Saturday, June 20, 2009

Review of David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin fills an interesting niche within Darwin biographies, falling somewhere in between the brevity of Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species and more comprehensive undertakings like Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin. Clearly drawing upon his skills as a popular science writer, Quammen’s candid and colored portrayal of Darwin is equal parts fascinating and divisive. While the narrative Quammen crafts is delightfully dense with Darwin’s idiosyncrasies and the various contexts surrounding the development of his work, his unapologetic interpretation of events may turn off some readers.

Quammen begins the book right after the Beagle voyage, dropping the reader into Darwin’s rush to situate his life in London. The first third of the book thus focuses on the interaction of the different factors that influenced the ideas eventually supporting the Origin of Species. Yet there are also plenty of details regarding the incubation of the ideas behind Darwin’s Origin of Species. He was consumed by meetings with Lyell and Gould to identify specimens from the voyage and working out concepts in his notebooks that would form the basis for his theories on transmutation and natural selection. His reading of Malthus provided Darwin with the key to evolution via natural selection, while his meetings with Joseph Hooker and Lyell gave him the confidence to tighten his ideas of transmutation. Quammen does a good job of balancing this narrative with glimpses into Darwin’s personal life; we see his rationality at work in his weighing of the pros and cons of marriage, as well as the common thread of genuineness that pervaded both his interactions with his wife Emma and his writing.

The middle third of the book is devoted mostly to the major points of contention regarding Darwin’s Origin of Species. Quammen’s commentary throughout is insightful but often inconsistent; his instincts as a popular science writer can be both a strength and a detraction. For example, his framing of the controversy between Wallace and Darwin works well, crafting a compelling underdog narrative that brings Darwin’s flaws regarding pride into sharp focus and provides the rationale for the kickstarting of the Origin. He also makes good points when trying to justify the twenty year gap between the start of writing and the Origin of Species, noting that it is not about which factors were most responsible but about how the factors interact.

Yet there are several instances where Quammen makes sensationalized assertions regarding Darwin’s life and detracts from the integrity of the narrative. His various discussions on the role of religion in Darwin’s life are certainly guilty of this. Quammen makes sure to emphasize the theme of religion’s incompatibility with Darwin’s work; even in the beginning Darwin is depicted leading a double life of subverting religion, working out his ideas in his “seditious notebooks.” It gets worse later on, when, in his analysis of the argument in the Origin of Species, he says that Darwin’s conception of evolution is not challenging the existence of God but the special status of man. It is a fascinating idea and true to some extent, but it does not warrant the undoing of the effort he spent to establish the incompatibility of Darwin’s ideas with religion. Such instances exemplify how Quammen’s flair for the dramatic can undermine a solid narrative.

The final third of the book finds Quammen rushing through the legacy of the Origin of Species and an overview of evolutionary biology. His survey of the Origin of Species wants to be too much for the space it is allotted; it wants to be critical and reverent but cannot pursue either to the fullest extent. The discussion of Mendel and evolutionary biology also seemed unfinished; while there is a good deal of background on Mendel’s experiments, Quammen skims over how Mendel’s work translated into the modern synthesis that revitalized Darwinism in the 20th century, offering instead a comprehensive but ultimately non-informative equivalent of a reading list.

Despite these shortcomings, Quammen does manage to craft a nuanced and intriguing portrayal of Darwin, acknowledging him as the genuine and benevolent man he was in his life and writings yet refusing to shy away from his flaws. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin provides an ultimately flawed but well-researched and accessible complement to the more neutral biographies available on Darwin. If you do decide to pick up this book, however, I would also recommend reading Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species, as it provides a more unbiased perspective on the events in Darwin’s life and fills in some of the time gaps left in Quammen’s book.

--Andrew Plan

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