Darwin

Adrian Desmond + James Moore

Penguin 1992
A book review by Danny Yee © 1993 http://dannyreviews.com/
A seven hundred page biography is a fairly daunting undertaking, and it took me several months to get around to starting Desmond and Moore's biography of Darwin. Once started, however, I finished it in less than three days, which says quite a lot given my normal practice of reading twenty books at any one time. Darwin is an enthralling and inspiring account of a man who is interesting in his own right, not just because of the key position his work has in the history of the biological sciences.

The authors avoid any kind of retrospective analysis at all and their account of Darwin's life and work is strictly chronological. So no mention is made of the tower of the modern biological sciences that rests on the foundations Darwin laid, and we are not told which of his theories are correct and which incorrect. The lack of forward pointing references also arouses in the reader a feeling of expectancy and a desire to know what happens (we look forward eagerly to seeing how The Origin of Species is received when finally published), and this gives the biography some of the force of a novel.

The story begins with a description of Darwin's family background and his education. It then follows Darwin through the excitement of the Beagle voyage, the laborious cataloging that followed, and the gradual growth of his radical ideas on species. He put these aside for twenty years, thinking they would be misused by radical agitators and fearing the damage to his relationships with his conservative friends, and spent his time in intense study of more "mundane" topics — barnacles and pigeon-breeding and earthworms —, thus obtaining the extensive empirical background he was to use so well in his writing. In a more personal vein we get an idea of the continual illness that plagued him throughout his life, and his gradual loss of faith, culminating with the death of his ten year old daughter. The "climax" comes with the publication of The Origin and the controversy that followed. While details are presented only where they are interesting or relevant to understanding Darwin's work and character, the authors have clearly done some very thorough research in writing this book.

Along with the personal details of Darwin's life and work, we also get a picture of the world changing around him. We are presented with a vivid and lively view of British science in the mid 19th century, with the growth of the idea of science as a profession rather than the domain of well-off amateurs. The description of Darwin's relationships with his friends and colleagues provide an interesting view of many of the notable figures of the time. Above all we get a broad picture of the sweeping political and social changes occurring. The authors have a very sophisticated understanding of the relationship between science and society, and their account avoids taking any dogmatic position on theoretical issues. Instead they try to present the full complexity of the story, weaving their descriptions of Darwin's work and life and social position seamlessly together. As a result Darwin will be a rich source of information for those interested in the history and philosophy of science. It's also one of the most interesting biographies I've ever read, and will be enjoyed by a broad range of people.

May 1993

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- Janet Browne - Charles Darwin: Voyaging; The Power of Place
- more biography
- books about evolution
- more history of science
%T Darwin
%A Desmond, Adrian
%A Moore, James
%I Penguin
%D 1992
%O paperback, b&w photos, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0140131922
%P xix,808pp