This biography of Cyril Darlington is of a renowned scientist who enjoyed a long career, first as a microscopist exploring the workings of the chromosome, then as a leader in the fight against Lamarckism, Lysenkoism, Marxism, and suppositions on the equality of men. His early career was built primarily on a book, "Recent Advances in Cytology" which brought together a coherent picture of the chromosomes and their role in evolution. Perhaps a key insight, new with him, was that though the chromosomes contained the hereditary information, they could be understood better by seeing how evolution affected them as well.
Darlington was a confirmed materialist, hard headed scientist, but was positively attracted by controversy, and a rather intolerant, arrogant character to boot. He had many enemies, but was a forceful and prominent public voice, who relished his role. This combination makes for a lively biography, and deserves serious consideration by anyone interested in the history of the development of the "modern synthesis" of evolutionary thought. He was a driving force for much of it.
Darlington was during the 1940's to the 1980's a sort of early version of Richard Dawkins, and was opposed for many years by JBS Haldane, who was a sort of early version of Stephen Jay Gould. Many of the controversies, being rooted in deep-seated views of human nature, have hardly changed. There is the Marxist version of a faith in the malleability of man by wishful thinking, opposed by hard lessons drawn from science, evolutionary theory and the observation that man is a creature acting in accordance with hereditary behaviors which have developed differently in different races. Not for Darlington the notion that race is a "social construct" or that IQ is a "reified" useless hypotheis, the same for all races. He was a sociobiologist well before the term was invented.
The first part of the book that deals with Darlingtons cytogenetics is not the easiest read, dealing as it does with a pretty arcane subject in perhaps a little too much detail, even for the informed reader. The old controversies about such things as parsynapsis vs telosynapsis, are enfolded in a vocabulary that will be intimidating to many readers. I wish, though, that he had covered in a little more detail the methods of cytogenetics, the stains used, the sample preparation methods, and so on. Just how hard was it to prepare an informative experiment? A little more about the influence of Darlington's cytological insights on the conventional modern practice of the art would have been welcome too.
No matter--skip on to the major part of the book where Harman covers the course of the debate over the nature of man and the insights brought by an evolutionary perspective. The meat of the book is here.
In his later years, as for all scientists who live a long time, the main developments in his science began to become too much for him--molecular biology, psychometrics, and a bevy of new techniques were to add much that he could appreciate, but could contribute very little. Exploring the big picture, speculating, theorizing and publicizing became his game, and we are better off for it.
Harman has done a splendid job in this biography--he writes clearly, and has a very good understanding of his subject. It is based on exhaustive research and interviews and will be the definitive work for a long time. The many pictures bring the story to life, and make for a lively read. I enjoyed the book a lot and even re-read much of it for a second time!