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Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin Paperback – 17 Sep 2009
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'It is a rare biography that reveals the key emotional moment in its subject's personal and intellectual life so clearly as Randal Keynes does for Charles Darwin . . . moving and illuminating' --Financial Times
'Engrossing . . . a biography with a difference' --Sunday Telegraph
‘It is a rare biography that reveals the key emotional moment in its subject’s personal and intellectual life so clearly as Randal Keynes does for Charles Darwin . . . moving and illuminating’(Financial Times ) (Originally published as Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his daughter and human evolution )
‘Engrossing . . . a biography with a difference’(Sunday Telegraph )
Film tie-in: an intimate portrait of Charles DarwinSee all Product description
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It is, of course, important to understand the perceived wisdom of the time. It was a given that God created man and therefore Darwin had to rationalise how his evidence based theories fitted in with the concept of creation. He also questioned the existence of a creator when there was so much suffering in the world. A strength of the book is that it brings this out quite well. This is done in particular with the tension with Emma who was devout and could not bring herself to acknowledge the truth of her husband's work, and in the tragic illness and early death of their daughter, Annie. It is clear that Darwin was fearful about how his ideas would be received. He therefore took great care to focus on non-human life forms in his work until he felt that the concept of evolution was a bit more accepted and could be applied to mankind. He also took care to frame evolution in a way where it could be seen as just another natural law of the creator. But there is an irony here which the book does not explore. Had his wife been more supportive and encouraged him to publish earlier and in a manner more honest to his thinking, it is doubtful if this theories would have received as much acceptance as they did at the time!
In truth, despite all the tedious quotes and the author's analysing and conjecture, Darwin had broadly developed his theories prior to marrying Emma. We can be thankful that the influence of his family did not extinguish his freedom of thought and his integrity. Whilst providing some interesting insights on Darwin the man and on the social history of the mid 1800s, this book offers little insight into the development of the concept of evolution. I can understand how a very engaging film could be made from the book, but I'm afraid the book itself is self indulgent, tedious and ultimately unsatisfactory.
I feel the emphasis in this biography is less on Darwin the scientist, and more on Darwin the man and the influences over him. Of course, it would be impossible to write on Darwin without touching on his science, and it is mentioned. One memorable and funny anecdote, for example, is when his children ask the neighbour's children 'where their father does his barnacles'! Darwin spent a significant amount of time studying different barnacles, and the results and insights from this study provided important evidence for evolution by natural selection.
Those who are interested in Victorian history will gain much from this book. Keynes includes elements of economic, social and medical history. There is an interesting chapter on Tuberculosis (TB) (the disease that probably killed Annie) and how hopeless medicine was in attempting to explain it. It was the work of Koch and others only two or three decades after the death of Annie that finally demonstrated the true cause of TB. The growth of the railways was mentioned, and its important impact on travel times for example allowing the Darwins to travel from Down in Kent to Malvern within a day.
Another theme running through the book is that of religion. Darwin started as a conventional Anglican, whilst his wife was a Unitarian (did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity). However, from his observations on nature and through personal experience, Darwin modified his beliefs from believing in a personal god, to one that does not intervene in nature: an entirely impersonal god, essentially a force in the universe, perhaps akin to gravity. Towards the end of his life, Darwin describes himself as an agnostic. At the time of writing this review, with the horrific earthquake in Haiti these thoughts are particularly pertinent. With all of nature as it is, is a personal god consistent with what can be observed?
One small problem with the book is that its flow can sometimes be disjointed. There are a good number of quotations from original sources, which is good, but I felt occasionally a lack of flow and continuity, but this is a very minor concern, and does in no way distract from an excellent work which I can wholly recommend to any interested reader.