Darwin the Writer

In a pleasant change from the ordinary, Slate has been posting a lot of good stuff lately. Today they have this review of a new book by Janet Browne entitled Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography. The review is by Jonathan Weiner:

In 2009, On the Origin of Species will be 150 years old. On Feb. 12, 2009, its author would have turned 200.* Dozens of new books will be published to mark this double anniversary, and at last, Darwin the writer will receive the attention he deserves. Darwin the scientist is beyond famous. Darwin the scribbler is comparatively obscure. But I think he should be a hero for everyone who tries and tries again to put words on paper.

I first read Darwin’s Origin back in 1990, before a trip to the Galapagos. At the time, the pleasure of reading the book–as opposed to reading about the book–felt almost like a private discovery. Darwin was not celebrated for his prose. The only Darwin fans I knew were biologists. A British literary critic, Gillian Beer, had examined his influence on Victorian novelists in her book Darwin’s Plots. An American literary critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman, had praised Darwin as an imaginative writer in his own right (along with Marx, Fraser, and Freud) in a book called The Tangled Bank. But there was much more to say, and it seemed to me that no one ever said it.

I had a similar reaction. I found The Origin difficult to put down, which is not something I say lightly about works of nineteenth century science. Not only is Darwin’s prose excellent, but the sheer relentless logic with which he presents his case can only leave the rest of us weeping with envy. His ability to anticipate the objections and questions of his readers is something more science writers should aspire to emulate.

The remainder of the review goes on to discuss how Darwin perfectly exemplifies many of the major themes that arise in the lives of great writers. Well worth a few minutes of your itme.


  1. #1 John Lynch
    May 3, 2007

    > eighteenth century science

    I think you mean “nineteenth” 🙂

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 3, 2007

    D’oh! Thanks for pointing out the error.

  3. #3 coturnix
    May 3, 2007

    Origin is one of the first books in English I read as a kid (I guess I was about 13) and although it was not easy for me, it was possible and I was fascinated. I have re-read it a couple of times in the 1990s and I really appreciated the language and style.

  4. #4 Anthony Paton
    May 4, 2007

    While the logic and insight of Darwin’s writing is certainly commendable, “On The Origin of Species” has to be one of the worst written books stylistically in the history of the English language. Reading it makes me feel like I am wading through a bog, and although the underlying concepts are both remarkable and brilliant, the language is opaque, pedantic and indigestable. By comparison the King James version of the bible is a stylistic gem. Now wonder so many people prefer simple faith rather than the mental gymnastics required to understand what is undoubtedly a brilliant and largely accurate explanation of the development of life on earth.

  5. #5 cxhax
    May 4, 2007

    If Someone out there created you, and He didnt give you the ability to know He created you, how would you know He created you?

  6. #6 Mike McCormack
    May 6, 2007

    As a high school biology teacher, I’ve required my students for the past two years to read Darwin’s Introduction and Recapitulation & Conclusion. I also have them read the first chapter of Paley’s Natural Theology to establish a historical perspective. Although some of them find both difficult to read, others have made comments which show their appreciation for the writing styles. Overall, my students get a view of Darwin which they have not been exposed to before. Teaching evolution is difficult, and thus avoided by many teachers, but it is imperative that students get the opportunity to investigate this important topic which is central to all of biology. I can’t think of a better way to dispell the numerous misconceptions about Darwin and his writing than to have students read the original texts.

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