Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin"

Considering the impending bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin I'm sure many will be looking for a quick, readable introduction to the man and his most famous book. Along with my December 2006 recommendation of Janet Browne's Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography, I'll suggest David Quammen's nice little volume The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), an installment in W.W. Norton's "Great Discoveries" series.

Quammen's book is classic armchair science history, breezy and succinct like his volumes of shorter essays (which I also tend to like). He's able to distill Darwin's career (and particularly that long portion of it during which he grappled with his revolutionary evolutionary ideas) into a slim book just 250 pages long, and filled with humorous asides, well-chosen anecdotes and a generous helping of book history thrown in for good measure. Things get a little crammed in the penultimate chapter when Quammen tries to extend the lens and look at evolutionary biology since Darwin's day, but aside from that (which probably had to be done) there's not much wrong with the book.

Some of the more interesting tidbits Quammen tosses into the mix in these pages describe a few of Darwin's experiments, including suspending duck feet in water to see whether snails would cling to them (and thus possibly be carried to other places), getting his entire family to play music for earthworms in order to measure their response (there wasn't any), or soaking dead pigeons in saltwater to see if seeds in their gullets would still sprout after the soaking (they did).

A good introduction to Darwin and his works.

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