Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Reading Journal: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Norton, 2006. Paperback. Available at the Carleton Bookstore or online.

In Fabruary I heard David Quammen give a Friday convocation at Carleton titled "Charles Darwin Against Himself: Caution versus Honesty in the Life of a Reluctant Revolutionary," which was essentially an abridged version of his short Darwin biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. In the book, as in the talk, Quammen writes clearly and engagingly about science, making the concepts of biogeography and natural selection accessible to a general audience, and placing the development of those concepts in their human and historical context. Charles Darwin is a fascinating character, and much of Quammen's book reads like a captivating historical novel. Quammen takes a calculated risk in beginning his biography after Darwin returns from the voyage of the Beagle, thus skipping entirely the most cinematic episode of Darwin's life. The focus instead is on Darwin's decades long gestation of the concept of natural selection, and his reluctance to go public with his startling idea. Quammen is such a skillful writer that he can make Darwin's eight years of dissecting barnacles in rural seclusion in Kent as fascinating as his nearly five years traveling around the world. Darwin emerges as weak-stomached and antisocial, a materialist (in the philosophical sense), an agnostic, a loving and devoted husband and father, a good and highly-principled man.

1 comment:

Louise said...

I'm looking forward to visiting Down House at some point in the not too distant future.

"Quammen is such a skillful writer that he can make Darwin's eight years of dissecting barnacles in rural seclusion in Kent ...fascinating" - Life, it's all in the details!

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