three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
25-Nov-Dec-2006
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An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution

A-Reluctant Mr. DarwinAs a revolutionary model, Charles Darwin hardly seems the archetype of choice. Certainly, his work on natural selection was groundbreaking and created a rift between Christian faith and science that grows wider as the years go by. But the radical scientist was actually a studious son of a doctor and something of a homebody. After stepping off the HMS Beagle, he settled in the countryside to pursue his scientific research, oversee lucrative investments, and battle against persistent illness. In this exploration of Darwin’s development of his theories, Quammen explains that it took over 20 years for him to publish his findings in On the Origin of the Species (1859)—and then, only when he was spurred by another scientist who had come to the same conclusions.
Atlas Books. 192 pages. $22.95. ISBN: 0393059812

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Even non-science types will be pulled in by the friendly prose here and Quammen’s sound explanations of Darwin’s quiet and, yes, reluctant challenges to the scientific thinking of his time." Debra Gwartney

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Quammen paints the shy, perennially ill, ‘reluctant’ Darwin as simply human: neither the towering scientific demigod portrayed by certain evolutionists, nor the seething, godless demon vilified by many creationists." Steve Ruskin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If some big themes—progress, race, empire—are absent from Quammen’s boils-and-all distillation, plenty are present. … The Reluctant Mr. Darwin works well as a vernacular primer on the Victorian view of evolution." Adrian Desmond

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"With clarity, brevity, and quick, colorful anecdotes, he sketches a compelling story. While we may not end up inside the head of one of the most influential thinkers in centuries, we certainly make his acquaintance in a most agreeable way." Gregory M. Lamb

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The great man’s personality remains elusive. … That said, the book can be recommended as a quick and relatively painless way to weld some substance to that famous name rattling around in your head." Fritz Lanham

Critical Summary

David Quammen takes up Darwin’s story after the Beagle landed on English shores, a decision that allows the author to tighten his focus on the conundrum that presented itself to the famed scientist: when to let his discovery out of the bag? Though critics point out that the price of such concision is a lack of context, they agree that Quammen does an admirable job of giving information where it is needed and galloping over gaps for the story’s sake. Those hoping for a more comprehensive tome on natural selection should look elsewhere (perhaps to Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo or The Flight of the Iguana), but this entry in Norton’s Great Discoveries series delivers an entertaining, enlightening glance at one of the world’s most influential thinkers.

Also by the Author

Song of the Dodo Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (1996): In this brilliant book, Quammen explores evolution and extinction on islands and relates it to the islands of land formed in the United States (and elsewhere) as the human population envelops wilderness areas.