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The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (Great Discoveries) Hardcover – July 31, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Charles Darwin took 20 years to write his theory of natural selection: he produced On the Origin of Species only on learning that he was about to be scooped. Was he a chronic procrastinator? Or was he afraid of the reaction of his peers, who had scorned earlier books on the "transmutation" of species? A bit of both came into play, but as acclaimed science journalist Quammen (Song of the Dodo) shows, during those two decades, Darwin was busy conducting scientific research that would bolster his observations of the finches and mockingbirds of the Galápagos Islands. He raised pigeons and theorized that domestic varieties could be traced back to a species of wild dove. He floated asparagus seeds in saltwater to explain how plants moved from one continent to another. Quammen commences his portrait with Darwin's homecoming from his five-year trip on the Beagle and then focuses on how he gained enough confidence and evidence to publish a book that would displace humankind from its privileged position as a special creation. This often slyly witty book stands out among the flood of books being published for Darwin's bicentenary. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
David Quammen takes up Darwin's story after the Beagle landed on English shores, a decision that allows the author to tighten his focus on the conundrum that presented itself to the famed scientist: when to let his discovery out of the bag? Though critics point out that the price of such concision is a lack of context, they agree that Quammen does an admirable job of giving information where it is needed and galloping over gaps for the story's sake. Those hoping for a more comprehensive tome on natural selection should look elsewhere (perhaps to Quammen's The Song of the Dodo or The Flight of the Iguana), but this entry in Norton's Great Discoveries series delivers an entertaining, enlightening glance at one of the world's most influential thinkers.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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The author insists that true discovery is an incremental process - one thought leads to another and then to another, etc. Darwin (and others) had glimpses of the truth but it was decades before he felt the evidence was solid enough to publish - and even that was due to a race against a rival. The author points out that the term "Darwinist" is misleading. He did not start a religion, found a movement or train a bevy of disciples Perhaps the biggest surprise was that despite its "hit status", ORIGINS did not quickly change minds. Acceptance of the theory came years later after other sources had not only verified but built upon his work.
I must add that the writing was beautiful, literary and almost poetic at times. The oft-stated complaints of religious prejudice is just only if one accepts that Creationism is valid. Darwin's own path toward unbelief was documented as was the long, loving marriage to his pious wife. The book succeeds because it balances science, history and biography. My Grade - A-
Easy to read, and it makes Charles Darwin a real person.
In Victorian England, these were not ideas to discuss in polite company, despite the fairly recent period of the Enlightenment - hence a 20-year procrastination before he published his terrible thoughts. Quammen rhetorically asks why Darwin had to be threatened with being scooped before he finally published. Was he afraid of offending his wife, afraid of estranging himself from pious former teachers and friends, afraid he would be thrown in jail...did he want more evidence so as to make his theory more airtight, was he too busy with other chores, and several other suggestions - and to all the suggested questions, Quammen opines, "The answers to each of these questions, I think, is yes."
All the pertinent data about the making of "Origin of the Species" is here:
1. Timeline of formation and development of the theory.
2. Marriage to his beloved Emma and how she supported his work, despite her theological opposition.
3. Portrait of his meticulous methods of observation, experimentation, thinking, and recording.
4. The Alfred Wallace bombshell and how Darwin's friends worked out a shared credit solution.
5. The writing and publishing of "Origin of the Species," the five revisions, and a brilliant chapter by chapter synopsis by Quammen.
6. The shakey reception of his book - for 50 years - and eventual vindication.
There are some books on Darwin more scholarly and longer, but you won't find one more likely to hold the attention of the general interest reader - complete with an outstanding explanation of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Hopefully high school science teachers will discover this book and add it to their student reading lists. The scientific literacy of our children (and our general population) could stand a little enhancement.