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An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution

by David Quammen

Pub Date: July 31st, 2006
ISBN: 0-393-05981-2

A first-rate look at the English naturalist’s career after the Beagle; part of the Atlas Books Great Discoveries Series.

Quammen (Monster of God, 2003, etc.) focuses on how Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1836, arriving home from his voyage, he essentially had all the key facts of evolution; but it was more than 20 years before he published The Origin of Species. One factor was a mysterious stomach ailment, possibly tropical disease, possibly nerves, that dogged him for most of his remaining life. A second was the business of finding a wife and starting a family, a process that ended with him happily married to cousin Emma Wedgwood. That was a fortuitous match, despite her strong religious beliefs (Darwin was already well down the road to agnosticism); their fathers pitched in enough to support the newlyweds, with enough left over to reinvest. But a fair amount of time went to scientific work, especially Darwin’s eight-year project of classifying barnacles, which gave him, in his own mind, a solid credential to back up the theory he knew was bound to be controversial. But even with that work out of the way, he dragged his feet. He was finally roused by the arrival on his doorstep of a manuscript by Alfred Russel Wallace, in which the central elements of his theory were unambiguously spelled out. At that point, it was publish or give up his priority. Quammen gives a broad-brush account of the book’s composition and its reception; of the developments in evolutionary theory since Darwin’s initial formulation; and of the scientist’s final years.

While much of this material has been covered in recent full-length biographies, Quammen’s portrait of the great man and his magnum opus is affectionate and well-paced.