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The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the…

by David Quammen

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6152429,764 (4.05)18
In September 1838, a young Englishman named Charles Darwin hit upon the idea that natural selection among competing individuals would lead to wondrous adaptations and species diversity. Twenty-one years passed between that epiphany and publication of On the Origin of Species. The human drama and scientific basis of that time constitute a fascinating, tangled tale that illuminates this cautious naturalist who sparked an intellectual revolution. Drawing from Darwin's secret notebooks and personal letters, David Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work remains controversial today.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
On a topic that sounds like it will be dry as dust, author David Quammen delivers an engrossing tale of an all-too human Darwin and the circumstances--both personal and professional--that stretched over the many years between his initial inklings of his great theory and its eventual publication in The Origin of Species. In addition to this main story, we get the history of philosophies and scientific thought on what would eventually be labeled "evolution" and "natural selection." I was particularly fascinated by this history and its relationship to ideas being promulgated today as "Intelligent Design" and "creationism". ( )
  WildMaggie | Jul 5, 2019 |
Muscular and amusing prose surround thorough, subtle research. Worth it for the chapter-by-chapter Origin. ( )
  Eoin | Jun 3, 2019 |
Twenty-one years passed between Charles Darwin's epiphany that "natural selection" formed the basis of evolution and the scientist's publication of On the Origin of Species. Why did Darwin delay, and what happened during the course of those two decades? The human drama and scientific basis of these years constitute a fascinating, tangled tale that elucidates the character of a cautious naturalist who initiated an intellectual revolution. ( )
  MarkBeronte | Mar 4, 2014 |
"[...]nobody's perfect. Charles Darwin certainly wasn't. He had an appendix, he had nipples, none of which served any useful purpose, and he occasionally made mistakes, even in The Origin of Species."

It is really hard for me to find nonfiction books that I end up liking. They are always either too dry or too lacking in substance and pandering to a current popular interest. However, this book is pretty great. It brings Darwin out in the open as a full human being and reveals the decades of work, dedication to precision, and objectiveness that went into the germ of evolutionary theory.

Darwin didn't set out on the Beagle to start a revolution in science that led to its complete divergence from religion. He was just a lad from a wealthy family on a natural history expedition. But the carcasses and their locations couldn't lie. With some of the eventual evidence collected, he formed a hypothesis and worked on perfecting it for decades before publishing. Only the danger of having his idea owned by someone else first led him to stop hoarding and digesting evidence and get down to the writing. During all of the gestation time he sired a family, coped with a mysterious illness by bizarre water treatments, and lost his faith in God.

This book made me want to read other books by Quammen because he writes with clarity and literary backbone missing from some other nonfiction writers. ( )
  leonardbast | Jul 8, 2013 |
The tone of this book is a little breezy but the descriptions of the evolution of Darwin's thinking and life after "The Origin" are fascinating. It's sad that some of the characters, like Wallace and Hooker, seem to disappear at the end of the book. The discussion of evolutionary theories presented as alternatives to natural selection in the years following the publication of the book is intriguing.

201807 review:

Introduction: Rather more interesting than typical. Everybody knows about Darwin, but many fewer know what he did. Statistics on anti-evolutionary religiosity in the US. A hyperbolic statement about Darwin completing Copernicus' work in unseating humans from the central and most important position. This is completely unimportant to me, at least, but for less mature, more mediaeval thinking minds, it might be important. Emphasizes that evolution by _natural selection_ was Darwin's real contribution. Lots of people had had ideas about evolution for several generations before Darwin, but Darwin got the essence of the mechanism. The narrative in this book commences _after_ the Beagle voyage. Natural selection _is_ grim, but it's only anti-God if you're determined to be simple-minded.

1. The Fabric Falls
Darwin settles into London life, takes on many Victiorian administrative tasks, becomes a well-known author, spends a lot of time editing books related to the Beagle voyage and learning from the various scientists studying his specimens, marries Emma Wedgewood, thinks up natural selection and sees that it is quite opposed to the pious natural theology of the time. Darwin starts to have some unexplained physical aliment.

2. The Kiwi's Egg
The kiwi's egg, enormous relative to the kiwi's body size, is a metaphor for the idea of natural selection. Darwin knew the kiwi as the "apteryx". Darwin makes friendly overtures to Joseph Hooker and hints at his ideas about natural selection to various people. Then the kookie "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" is published in 1844. Darwin moves to Downe house and continues work on Beagle stuff.

3. Point of Attachment
Darwin gets into barnacles. He feels so sick that he decides to take the water cure offered by Dr. Gully at Malvern. He completes his barnacle volumes. His daughter Annie dies, his father had died a few years previously. He does not attend either funeral, and, according to his autobiography, his atheism is complete. He is quoted remarking on the problem of evil to his correspondent Asa Grey.

4. A Duck for Mr. Darwin
Introduces Alfred Russel Wallace and discusses Darwin's further struggles with his forthcoming book until he receives the letter and accompanying essay from Wallace, with the request to forward Lyell. We know that Wallace also sent Darwin a duck, but it may not have ever reached him, as it is never mentioned in any letters. During the whole period, Darwin has finally finished his barnacle books, won and award for them, and begun experiments related to the dispersion of species. For example, he soaks various seeds in saltwater, determines how long they can survive in this condition and still germinate, and determines how far they could get that way. Wallace is one tenacious, hard-working, aspiring sort of fellow.

5. His Abominable Volume
Darwin drops the really long book he has been working on and starts a new one, which becomes his "Origin of Species". It still takes him a good long time to get it out, but he does, and it gets a lot of attention. A lot of this chapter is devoted to the structure of the book, noting that it moves right along in an engaging way, unlike some others of Darwin's more thorough works. Alfred Russel Wallace's reaction to the coopting of his paper was complicated. It is a puzzle to me, given all the other work in this area, why Darwin was so sure that Wallace had claimed the same territory he had.

6. The Fittest Idea
Evolution, the idea of transmutation of species, even as it is applied to man is fairly readily accepted. But natural selection seems to deny humans beings there special place in nature, and that is a harder thing for a lot of people to accept. I'm not sure that natural selection actually does this, but in the context of Paley's natural theology it may very well seem to have. There are various effects to have advance some more directed process as an alternative to natural selection. At the same time Lord Kelvin calculates the age of the earth as being quite too short for evolution to have proceeded by natural selection, based on simple thermodynamics. This seems similar to work that the Comte de Buffon had done a good deal earlier. But it turns out that we have good reason to believe that the earth is a good deal older than a few million years when we take into account factors extra-thermodynamical. Eventually, though, Mendel's work becomes known, and working with an understanding of genetics allows various people to expand and strengthen Darwin's work. Huxley write "Evolution: The Moden Syntheis" in the 1940s, apparently.

7. The Last Beatle
Darwin ages, becomes a bit fed up with defending his theory, and works on other things, including his last published book, about vegetable mold and worms, which is unexpectedly popular. His last paper is published in Nature just a couple of weeks before he dies. It is entitled "On the Dispersal of Freshwater Bivalves" and his about how tiny clams could migrate by attaching themselves to large predatory beetles. He gets the beetle in the mail and carefully puts it out of its misery by putting it in a bottle w/ some chopped up laurel leaves. The person who sends him the beetle and bivalve is the grandfather of Francis Crick.

When I re-listened to this book on audio I had no recollection of having listened to it previously, probably because all I know about Darwin's life I have picked up from this one book. It still seems a bit flighty in places (why must the author call children "kids"?, I do not wish to know that some biologist was wearing a bulky sweater when interviewed) and I think the claims it makes for Copernicus especially and Darwin a little bit, may be too broad. But it is eminently readable and tells a better story than many a novel. ( )
  themulhern | Apr 12, 2013 |
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In September 1838, a young Englishman named Charles Darwin hit upon the idea that natural selection among competing individuals would lead to wondrous adaptations and species diversity. Twenty-one years passed between that epiphany and publication of On the Origin of Species. The human drama and scientific basis of that time constitute a fascinating, tangled tale that illuminates this cautious naturalist who sparked an intellectual revolution. Drawing from Darwin's secret notebooks and personal letters, David Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work remains controversial today.

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