Tuesday, June 16, 2009

David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
David Quammen
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is David Quammen’s attempt to illuminate an often-neglected period of Darwin’s life spanning the years between his well-documented voyage aboard the Beagle and his publication of On the Origin of Species. Quammen provides a readable, if not necessarily rigorous, biography which – as the title suggests – portrays the scientist as a very human individual beset by fears that his species theory would not be well-received by his contemporaries.

Quammen is not a scientist or a historian by trade, but a journalist, and it shows in his writing. He is often prone to cute turns of phrase at the expense of concision. This sometimes tendency becomes problematic from a historical perspective when such turns of phrase result in speculative commentary where no evidence is provided. Quammen frequently attributes attitudes or emotions to various individuals without presenting any historical reasons for believing that those individuals in fact expressed those attitudes. In fact, Quammen’s central claim that Darwin was ‘reluctant’ is perhaps the least substantiated claim in the book. Rather than reading as a historical treatise, the book moves with a flow you would expect in a magazine article. Quammen’s love of various popular literary devices frequently draws attention to the book’s author rather than its historical content. Still, this may be a welcome relief from standard biographical accounts and does break up what could otherwise have been a mind-numbing procession of historical facts – after all, Darwin was a busy man. Despite this, Quammen is not immune to the historian’s trap. At the beginning of a particularly amusing passage near the end of the book, Quammen claims that it is not his intention to ‘quickstep’ the reader through ‘all the major episodes in the later history of evolutionary biology’, after which he proceeds to do precisely that.

Furthermore, these problems are compounded by Quammen’s general failure to provide in-text citations, which makes it a chore to separate the book’s historical substance from the author’s stylistic choices. While Quammen does provide a series of source notes located at the end of the book, such notes usually only contain the title of the cited work along with its page number, without any discussion of the context which would make such citations meaningful. Despite these shortcomings, the book is nevertheless acknowledged as part of the scholarly literature on Darwin’s life. For example, the book is cited by Darwin historian John Van Wyhe in his article challenging the belief that Darwin’s alleged fear was responsible for his delay in publishing his species theory.

Despite these shortcomings, Quammen’s book does contain some historical value. In particular, its descriptions of Darwin’s ongoing scientific work – notably his work in the fields of taxonomy and species migration – are informative. From these, it is possible to see how Darwin’s biological thought developed over the course of the intervening years. Likewise, if one is able to look past Quammen’s seemingly-endless editorializations, his descriptions of Darwin’s personal life can help to humanize a man whose life’s achievements have come to symbolize a phenomenon far in excess of anything resembling human work.

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