The Darwin Experience:
The Story of the Man and his Theory of Evolution
by John van Wyhe
National Geographic Books
It almost seems like a throwback to another age, a time when people actually read books and stuff. And National Geographic Books’ The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and his Theory of Evolution may be one of the last such volumes ever produced, given the rate at which e-books are gobbling up market share. After all, if you want to browse through Darwin’s life or read On the Origin of Species, you can do that online.
But for those of us born before the advent of the Internet, there’s something warm and reassuring about a coffee-table book, all sepia-toned and illustrated in Victorian style, with pull-out reproductions of the great man’s field notes. Seeing Darwin’s first sketch of a “tree of life” on a screen is fine, I suppose. But flipping open a facsimile of a notebook that displays that very image alongside his scribbled explanation, the ink from the opposite side of the page visible to the point of distraction, sends a little shiver up the spine of this reader. It’s like tapping into Darwin’s brain.
In addition to the brain candy for evolutionists, there’s also plenty of material sure to annoy creationists. Wyhe includes oodles of what newspaper editors would call fact boxes that draw our attention to the many apocryphal tales that surround Darwin and his work. Did he really delay publication of Origin out of fear of what his colleagues would think? No. There’s one headlined “Darwin was right,” just in case anyone might recall the New Scientist front page disingenuously suggesting the opposite. We are also reminded that it is unlikely the death of one of his children was responsible for his loss of faith, “as this had been declining since return from the Beagle voyage in 1836.”
Among the most revealing inserts is his list of pros and cons for marriage. Nothing to do with evolution as such, although we learn that he sees children as the real opportunity for a “second life.” Indeed, Wyhe’s choice of material, as the title of the book suggests, tells us at least as much about Darwin the man as it does his revolutionary idea that “makes sense of the whole natural world.”
It’s an important reminder on this, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin, that while Darwin’s contribution to knowledge was extraordinary, he was just a human being. We are all capable of greatness, and that’s a wonderful message to impart to the next generation.
I’m going to hang onto this book until my son is old enough to appreciate it. By then it will probably be closer to the 160th anniversary, an event that will no doubt pass with much less mention. But I’ll make a point of bringing it up. And this will be the perfect book for the job.