The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Given the buzz over the Big Birthdays earlier this year—both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin turned 200 in February 2009—I had to read something in commemoration. David Quammen’s recent biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (2007), was the perfect choice: like most of Quammen’s non-fiction, this book is lucid, compelling, and, at times, ridiculously funny. Unexpectedly, Quammen begins after the famed HMS Beagle voyage, focusing instead on Darwin’s intellectual journey leading up to the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. We follow Darwin through his earliest musings on evolution; his many, many years of studying barnacles; and his fright upon learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, had independently arrived at his own theory of natural selection and might steal Darwin’s thunder by publishing first. Quammen frequently speculates about Darwin’s state of mind but rarely exceeds the bounds of plausibility, and he makes genuinely interesting a book that is, ultimately, about one person’s thinking, studying, and writing.

~Stefanie Bluemle

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