The Struggle of Evolution

by sarahgroat

Most people are at least familiar with Darwin’s theory of evolution at its most basic level: that all creatures have evolved from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, this loose understanding leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation, and misconceptions run rampant, the most popular being that humans were once monkeys. Enough people feel uncomfortable with evolution by natural selection that as recently as 2005, there were still laws on the books requiring public schools to teach intelligent design as an alternate to “Darwin’s view.” One hundred and fifty years after the publishing of The Origin of Species, around three-quarters of the American population still reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, as stated in David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

Quammen’s commitment to scientific truth and interest in Darwin, the scientist and the man, served as motivation for his book, a short biography on Darwin and the making of his theory of evolution. Quammen is no scientist, as he readily admits. Besides the odd science class in school, he has had no academic training in the field of biology and the natural sciences. He’s simply a science journalist, invested in the acceptance of evolution, who has had the opportunity of travelling with field biologists while he gathers information for his projects. As in previous works such as The Song of the Dodo, Quammen takes this technical knowledge and simplifies it for the everyday reader, producing another enlightening and engaging tale.

Although Quammen is virtually self-taught, the information presented in the book indicates a breadth of knowledge on Darwin and his work. He delivers a wonderfully intimate portrait of Darwin and demonstrates a clear grasp of his work. Readers are first drawn to the title: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Inside, we are promised an explanation of why Darwin is described as reluctant; what makes him hesitant? Quammen answers these questions and many more, delving into the various quirks of Darwin’s life – for instance his eight-year obsession with barnacles. Readers are introduced to aspects of Darwin not often publicized: the sickly Darwin; the affectionate Darwin; the meticulous Darwin. In addition, Quammen clarifies for the reader much of the evidence supporting evolution and natural selection, details that only come naturally in telling the story of Darwin’s life, given that his theory was his life. He seamlessly switches between biography and scientific explanation, giving readers an impressively thorough account for the limited amount of space of the events leading up to Darwin’s assured confidence in his theory.

The book is written in a loose chronological order in which Quammen sometimes jumps ahead and then rewinds back. However, he always has good reason to do so, such as a flashback to Alfred Wallace and the beginnings of his own theory that developed while Darwin was working on barnacles. The narrative is still easy to follow. It begins just after Darwin steps off the ship that took him around the world and started the cognitive wheels turning. Quammen makes a wise choice in omitting details of Darwin’s time on the Beagle, both in the interest of brevity and avoiding repetition. Most other major Darwin biographies have covered his Beagle journey, making it an already well-known fact about Darwin’s life. Beginning the narrative after his trip helps keep the book a short and unintimidating 250 pages, a quick read for most who will pick up The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

As it is so short, the book is not for those who have already read other, longer Darwin biographies and are expecting to find something new. They will likely find the book repetitive, already being familiar with these details of Darwin’s life. Similarly, if one is looking for a book containing every detail of Darwin’s life, this isn’t it. However, this book is a great jumping off point for those who don’t know much about the man behind the theory. It provides a wonderfully entertaining overview of his post-Beagle years, and the reader walks away with a better sense about the type of man Darwin was. For some, the narrative will inspire to read more about this quirky man. For others, this brief portrait of Darwin may be enough. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin stands on its own as a fulfilling portrait, describing for readers what exactly happened while Darwin removed himself from society to focus on his work inside his home.

The book also dispels common myths about these years, for example that The Origin of Species was met with great and immediate excitement, or that Darwin was alone in his evolutionary thinking. In addition, it gives details about the relationships in his life: with his colleagues; with his children; and most importantly, with his wife. Quammen discusses the marriage in depth not only to show Darwin’s devotion as a husband, but to contrast this with his devotion to science. Though he paid painstaking attention to detail, he couldn’t help seeing what it all meant in the bigger picture: that natural laws guided the development of species, not an omnipotent God. The conflict of his research with the love for his religious wife was one Darwin struggled with until his death. Though she always remained supportive, there was great pain in her understanding that he would not be with her in the afterlife.

One of the most delightful stories of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is an excerpt it includes from Darwin’s own autobiography. Darwin, in the early days of his adulthood, was an avid beetle collector. On one of his beetle-collecting trips, he found a rare beetle, and then another, holding one in each hand. Then he spotted a third, upon the sight of which he placed one beetle in his mouth in order to hold all three. The beetle then released an acidic liquid which burned his tongue, forcing him to promptly spit the beetle out and allowing that and the third one to escape. Lighthearted tales like these among the hard science make The Reluctant Mr. Darwin surprisingly endearing, as it illustrates the idiosyncrasies of one of science’s most revolutionary men. Quammen’s narrative entertainingly continues the 150-year effort to bring Darwin’s theory into society’s good graces.