Origins of a reluctant genius

Charles Darwin was one of the most original scientists of all time – and also one of the most misunderstood.

If scientists printed their own paper money, says David Quammen, the face of Charles Darwin would be on the bill. Darwin is that important. The ideas he espoused in "The Origin of Species" in 1859 were "profoundly original, and dangerous, and thrilling," Quammen writes, making "Origin" not only one of the most important books about science in the last several centuries, but one of the most important books – period.

But while Darwin's name and book are well known, his real ideas are not, says Quammen in The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Some who think they agree with him have not realized just where his findings ultimately lead. And about half of the American public simply chooses to disagree, even though scientists routinely rely on Darwin as a bedrock for understanding the history of life on Earth.

Books about Darwin are on the rise as his 200th birthday looms in 2008. What award-winning science journalist Quammen sets out to explain in this biography of Darwin's life after his voyage on the Beagle in 1836 is twofold: What did Darwin really discover? And why did he take so long to tell anyone about it? (Darwin waited more than two decades to publish "Origins" after his return from the South Pacific and Galápagos Islands.)

In the end, Quammen doesn't answer the second question, perhaps not wanting to put the English naturalist on the psychiatrist's couch or lose the brevity that helps make his book so readable.

Was Darwin afraid his ideas would shock Victorian society? Incur the wrath of the politi- cal or religious establishment? Hurt the feelings of his beloved wife, a devout Christian? Was he just too busy caring for his big family?

Or did he have too many other interests? (He was caught up for eight years, for example, studying the taxonomy of barnacles). Was he physically incapacitated? (Darwin sought relief for years at health spas for mysterious bouts of debilitating illness.)

Or it could be that he delayed simply for good scientific reasons, being a careful self-taught scientist who wanted to refine his arguments, run more experiments, and double-check his assumptions? ("That was Darwin's way, methodical and thorough," Quammen writes, "he chewed through huge amounts of material, swallowed the good bits, spit out the rotten stuff and the husks.")

Like a sensible lecturer delivering a broad survey course to nonmajors, author Quammen refuses to choose. His answer: "all of the above."

Today many nonscientists, including many religious people, accept the idea of evolution as fact, that species aren't fixed forever in their forms (by God or nature) but change over long periods of time. (Darwin never wrote that apes evolved into men, Quammen points out, but Darwin's critics could see where his reasoning led.)

Why does life evolve, Darwin wondered? His idea that natural selection is at work – Godless, goal less, scattershot, haphazard – leaves us with a world of "difficult, scary materialism," Quammen says, a view that's hard for many to accept. In this world mutation and recombination are mere accidents. "Shuffle, cut the deck, add some jokers, shuffle again," Quammen writes, describing the inherent chanciness of natural selection.

Centuries before, Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the universe; now Darwin had removed man as "God's chosen" among life forms.

"Scientific insight and religious dogma had never come more directly into conflict," Quammen writes. The question becomes, "Are humans spiritually immortal in a way that chickens and cows aren't, or just another form of temporarily animated meat?"

After Darwin, looking for God and his creation in the physical world would become a harder task. (On the other hand, evolution can neither prove nor disprove the concept of a spiritual existence that is unfindable by, and unmeasurable through, material means.)

Quammen doesn't concern himself too much with Darwin's own well-known retreat from religious belief, spurred by his scientific inquiries but also shaken by the death of his 10-year-old daughter and his disgust for what he called Christianity's "damnable doctrine" of everlasting punishment for those not saved.

His wife, Emma, was troubled by the thought that he did not expect to be with her in an afterlife and wrote him about it around the time of their marriage. After his death, the letter was found with this written on it by Darwin: "When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cryed [sic] over this. C.D."

Did Darwin's research cause his mysterious illnesses, which included frequent vomiting? Possibly they were psychosomatic, Quammen says. A reader may wonder if Darwin needed to disgorge something, however uncomfortably, into the world.

He had confided his theory of evolution little by little through the years to friends, testing the waters. In a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1844, he whispered "species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable."

Though much more than a reductionist "Darwin for Dummies," Quammen's biography is also a bit less than the "intimate" portrait it advertises.

Yet with clarity, brevity, and quick, colorful anecdotes, he sketches a compelling story. While we may not end up inside the head of one of the most influential thinkers in centuries, we certainly make his acquaintance in a most agreeable way.

Gregory M. Lamb is a Monitor staff writer.

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