as Darwin sets foot back on his native soil. With a wealthy father supporting him and still in the middle years of his youth, Darwin charts a rather erratic course over the rest of his lifetime....scientist, ditherer, workaholic, writer...all this with a chronic dispensation toward illness that (conveniently, sometimes) keeps him from the public eye. Capturing Darwin is about as easy as nailing down some of the quarry Darwin himself pursued, but Quammen is a deft and spunky writer. Darwin might wallow from time to time but the book does not.

The wonderful narrative of "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin" is the book's chief asset, although the subect has always been one of immense intrigue, to be sure. The eight years that Darwin devoted to the study of barnacles is handled well by Quammen. A drier period could not have better been told by this author and his introduction of the para-antagonist, Alfred Wallace, who practically jump starts Darwin into writing his "abominable volume", (as Quammen puts it) is both directed and fascinating. And the issue of Darwin's agnosticism filters through the book at appropriate times...never overwhelming the story but enhancing it.

Quammen has some quotable lines. About Darwin he says, "work was his opiate, and science was his religion". Continuing with regard to Darwin's legacy, the author states, "he helped us understand the whole physical universe as a realm of concrete contingencies, not imperfectly represented ideals". Broad brushes like these are wonderfully stimulating.

"The Reluctant Mr. Darwin" is a concise book but also a satisfying one. David Quammen delivers the personality and work of Darwin through a prism of articulateness and reminds the reader that although Darwin's importance was never quite recognized fully in his lifetime, his greater good survives him.
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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Helpful Review of Darwinian Basics, August 10, 2006
There have been so many biographies of Charles Darwin, good ones and big ones. This is entirely fitting, as his discoveries are at the level of Copernicus or Newton. There is another one now, pointed and clear, and it is a worthy addition. _The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution_ (Atlas Books / Norton) by David Quammen is not a full biography; it really starts after Darwin returns from his voyages on the _Beagle_, it is most detailed around the time of writing and publishing of the great _On the Origin of Species_, and after that it is only a quick summary of Darwin's remaining life and lasting influence. This is, however, a useful volume, or it ought to be. It gets all the basics in, and we are wanting the basics. As Quammen states in his introduction, almost half of all Americans think that all living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and about the same number think that God created humans in their present form sometime within the last 10,000 years. If you listen to the creationists' claims, you'd think that there was some great scientific controversy over Darwin's ideas, but there isn't. The controversy comes only because the ideas conflict with a limited and literal interpretation of scripture. Darwin's theory is as sound as any idea in science; Quammen writes that the idea of natural selection and evolution "has survived and succeeded because it fits the observable facts better than any alternative idea, doing exactly what a scientific theory must do: explain material effects by way of material causes." Quammen's book is a fine summary of Darwin's life and thought.

Darwin proved to be an uninspired divinity student at Cambridge, but however feckless the young man may have been, the five-year voyage of the _Beagle_ was the making of him. As Darwin looked at animals and plants the world over, he began to wonder about their distribution. Coming up with the laws regulating such a distribution was a long process, and exposing them to public view took even longer. He noted evidence of species changing in his notebooks in 1837, and the next year, he picked up Malthus's _Essay on the Principle of Population_, and began writing that species attempted to reproduce in excess, and the excess was stopped by predation or lack of resources, so that those that survive are the ones that reproduce, and push their survival traits into the next generation. He knew it was a worthy idea, but he also knew that it would be reviled even by some of his scientific colleagues. He kept it mostly to himself, and went to work on barnacles and biological experimentation. And then in 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a packet from somewhere in the Malay Archipelago, and Darwin was crushed. Young Wallace had written what was almost a summary of his own theory, the theory that he had been fretting over for so many years. A gentlemanly arrangement by Darwin's friends resulted in papers by Darwin and by Wallace being read at the same meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858. Darwin's work did get the idea of changing species accepted, but the mechanism of natural selection was doubted at the time of his death and for two generations afterward (apart from any religious objections to the work). The idea that Darwin's work immediately changed biology upon its publication is wrong.

With a century of confirmation, and confirmation by molecular biology that Darwin could never have imagined, his book has become one of the most influential ever written. Quammen's writing is informal and accessible. There is much more to the story, but as an overview of the man's ideas and personality, this is an excellent volume (and is one more fine book in the top-notch "Great Discoveries" series from Norton). For all the scorn and misinformation heaped upon his memory, writes Quammen, "Charles Darwin was a man of great integrity, great goodness, deep generosity, and considerable courage." These admirable qualities are all on display here, as well as an accessible account of just what the man thought and taught, and why it is so vitally important for even religious Americans to understand.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Darwinism doesn't exist"!, September 13, 2006
This opening declaration throws down the gauntlet, challenging those who deem evolution an ideology, or "belief system". Darwin's great idea, Quammen stresses, doesn't rely on "belief". Instead, it is built up from many threads of evidence, many not even known in Darwin's time. The threads were long in detection and assembling. Darwin, confronted with a situation he deemed "like confessing a murder", came slowly to the idea of "transmutation of species". Once it took hold, however, the notion consumed him for years. Although he diverted to other projects - most notably barnacles - what he garnered over the years, from his voyage on HMS Beagle, through the breeding of pigeons to numerous direct experiments, reinforced the idea. From his efforts, of course, came the great book that changed science forever.

In this brief but brilliant short "life" of Charles Darwin, David Quammen has synthesised the ongoing effort of a man tortured by what he had discovered. He was "reluctant" for many reasons. Victorian society still held to the notion of "special creation" - species were the result of a deity's arbitrarily tampering with life. Variation was divinely ordained, not the result of natural laws. Darwin knew that his "one long argument" must be sustained by substantial evidence. In acquiring that support, Darwin scoured the world, corresponding with diplomats, ship captains, naturalists. One of those naturalists was a lonely, malaria-infected young man named Alfred Russel Wallace, way out in the East Indies.

The story of Wallace's submitting a journal article to Darwin for comment and forwarding should be too well known to recount here. Quammen absolves Darwin from the spurious charge of "pre-empting" the younger man. Darwin had been pondering "transmutation" for years, but was reluctant to publish. Quammen recounts the episode, then goes on to provide one of the finest synopses of "Origin" available. For those who haven't taken the time to delve into the work that changed life, this section of Quammen's book is a priceless treasure. He laments that even biology majors may complete a graduate degree without ever reading "Origin". Further, he warns that no other edition but the first displays Darwin's thinking and skillful presentation so well. Quammen lists the basic revisions while pointing out various sources that list them in detail.

Although the space he's given doesn't permit the author opportunity to detail Darwin's life with precision, Quammen recounts well the stress between the naturalist and his wife Emma over "transmutation" and Darwin's rejection of Christianity and the afterlife. He laid out his ideas in an essay to be published after his death. Even knowing the anxiety it would cause her, it was important that his ideas become published. There was more than Emma involved in this question. Victorian England had firm ideas laid down by the Established Church. Darwin was under no illusions that the perceived role of humanity was called into question by the concept of natural selection. Although Darwin didn't dismiss the idea of a deity completely, he knew there was no room for the supernatural in his concept. All life, he stressed, was based on natural, not divine laws. It is an idea that rests uncomfortably in Darwin's society and much of our own. Reviewing recent polls taken in the US over the past generation, Quammen finds more than three-quarters of his nation's population cannot accept that there is no divine basis for life.

It was knowledge of similar conditions in his own day that made Darwin "reluctant" to publish his thesis. During the time between his initial realisation and the publication of "Origin", Darwin turned to finding data that would support it. An astonishing dedication kept him studying barnacles for nearly a decade. The immense variety of forms and life cycles of these little creatures made the task tedious in the extreme. Yet, it was just this kind of data that would bolster the idea of selection. Variety is what selection uses to sift the fittest from the rest. Although it was pigeons that became the means of explaining selection, Darwin knew the barnacle examples were the scientific foundation for his theory. In order to make his book "one long argument", he needed such information securely set and presented clearly. That he succeeded is without doubt.

Darwin's name and one or two books are well known, the author notes, but the ideas he presented are not. That is something Quammen wishes to overcome. He does it admirably in this volume. The skilful prose presented in tight summary makes this book something deserving the widest readership. No school can be without its copy. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin's 23-Year Delay in Sharing His Evolution Theories Makes for a Fascinating Character Study, August 24, 2006
Sharing the breakthrough concept of transmutation was not the great motivator for evolution pioneer Charles Darwin to share his work. According to science journalist David Quammen, it was ego and fear. The fear was twofold. First, there was a younger colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, who had come to the same conclusions that Darwin did over two decades earlier and was about to go public with his own natural selection theory. Second and even more critically, there was Darwin's almost pathological reluctance to present the findings borne out of his historical voyage on the Beagle.

Even though there is the rather remote possibility that Darwin was holding out until he felt he had enough evidence for his findings, the story that Quammen tells goes much deeper, and what results is a fascinating look at a man at odds with his times and sometimes with himself. The idea that there may be no afterlife and that life may indeed regenerate itself in different forms was a shocking concept during the Victorian era. It's obviously still dismissed by the religious right today, but charges of blasphemy had a more painful consequence in the 1800's. It was unthinkable to think that man was not the chosen species by a higher authority. The most hesitant supporter was Darwin's wife Emma, who was troubled by his assertions that they may not be together for eternity. There was also the debilitating illness that beset him since the voyage.

That mythic, five-year voyage between 1831 and 1836 - which included stops to gather specimens in Australia, South America, the Pacific and of course, the Galapagos Islands - yielded volumes of research and cataloguing. By the following year, he concluded certain species changed to others but didn't know how, yet it wasn't until 1844 that he put any of his thoughts to paper. Still hesitant, he only showed his essay to close colleagues. Perhaps too afraid of the consequences, Darwin procrastinated on the topic by instead spending eight years dissecting barnacles. It was only when Wallace wrote a similar essay eleven years after Darwin's that Darwin decided that the two of them should co-present their now corroborated findings to the Linnean Society of London, the still-premier society on animal taxonomy.

This finally led to the 1859 publication of Darwin's groundbreaking thesis, "The Origin of Species". Quammen writes about this personal journey with the fervor of a Hollywood screenwriter while remaining respectful of his subject. Having been fortunate enough to visit the Galapagos Islands myself, I cannot help but feel that same sense of revelation about transmutation as evidenced by the indigenous animals still living there. This book is a most stimulating read for non-scientific explorers like me thanks to Quammen's ingratiating, anecdotal style.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Short Introduction To Darwin and his Impact, October 18, 2006
I found this to be just an extremely helpful shorter study of Darwin, pleasantly written, but containing much valuable information packed into its 283 pages. One particular talent of the author is the ability to explain scientific issues in the most understandable fashion--somewhat of an unique talent in my experience. Wisely, the author does not recapitulate the well-trod voyage of the Beagle, but begins his discussion after Darwin's return from this epic voyage in 1836. The central issue simply put: why did it take Darwin better than 20 years after his return to publish "Origin of Species"? To answer this question, the book focuses upon a biography of Darwin during the years prior to the "Origins" publication in 1859. One sees how much data and supporting evidence Darwin had amassed during this period--but still no publication. In fact, it was not until A.R. Wallace sent Darwin a paper from the Far East, which closely paralleled some of Darwin's own ideas, that Darwin sprang into action and produced his monumental book. An entire chapter is devoted to the book itself, the clearest and most understandable compact analysis I have seen. Next, the author addresses (again in a clear and compact chapter) the course of evolutionary thought (and anti-evolutonary thought) that resulted from Darwin's book. As throughout the rest of the book, this chapter is as even-handed and fair as one could wish for. A super bibliography is attached as well. Basically, this is an informative and pleasant reading experience, both for experienced Darwin/evolutionary hands as well as those new to the topic.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Concise biography brings Charles Darwin to life, September 10, 2006
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) spent four years, nine months, and five days (1831-1836) as a naturalist aboard the Beagle, a British naval ship sent out to chart certain stretches of South American coastline. This celebrated voyage planted the seeds in Darwin's mind of his famous theory of evolution.

David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo and one of our best science popularizers, begins his study of Darwin's life and works after Darwin's return to England.

In 1859, Darwin published a work that revolutionized science, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, now known simply as The Origin of Species.

In 1871, Darwin published a second eyebrow-raising work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he specifically included homo sapiens in his theory of evolution. Human beings, he said, are descended from lower, less intelligent animals.

Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is not a comprehensive biography of Charles Darwin--such as Janet Browne's magisterial two-volume work, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (2002)--but is a concise interpretation, written for nonspecialists, of Darwin's controversial theory and how that theory was received by the scientific community.

In the years following his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin became convinced that plants, insects, and animals (including us) evolved from earlier species. He was puzzled, however, concerning the mechanism that caused the phenomenon of "transmutation."

While reading An Essay on the Principle of Population, by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Darwin had a Eureka! moment. In his essay, Malthus argues that while population expands exponentially or geometrically, food production grows only arithmetically. An ecosystem would soon have more living species that its food supply could support, resulting in a competition for food, a struggle for existence, or in Herbert Spencer's phrase, a "survival of the fittest," those best adapting to changing circumstances.

Applying Mathus' principle to evolution, Darwin said, in effect, "Aha!" He had found his mechanism: natural selection. But after having this momentous epiphany, nothing happened. For twenty years, writes Quammen, "Darwin held his cards close and kept a poker face to the world."

Why was Darwin so reluctant to show that he was holding a royal flush? Why did he wait twenty years to publish his radical theory? Perhaps it was his methodical determination to find empirical data to support his theory (after all, he spent eight grinding years studying barnacles, and more years studying beetles, pigeons, and earthworms).

Did this reluctant assassin of the doctrine of divine creation balk at publishing his heretical theory for fear of offending his loving and beloved wife, Emma, a deeply pious and devout Christian believer?

Whatever his reason, Darwin was jolted awake by a paper written by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), titled "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." Quite independently of Darwin, Wallace had arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection. In this book, Quammen provides an interesting parallel biography of Wallace.

What precisely is natural selection? Briefly, it may be defined as the process in nature by which only the organisms best adapted to their environment tend to survive and transmit their genetic characteristics in increasing numbers to succeeding generations, while those less adapted tend to be eliminated.

According to Darwin, who was an agnostic, this was a natural process resulting in the survival and reproductive success of individuals or groups best adjusted to their environment and leading to the perpetuation of genetic qualities best suited to that particular environment.

It's regrettable that Darwin, who published The Origin of Species in 1859, could not have known of the groundbreaking research of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), an Augustinian monk who, in his monograph "Experiments in Plant Hybridization" (1866) explained the interaction of dominant and recessive genes, an insight that became the foundation of modern genetics and that furnished further empirical data supporting Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Kevin Padin, Professor of Integrative Biology and Curator of the Museum of California, Berkeley, writes: "David Quammen has produced the best short biography of Charles Darwin that I have ever read--or can imagine reading. This is no rehash of the commonplace but a fresh and original look at one of history's greatest scientists, written by one of our very best science writers. This is where all students of evolution and science in general should begin their study of Darwin."

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is an intelligent book well worth your time. Quammen's interjection of witty remarks and humorous asides will give the reader numerous chuckles. He paints a portrait not only of Darwin the scientist but pf Darwin the loving family man, loyal friend, and decent human being. Highly recommended.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well written but the thesis fails, January 2, 2010
This review is from: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (Great Discoveries) (Paperback)
Mr. Quammen confesses that he is not a scientist at the opening of this book and that is ultimately the book's greatest problem. This is not to say that a journalist is not qualified to write a book on Darwin, but rather that his lack of understanding of science and scientists prevents Mr. Quammen from understanding the flaws in his thesis. Indeed, his thesis fails and the book becomes self-serving.

It starts predictably with a long lament about just how absolutely awful it is that so many Americans don't "believe in evolution." This very phrase betrays the theological underpinning of this book. Scientists do not need to "believe" in evolution - we know it works. Evolution is not an article of faith; it is a valuable tool essential to research like the second law of thermodynamics or the Keplerian ellipticity of an orbit. The fact that many Americans don't "believe" simply reflects the fact it really does not affect their daily lives. Flogging this issue is only important to proselytizers on both sides of the question, trying to shove either intelligent design or evolution down the throat of others to reinforce the "truth" of their own religious view and assuage their own inner doubts. So the book then turns into a fawning encomium to Darwin laced with overstatement, meaningless conjecture and hyperbole designed to prosecute a purely atheistic view of evolution. Like Richard Dawkins and a whole army of others, Mr. Quammen is on a mission to convince all the luddites of the random meaninglessness of life and the uselessness of God. But in the end the only real weapon he can hurl at those who believe in theistic evolution is repetition of the emphatic "NO" Darwin scribbled in his copy of Wallace's book beside the passage arguing for Divine intervention in variation. That fight is and will remain an epistemological draw and its arguments are out of Mr. Quammen's weight class.

The thesis of the book is old and tattered; to wit, the long delay between Darwin's initial formulation of his theory of evolution and his publication of "On the Origin of Species" was the consequence of his fear of recrimination from all those religious Victorian fuddy-duddies. This is nonsense on several levels. First, Darwin was well and safely cocooned among atheists and agnostics including his father, his brother, his cousin Francis Galton (founder of the eugenics movement) and one of his best friends and supporters Thomas Huxley (first and most vocal proponent of the `Darwin has killed off God idea'). Since the French Revolution atheism had been downright chic. There would be some tut-tutting in a few parlors, but no one was going to burn Darwin at the stake like Bruno or put him under house arrest like poor old Galileo. He was also in close correspondence with Asa Gray, an influential and quite religious American intellectual, who did not reject or even tut-tut evolution prior to publication of Origin. Quammen is very selective in his portrayal of Gray, lest it damage his flawed thesis. Second, Darwin was working on a detailed manuscript when Wallace forced his hand; he had every intention of publishing. Quammen's idea that he prepared a shorter manuscript earlier and bequeathed it to his wife in case of his early death secretly hoping it would be published posthumously so as to avoid controversy is poppycock in light of Darwin's obvious love for life and his family. Third, if you read it carefully enough, Darwin himself tells us in Origin the reason for the delay; he was a scientist and he truly felt he had to gather enough hard cold facts to support his idea and anticipate all possible criticism before he could publish a truly scholarly work. His worst problem was that he had no mechanism for genetic variation within a species; he knew this was a gap in his theory. Prior to Wallace's work he simply was not ready to publish. It had nothing to do with the fear of societal disdain Mr. Quammen constantly implies. In 1859, Darwin was a confident wealthy recluse who contrary to this warn-out thesis lived out the rest of his life basking in popular acclaim and worldwide fame.

That said, in the places where the book is a biography and not an atheist apologia it is not bad if taken with more than a few grains of salt. It is a decent distillation of longer more authoritative biographies and is full of tidbits you will not readily find elsewhere. Mr. Quammen may have a distorted understanding of Darwin but he has certainly read him including the treatise on earthworms (which is quite good actually). The sentences are lively and the text flows well and for the most part chronologically. The phrases can be a little overworked and cutesy at times and the vocabulary is 8th grade, but Mr. Quammen is a pretty good writer. You do get some feel for Darwin the man, husband, and father if not a real feel for Darwin the scientist.

If you are on a quest to understand Darwin and evolution, I would suggest that you not start here. "Evolution" by Edward J. Larson is a much better book. Origin itself is good, but remember it is an old science book written for old scientists; it can be a bit of a slog. If you are really serious see Douglas Futuyma's text titled, well what else, "Evolution". Then, if you have nothing better to do on a rainy Sunday, you might consider this book (with a salt cellar close at hand).
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62 of 81 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit too breezy and "writerly", August 6, 2006
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At the end, the author notes he was asked to produce a book that was: "radically concise, essayistic and writerly more than scholarly."

If this is what you wish, he succeeded. He is a clever author, playing with language and your expectations, loving the long sentence followed by a short, and many other tricks.

I don't mind a book that is radically concise. Some of the brevity comes from starting after the voyage of the Beagle, which may be a good choice, since it insures a focus on evolution, not the field biology of that trip.

I found sometimes that his writing tricks came in the way of the narrative, and I wished at times the author would recede, and allow Mr. Darwin the complete screen. I would have given him a star more if instead of playing a cute trick (of saying he won't tell you how Darwin's theory was revised over the years, and then doing exactly that), if he had covered this topic in more depth and rigor. Since the topic of the book is really as much evolution as Darwin, and I'd argue more so, tracking the progress of the theory soundly would have been nice.

The book would have earned another star from me if it had been stronger about what on earth could cause someone to study barnacles for nearly a decade, as Darwin did, or had brought his wife more into the foreground. Darwin and the development of his theory are the focus of the book, especially his observations of the barnacle, but by almost ignoring so much else, Darwin walks the stage nearly by himself.

So 5 stars as a clever essay, 5 stars for showing off clever writing, 4 stars on evolution, and 3 stars on placing Darwin in more context of his era. As the author correctly notes, there are other great (and long) biographies of Darwin, so he may be correct in his focus, and I wrong in my critique!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Evolution of Evolutionary Thought, The Origin of "Origin", March 5, 2007
Grey Wolffe "Zeb Kantrowitz" (North Waltham, MA United States) - See all my reviews
What sets this little missive apart from other books about Darwin, is that it totally ignores the years of travel on HMS Beagle and begins with what happened afterwards. Quammen gives us a great biography of Darwin, without all the fawning tot he 'great man' and gives us the actual man (one who was a hypochondriac and probably suffered from bouts of anxiety and had trouble dealing with the 'real' world), with all his warts.

Like any man, Darwin was just that, a man; he married because he thought it was a good idea (then went and picked out a wife) and had forty years plus of married bliss. His wife Emma and he (from their letters) were devoted to each other and had nine children, seven who lived past childhood and six who lived into adulthood. But, Darwin always remained melancholy as to the loss of his first daughter and eponymous son.

He had insatiable curiousity, but never traveled far from home once he settled down. He did much of his research by letter and inquiry. He seemed to have few if any social skills and except for his work on the "Beagle" never held a job (or need for one thanks to his father's legasy).

He wrote the "Origins of Species" in thirteen months, after having written the first monograph twenty years prior, because he received a 'paper' from a young man traveling in Indonesia who had developed many of Darwin's thoughts on 'natural selection' independently from his collecting of bird specimens. Afraid that this man (Wallace) would 'scoop' him after all of his years of observations and experimentation, he was goaded into writing a short version (at 500 pages) of an immense tome he had planned.

Once published, Darwin would have been happy to have forgotten the whole thing and went back to his vocation of observations. But history doesn't just let you make a great discovery and then go back into hiding; he had to spend many years defending and modifying his work to satisfy both his critics and himself.

Quammen's greatest accomplishment is making the man human, by illuminating his personality problems and his devotion to family and close friends. He also does a yeomans job in explaining some very complicated theories and arguments that would leave most of us scratching our heads.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin in a Nutshell, November 10, 2006
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This is an entertaining and informative biography on the development and continual reworking and modifying of the Theory of Evolution as put down by Charles Darwin, and other tidbits of information regarding Darwin's personal life and habits and behaviors. The author, David Quammen, also touches on the work of Alfred Russel Wallace and his parallel development of his own Theory of Evolution. Other aquaintances of Darwin, many of them prominent men of science, are also mentioned and elaborated on. Quammen is a very capable and talented story teller who brings a wry sense of humor and keen insight to a subject that could very easily spiral into a morass of boredom in less capable hands. Charles Darwin is brought to life as not only an assiduous workaholic prober of the natural world, but as the very human, gentle, and compassionate husband and father that he was. My only complaint is that this wonderful little nugget is too short. I would have preferred a volume twice as long but no longer. And Quammen also comments on the book's brevity. I recommend this work. It is not as thorough as Quammen's "Song of the Dodo," but it is a good read and can be knocked off in an afternoon; plus you may learn things you may not have known about one of the great scientific theorists of the nineteenth century. One final note: there is a funny bit regarding the human genome vis a vis that of the mouse that made me laugh out loud for several minutes. Who knew that science could be so funny. This pithy remark alone is worth the price of this modest little book.
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