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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

4.6 out of 5 stars 58 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • Series: Great Discoveries
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton; 1st edition (July 31, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059812
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059816
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 6.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #706,072 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jon Hunt on September 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"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".
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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