Book Review: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen
Quammen begins his look of the life of Charles Darwin after the infamous voyage of the HMS Beagle. This includes the years he spent studying barnacles, breeding pigeons, speculating on the theory of trans-mutation, the eventual publishing of On the Origin of Species among other books, his subsequent work on plants and worms, and the resurgence of his theory through neo-Darwinism after his death.
A lot the material covered in this book wasn’t exactly new to me as I’ve read a lot about the man and his life before, but Quammen’s telling of the story is fresh and well done. In some ways it reads more like novel than a history book which was a nice change of pace.
This not simply a book about the science of Charles Darwin but also about who he was as a person. His relationship with his wife Emma and their children are discussed at length. Quammen also looks into his professional relationships with Charles Lyell and J.D. Hooker, who become his close friends, but in the case of Lyell have a hard time accepting the implications of On the Origin of Species.
Some of the most interesting parts of this book for me were actually about Alfred Russell Wallace (the co-discoverer of natural selection) and how Darwin, Lyell and Hooker played a role in making sure he got his credit within the world of academia. Wallace wasn’t an educated Cambridge man like Darwin, nor did he have the ability relax on a hefty family fortune. Instead Wallace spent much of his time in the field gathering specimens for affluent collectors. Both were heavily influenced by the ideas of Thomas Malthus and had come to similar conclusions. Darwin could have ignored Wallace and claimed full credit for the theory, but it says much about his character that he did not do so.
Darwin was either procrastinator or an extremely careful man who knew that his ideas would upset a many people. Most likely he was a bit of both. Much of this book examines how Darwin came to grips with the implications of natural selection and the effect it would undoubtedly have upon the world. A quiet man, Darwin didn’t particularly enjoy the spotlight and spent much of final days writing on topics that had little do with evolution such as vegetable mold among other less fascinating subjects. He was also sick very often, but Quammen suggests that he actually a mild hypochondriac who liked his use his constant sickness as way of getting out of going to meetings and appearing in public.
All and all, not a bad book for those who are interested in learning not only about science of Charles Darwin but also his life. Quammen does a good job of telling the story of the later life of such an important man while at the same time showing him to just another ape with frailties of his own.