The Island of Doubt


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.

Comments

  1. #1 Sam C
    November 24, 2009

    When I studied biology some decades ago in the UK, we worked and thought a lot about evolutionary biology but Charles Darwin was barely considered. The closest we came was using the word “Neo-Darwinian”. Why? Not lack of respect, simply that we looked towards the modern science, just as physics students study non-relativistic physics without considering the human side of Isaac Newton. Darwin-the-man was irrelevant to considering biological evolution.

    I’m not knocking Charles Darwin’s greatness, especially on an anniversary, but I’m uncomfortable with the way this adulation makes us look like disciples of the man revering his sacred works (a bit like Marxists can be!) rather than scientists with a modern and dynamic theory that fits the real world.

    In a way it’s a shame that Darwin’s work was so thoroughly excellent, because it might be easier to say to the nay-sayers who try to call us “Darwinists”: “hey, we took these great ideas, they’re right, they’re tested, they work, but we kicked out this other rubbish, we’re not accepting things just because the great man wrote them”. But Darwin accurately identified his areas of doubt and uncertainty, and considering the lack of knowledge of genetics at the time, his work is amazing.

    I certainly recommend visiting Downe House to anyone who has any biological knowledge and a heart! You really get a sense of place in that house and its garden.

  2. #2 Mike
    November 24, 2009

    I’m not sure creationists are to be annoyed by a denunciation of the apocryphal tales as much as they are by what Sam points out so candidly in his observation, namely his discomfort “with the way this adulation makes us look like disciples of the man revering his sacred works”. Is it just the anniversary that is making those in the biological field hail Darwin as one to be worshipped, or is this the way that he is perceived whenever mentioned in conversation no matter the occasion?
    If science is the one to be revered as above-all and the foundation and sustainer of reason and function, why are its proponents being revered instead of the work itself? If evolutionary science has progressed since the inception of Darwin’s theory, why are those who led to its advance not being praised? From the perspective of religion, has evolutionary biology not just become another player in the game of supposed superstitious beliefs?
    Again, if science is above all, why is Darwin still being hailed if that was 150 years ago? Surely, in the last 150 years of technological advances, evolutionary science has risen to a new level that gives credit to the seminal work of Darwin, yet recognizes that it’s time to move on! If it hasn’t progressed, it seems like evolutionary theory was just a good ploy and advocate for the atheist to make him fulfilled, providing enough to pass for plausible science while more importantly implanting the possible fallibilty of the existence of God and its ramifications (scientifically, philosophically, religiously, ethically, politically, etc.).

  3. #3 Chris
    November 30, 2009

    Interesting book; perhaps I’ll grab a copy for Lisa.

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