Sunday, July 30, 2006


The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: Book Review by David Quammen:

The only thing most people know about Charles Darwin is that he took a boat to the Galapagos Islands where he encountered life forms that prompted him to invent the theory of evolution. As it happens, even that's not exactly right.

Darwin didn't invent the theory of evolution. While scientific and religious orthodoxy in Victorian England held that plants and animals hadn't changed since the day God created them, the idea that species alter over time had long been in the air.

Darwin's achievement lay in working out the means by which evolution takes place: natural selection.

...We may be fuzzy on some of Darwin's ideas and have no clue about Darwin the man, but that hasn't stopped us from turning his name into a fighting word. The latest generation of anti-evolutionists marches under the banner of "creationism" and "intelligent design" and apparently enjoys a large pool of potential recruits. According to science writer David Quammen, author of this useful introduction to Darwin's life and thought, 45 percent of Americans in a 2004 Gallup Poll agreed with the statement: "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Another 38 percent agreed that humans "have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process..."

...Quammen's book is a contribution to James Atlas' series Great Discoveries, which aims to loose graceful prose writers on important scientific topics to produce short books accessible to nonspecialists.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, with 253 pages of text, leaves out a lot. Quammen omits entirely Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos. The discussion of Darwinism's post-1859 reception is hectic and unsatisfying. The great man's personality remains elusive.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is currently appearing on the 'Featured Books' page of the Evolution Book Store: UK | US)

UPDATE: See "Evolution and Its Discontents" (Washington Post, Sunday, August 27, 2006) for book reviews of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and also Why Darwin Matters: The case against intelligent design (by Michael Shermer: blog entry)

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