According to an opinion poll from late 2004, only 13% of all Americans think that humans evolved without any guidance from an all-powerful divine being. In view of this surprising lack of knowledge, I think it is essential that the public is presented with more details about evolution, and this is exactly what this book strives to accomplish. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth on 12 February 2009, Niles Eldredge, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, designed a wonderful traveling exhibition that documents and discusses the development of Darwin’s thinking about evolution, and he wrote Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life (2005, Norton) as the companion to that exhibit.
This book provides an overview and analysis of Darwin’s thoughts that were written in his notebooks and in some of his personal letters, it discusses how Darwin’s revolutionary ideas developed, why he kept his theory secret for 20 years even though evolution was not a new idea to the public, and what finally motivated him to publish. The book itself is well researched and documented with numerous quotes and high-quality photographs from Darwin’s notebooks, and it also incorporates comments from some of Darwin’s descendants who carefully maintained and preserved his notebooks and personal letters and later, published many of them.
From its inception, the author makes it clear that Darwin was working out the details of his theory of evolution so it could successfully weather the inevitable firestorm of criticism from the religious mainstream after publication. The book starts out with a thumbnail sketch of Darwin’s travels, his ambitions and his life and the following three chapters delve into his writings in chronological detail. Chapter five reports further developments in the theory of evolution after Darwin’s death, including the growing acceptance of the Eldredge’s co-contribution, along with that of his late collaborator, Stephen Jay Gould, of “punctuated equlibrium”, to the field. Punctuated equlibrium is defined as long periods of observable phenotypic stasis punctuated with rapid transitions where entire species can be replaced by new forms. The author points out several times that Darwin had originally proposed in his notebooks that evolution proceeded in “sudden shifts” but later abandoned that idea.
Several times in these chapters, the author makes the intriguing observation that Darwin was the first scientist who abandoned the traditional Baconian induction (observational) scientifically describing the world. Instead, Darwin consciously turned to the modern deductive method, which relies heavily on predictions and hypothesis testing after an initial period of observation of natural phenomenon.
The last chapter, entitled “Darwin as Anti-Christ”, details how religion has increasingly come into conflict with the theory of evolution since Darwin’s time up until today. The author also describes and diagrams his compelling hypothesis for how evolution should proceed if it truly is the result of an invisible intelligent designer’s manipulations rather than simply a collection of random modifications to pre-existing structures. Not surprisingly, the author concludes that evolution is not a process that is meticulously planned and guided by an intelligent designer hiding behind a curtain in a booth but rather, it is a natural response to environmental pressures.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I suspect it was rushed into publication so it could be on the shelf in time for the grand opening of the museum exhibition. As a result, I think the book is somewhat disorganized and repetitive. It would have benefited from the guidance of a strong editor who could identify the nuggets concealed within wordy passages, who could clarify occasionally tangled prose, and who would have challenged the author to plainly reveal the depth of his own admiration for Darwin’s contributions.
However, that said, this is a beautifully produced book; it is a sturdy cloth-bound volume, printed on heavy glossy paper, and it is filled with excellent photographs of complete pages from some Darwin’s precious notebooks, portions of which are quoted in the text. The author provides interesting insights about this subject that I never tire of learning more about, and thus, it is definitely worth reading.