Books by Adrian Desmond

Released: Jan. 28, 2009

"Stimulating, in-depth picture of 19th-century scientific thinking and racial attitudes."
Co-authors of the massive Darwin (1992) offer a new take on the impetus for his theory of evolution: It was "moral passion," rather than the force of observed, recorded and analyzed facts, that fired his work. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 1997

A whopping life of Thomas Huxley (182595), who did much to bring Victorian-era science to a lay audience. History has tended to remember Huxley as a stalking horse for Charles Darwin, a man who popularized evolutionary theory but did not himself contribute much to it. Desmond (Darwin, 1992), a biologist and historian of science, does much to correct this view- -albeit somewhat breathlessly. It is true, he writes, that Huxley, a physician born into a family of decidedly modest means, spent much of his time speaking to workingmen's associations and other working-class groups about ape ancestors and cave men; it is also true that he popularized the word ``scientist'' and coined the term ``agnostic,'' and that he wrote the first article on evolution for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet Huxley made several important advances in the study of the polyp- and medusa-bearing animals, the Coelenterata. Like Darwin, he saw the wonders of the natural world at first hand, having sailed as ship's doctor and scientist on a Beagle-like voyage that introduced him to odd creatures and ecological mysteries; he was thus equipped to appreciate evolutionary arguments concerning the great variability of species over time and space. Huxley was in many ways Darwin's equal, Desmond suggests, but was marshaled as a lieutenant into the cause of natural selection after abandoning his anti-utilitarian view of nature, an abandonment that made him a follower, not a leader. Desmond is too fond of overwrought prose (he describes a dissecting-room cadaver as ``a cold body and a dead brain that had once glowed with hopes and desires''), but he makes a compelling case for our viewing Huxley as a crucial figure in the 19th-century social transformation toward the modern world. This is an unfailingly interesting contribution to the history of science. (b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
DARWIN by Adrian Desmond
Released: July 1, 1992

A sweeping biography in which Desmond (The Ape's Reflexion, 1979, etc.) and Moore (The Post-Darwinian Controversies—not reviewed) illustrate not only the familiar Darwinian thesis that life evolves—that it depends on an interplay of nature and culture and of inherited and acquired traits—but also the contemporary thesis that all science is in some way autobiographical. On a personal level, the authors say, Darwin developed from a pleasure-loving descendant of doctors and industrialists into an adventurer who undertook a five-year voyage around the world, and then into a recluse, a mad scientist racked by a mysterious illness, possibly psychogenic in origin, ruefully observing in his ten children the weaknesses he believed they had inherited by his marrying his first cousin. Professionally, Darwin was an observer and collector, interested in geology and zoology, famous in his own day for his tireless study of barnacles, worm castings, and pigeons, reluctant to theorize or to affirm the principles of evolution that had been evident to his grandfather Erasmus and were confirmed by most of the scientific community. Placing Darwin in context, Desmond and Moore demonstrate how social and political forces (the role of Malthus, the political radicals associated with the Westminster Review) contributed to his reading of nature. They also show Darwin participating in the professionalization of science, which developed from a collection of pious, wealthy gentlemen amateurs into various specialized and secularized disciplines with their own hierarchies and competition. Longer and more wide-ranging than John Bowlby's Charles Darwin (1991), this neglects Darwin's major strength: his own powerful, vivid, and imaginative prose. While valuable for the insights it offers on the age, it is not a substitute for Darwin's own autobiography and journals. (Fifty-six pages of photographs and drawings—not seen.) Read full book review >