There are those who contend that evolution is just another "belief system". Darwin's great idea, Quammen stresses, doesn't rely on "faith". 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]
on 2 February 2009
David Quammen's highly readable account of the development of Darwin's ideas about natural selection is especially relevant in this bicentenary of the great man's birth (and 150 years since the publication of the Origin of Species). Darwin's years at Cambridge, the impact of the Beagle voyage, and the combination of academic and personal circumstances which led to what Stephen Gould called "Darwin's delay", his failure to publish until 1859 an idea he had clearly envisioned in the late 1830s, are all clearly described and analyzed. An easy read for a non-biologist with some fascinating insights into the life and times of a remarkable man whose ideas have changed the way we view the world.