The Reluctant Mr. Darwin Drawing from Charles Darwins secret "transmutation" notebooks and his personal letters, acclaimed science journalist Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work never ceases to be controversial. Full description
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69 internautes sur 71 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
On barnacles, beetles and much more14 septembre 2006
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"The Reluctant Mr. Darwin", David Quammen's nicely-paced half-biography of the renowned and complicated title character, provides a look into the working nature of Darwin, himself. Conscious of the times the book reflects, Quammen's effort is as much about Darwin as it is about Victorian reaction to him. This is all to the good.
Wisely leaving the "Beagle" years behind, Quammen sets off as Darwin sets foot back on his native soil. With a wealthy father supporting him and still in the middle years of his youth, Darwin charts a rather erratic course over the rest of his lifetime....scientist, ditherer, workaholic, writer...all this with a chronic dispensation toward illness that (conveniently, sometimes) keeps him from the public eye. Capturing Darwin is about as easy as nailing down some of the quarry Darwin himself pursued, but Quammen is a deft and spunky writer. Darwin might wallow from time to time but the book does not.
The wonderful narrative of "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin" is the book's chief asset, although the subect has always been one of immense intrigue, to be sure. The eight years that Darwin devoted to the study of barnacles is handled well by Quammen. A drier period could not have better been told by this author and his introduction of the para-antagonist, Alfred Wallace, who practically jump starts Darwin into writing his "abominable volume", (as Quammen puts it) is both directed and fascinating. And the issue of Darwin's agnosticism filters through the book at appropriate times...never overwhelming the story but enhancing it.
Quammen has some quotable lines. About Darwin he says, "work was his opiate, and science was his religion". Continuing with regard to Darwin's legacy, the author states, "he helped us understand the whole physical universe as a realm of concrete contingencies, not imperfectly represented ideals". Broad brushes like these are wonderfully stimulating.
"The Reluctant Mr. Darwin" is a concise book but also a satisfying one. David Quammen delivers the personality and work of Darwin through a prism of articulateness and reminds the reader that although Darwin's importance was never quite recognized fully in his lifetime, his greater good survives him.
42 internautes sur 45 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
A Helpful Review of Darwinian Basics10 août 2006
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There have been so many biographies of Charles Darwin, good ones and big ones. This is entirely fitting, as his discoveries are at the level of Copernicus or Newton. There is another one now, pointed and clear, and it is a worthy addition. _The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution_ (Atlas Books / Norton) by David Quammen is not a full biography; it really starts after Darwin returns from his voyages on the _Beagle_, it is most detailed around the time of writing and publishing of the great _On the Origin of Species_, and after that it is only a quick summary of Darwin's remaining life and lasting influence. This is, however, a useful volume, or it ought to be. It gets all the basics in, and we are wanting the basics. As Quammen states in his introduction, almost half of all Americans think that all living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and about the same number think that God created humans in their present form sometime within the last 10,000 years. If you listen to the creationists' claims, you'd think that there was some great scientific controversy over Darwin's ideas, but there isn't. The controversy comes only because the ideas conflict with a limited and literal interpretation of scripture. Darwin's theory is as sound as any idea in science; Quammen writes that the idea of natural selection and evolution "has survived and succeeded because it fits the observable facts better than any alternative idea, doing exactly what a scientific theory must do: explain material effects by way of material causes." Quammen's book is a fine summary of Darwin's life and thought.
Darwin proved to be an uninspired divinity student at Cambridge, but however feckless the young man may have been, the five-year voyage of the _Beagle_ was the making of him. As Darwin looked at animals and plants the world over, he began to wonder about their distribution. Coming up with the laws regulating such a distribution was a long process, and exposing them to public view took even longer. He noted evidence of species changing in his notebooks in 1837, and the next year, he picked up Malthus's _Essay on the Principle of Population_, and began writing that species attempted to reproduce in excess, and the excess was stopped by predation or lack of resources, so that those that survive are the ones that reproduce, and push their survival traits into the next generation. He knew it was a worthy idea, but he also knew that it would be reviled even by some of his scientific colleagues. He kept it mostly to himself, and went to work on barnacles and biological experimentation. And then in 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a packet from somewhere in the Malay Archipelago, and Darwin was crushed. Young Wallace had written what was almost a summary of his own theory, the theory that he had been fretting over for so many years. A gentlemanly arrangement by Darwin's friends resulted in papers by Darwin and by Wallace being read at the same meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858. Darwin's work did get the idea of changing species accepted, but the mechanism of natural selection was doubted at the time of his death and for two generations afterward (apart from any religious objections to the work). The idea that Darwin's work immediately changed biology upon its publication is wrong.
With a century of confirmation, and confirmation by molecular biology that Darwin could never have imagined, his book has become one of the most influential ever written. Quammen's writing is informal and accessible. There is much more to the story, but as an overview of the man's ideas and personality, this is an excellent volume (and is one more fine book in the top-notch "Great Discoveries" series from Norton). For all the scorn and misinformation heaped upon his memory, writes Quammen, "Charles Darwin was a man of great integrity, great goodness, deep generosity, and considerable courage." These admirable qualities are all on display here, as well as an accessible account of just what the man thought and taught, and why it is so vitally important for even religious Americans to understand.
33 internautes sur 35 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
"Darwinism doesn't exist"!13 septembre 2006
Stephen A. Haines
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This opening declaration throws down the gauntlet, challenging those who deem evolution an ideology, or "belief system". Darwin's great idea, Quammen stresses, doesn't rely on "belief". Instead, it is built up from many threads of evidence, many not even known in Darwin's time. The threads were long in detection and assembling. Darwin, confronted with a situation he deemed "like confessing a murder", came slowly to the idea of "transmutation of species". Once it took hold, however, the notion consumed him for years. Although he diverted to other projects - most notably barnacles - what he garnered over the years, from his voyage on HMS Beagle, through the breeding of pigeons to numerous direct experiments, reinforced the idea. From his efforts, of course, came the great book that changed science forever.
In this brief but brilliant short "life" of Charles Darwin, David Quammen has synthesised the ongoing effort of a man tortured by what he had discovered. He was "reluctant" for many reasons. Victorian society still held to the notion of "special creation" - species were the result of a deity's arbitrarily tampering with life. Variation was divinely ordained, not the result of natural laws. Darwin knew that his "one long argument" must be sustained by substantial evidence. In acquiring that support, Darwin scoured the world, corresponding with diplomats, ship captains, naturalists. One of those naturalists was a lonely, malaria-infected young man named Alfred Russel Wallace, way out in the East Indies.
The story of Wallace's submitting a journal article to Darwin for comment and forwarding should be too well known to recount here. Quammen absolves Darwin from the spurious charge of "pre-empting" the younger man. Darwin had been pondering "transmutation" for years, but was reluctant to publish. Quammen recounts the episode, then goes on to provide one of the finest synopses of "Origin" available. For those who haven't taken the time to delve into the work that changed life, this section of Quammen's book is a priceless treasure. He laments that even biology majors may complete a graduate degree without ever reading "Origin". Further, he warns that no other edition but the first displays Darwin's thinking and skillful presentation so well. Quammen lists the basic revisions while pointing out various sources that list them in detail.
Although the space he's given doesn't permit the author opportunity to detail Darwin's life with precision, Quammen recounts well the stress between the naturalist and his wife Emma over "transmutation" and Darwin's rejection of Christianity and the afterlife. He laid out his ideas in an essay to be published after his death. Even knowing the anxiety it would cause her, it was important that his ideas become published. There was more than Emma involved in this question. Victorian England had firm ideas laid down by the Established Church. Darwin was under no illusions that the perceived role of humanity was called into question by the concept of natural selection. Although Darwin didn't dismiss the idea of a deity completely, he knew there was no room for the supernatural in his concept. All life, he stressed, was based on natural, not divine laws. It is an idea that rests uncomfortably in Darwin's society and much of our own. Reviewing recent polls taken in the US over the past generation, Quammen finds more than three-quarters of his nation's population cannot accept that there is no divine basis for life.
It was knowledge of similar conditions in his own day that made Darwin "reluctant" to publish his thesis. During the time between his initial realisation and the publication of "Origin", Darwin turned to finding data that would support it. An astonishing dedication kept him studying barnacles for nearly a decade. The immense variety of forms and life cycles of these little creatures made the task tedious in the extreme. Yet, it was just this kind of data that would bolster the idea of selection. Variety is what selection uses to sift the fittest from the rest. Although it was pigeons that became the means of explaining selection, Darwin knew the barnacle examples were the scientific foundation for his theory. In order to make his book "one long argument", he needed such information securely set and presented clearly. That he succeeded is without doubt.
Darwin's name and one or two books are well known, the author notes, but the ideas he presented are not. That is something Quammen wishes to overcome. He does it admirably in this volume. The skilful prose presented in tight summary makes this book something deserving the widest readership. No school can be without its copy. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
13 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
Darwin's 23-Year Delay in Sharing His Evolution Theories Makes for a Fascinating Character Study25 août 2006
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Sharing the breakthrough concept of transmutation was not the great motivator for evolution pioneer Charles Darwin to share his work. According to science journalist David Quammen, it was ego and fear. The fear was twofold. First, there was a younger colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, who had come to the same conclusions that Darwin did over two decades earlier and was about to go public with his own natural selection theory. Second and even more critically, there was Darwin's almost pathological reluctance to present the findings borne out of his historical voyage on the Beagle.
Even though there is the rather remote possibility that Darwin was holding out until he felt he had enough evidence for his findings, the story that Quammen tells goes much deeper, and what results is a fascinating look at a man at odds with his times and sometimes with himself. The idea that there may be no afterlife and that life may indeed regenerate itself in different forms was a shocking concept during the Victorian era. It's obviously still dismissed by the religious right today, but charges of blasphemy had a more painful consequence in the 1800's. It was unthinkable to think that man was not the chosen species by a higher authority. The most hesitant supporter was Darwin's wife Emma, who was troubled by his assertions that they may not be together for eternity. There was also the debilitating illness that beset him since the voyage.
That mythic, five-year voyage between 1831 and 1836 - which included stops to gather specimens in Australia, South America, the Pacific and of course, the Galapagos Islands - yielded volumes of research and cataloguing. By the following year, he concluded certain species changed to others but didn't know how, yet it wasn't until 1844 that he put any of his thoughts to paper. Still hesitant, he only showed his essay to close colleagues. Perhaps too afraid of the consequences, Darwin procrastinated on the topic by instead spending eight years dissecting barnacles. It was only when Wallace wrote a similar essay eleven years after Darwin's that Darwin decided that the two of them should co-present their now corroborated findings to the Linnean Society of London, the still-premier society on animal taxonomy.
This finally led to the 1859 publication of Darwin's groundbreaking thesis, "The Origin of Species". Quammen writes about this personal journey with the fervor of a Hollywood screenwriter while remaining respectful of his subject. Having been fortunate enough to visit the Galapagos Islands myself, I cannot help but feel that same sense of revelation about transmutation as evidenced by the indigenous animals still living there. This book is a most stimulating read for non-scientific explorers like me thanks to Quammen's ingratiating, anecdotal style.
11 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
A Great Short Introduction To Darwin and his Impact18 octobre 2006
Ronald H. Clark
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I found this to be just an extremely helpful shorter study of Darwin, pleasantly written, but containing much valuable information packed into its 283 pages. One particular talent of the author is the ability to explain scientific issues in the most understandable fashion--somewhat of an unique talent in my experience. Wisely, the author does not recapitulate the well-trod voyage of the Beagle, but begins his discussion after Darwin's return from this epic voyage in 1836. The central issue simply put: why did it take Darwin better than 20 years after his return to publish "Origin of Species"? To answer this question, the book focuses upon a biography of Darwin during the years prior to the "Origins" publication in 1859. One sees how much data and supporting evidence Darwin had amassed during this period--but still no publication. In fact, it was not until A.R. Wallace sent Darwin a paper from the Far East, which closely paralleled some of Darwin's own ideas, that Darwin sprang into action and produced his monumental book. An entire chapter is devoted to the book itself, the clearest and most understandable compact analysis I have seen. Next, the author addresses (again in a clear and compact chapter) the course of evolutionary thought (and anti-evolutonary thought) that resulted from Darwin's book. As throughout the rest of the book, this chapter is as even-handed and fair as one could wish for. A super bibliography is attached as well. Basically, this is an informative and pleasant reading experience, both for experienced Darwin/evolutionary hands as well as those new to the topic.