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Evolutionary apostasy

David Quammen’s life of Darwin


Charles Darwin is an enemy of fundamentalist religion. I heard him proclaimed as such, a man who sought to take the Creator out of creation, during biology classes at my Baptist-run middle school. And I realized him to be such years later when, convinced of Darwin’s argument that natural selection both could be responsible for the diversity of life and, in fact, was, I dismissed meddlesome divinity from my understanding of the world around me.

But Darwin was not born to beef with God, which Bozeman resident and award-winning science writer David Quammen makes clear in The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, an essayistic biography of the 19th-century naturalist who conceived the theory that most now think of as evolution. In fact, Darwin trained for the clergy as a youth—not because he was especially devout, Quammen writes, “but by the least-worst logic that it would allow him to find some respectable niche as a parson-naturalist.”

Still, Darwin wound up an apostle for apostasy, forcefully contradicting the prevailing dogma of his time: that the species in existence on earth were immutably established by an omnipotent creator, and remain fixed, as Quammen deftly puts it, “like ideas stored in the file cabinet of God.” Darwin did not aspire to radically undermine the natural order as it was understood in his time. In fact, his first ideas about what he then called “transmutation” scandalized him, and he secreted them away in pocket-sized notebooks. His first insight that what he later dubbed natural selection—offspring changed randomly from their progenitors combined with Malthusian survival pressures—could result in speciation took place in 1837. More than 20 years transpired before he finally circulated those insights and his accumulated proof in The Origin of Species, published in 1859.

Quammen’s biography starts with Darwin’s early insights, explicitly excluding Darwin’s years as a naturalist on the British naval ship Beagle, years when Darwin collected the data that led him to his transmutationist speculation. It’s the first of several choices Quammen makes to excise and compress portions of Darwin’s life in favor of minute treatments of other biographical episodes and thematic points. A glance at The Reluctant Mr. Darwin’s table of contents reveals dated sections that sometimes overlap each other and other times leave gaps unexplored; the second to last—“The Fittest Idea”—stretches from “1860 to the future.” Quammen’s goal is not to exhaustively chronicle Darwin’s life but to illuminate his work.

He succeeds marvelously. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin lavishly treats the contents of The Origin of Species, the debates that followed its publication and the legacy of the ideas it contains. Quammen’s summation of Darwin’s ideas is exquisite, rigorous and readable simultaneously. Items aside from Darwin’s life and ideas enter as necessary; readers make the acquaintance of Alfred Russel Wallace and Gregor Mendel, each for their part in helping Darwin make his case, while topics such as taxonomy, induction, biogeography and others integral to Darwin’s attempts to make sense of nature also intrude. Such robust contextual content makes The Reluctant Mr. Darwin better than biography.

But the book also succeeds as a concise biography, because it is trim and attentive to context, and because Quammen’s prose is both subtle and supple. For example, early in the book, Quammen expends several pages on a pregnant kiwi, a 5-pound bird “painfully replete with motherhood” that lays a 1-pound egg: “An X-ray photo of a gravid female kiwi, taken fifteen hours before laying, shows this: a skull, with its long beak; a graceful S-shaped neck; an arched backbone; a pair of hunched up femurs; and at the center of it all, a huge smooth ovoid—her egg—like the moon during a full solar eclipse. She herself is just a corona…The point is simply metaphor. Every time I see that X ray of the mama kiwi, I think: There’s Darwin during the years of gestation.” Quammen’s kiwi digression not only illuminates his study’s subject but poses to the reader the same sort of question that drove that study in the first place. After all, what sensible designer would burden a small bird with an egg one-fifth its size? In the parlance of the continuing kerfuffle about origins, what’s intelligent about that design?

The answer, of course, is nothing, and rightly so considering there’s no need for any designing intellect to permit the kiwi’s divergence over epochs from its closest living relatives, like the ostrich. Natural selection elegantly explains the existence of life in the absence of a life-giving force and does so without shearing wonderment from the firmament. As Darwin writes in concluding The Origin of Species, “There is grandeur in this view of life…[that] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Still, at the time Darwin wrote, natural selection’s amoral, mechanistic view of those endless forms’ entry into the world was an unappealing replacement for special creation, divinely-purposed evolution or, as Quammen writes, “the supposed godliness of Man” that either entails.

For Quammen, Darwin’s exposure of diversity’s genesis is not just ingenious but courageous, given the social and ecclesiastical doctrines it invalidated. Combined with the convincing summation of Darwin’s case that it contains, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin makes plain that contemporary creationist holdouts stand their ground not for lack of evidence for Darwin’s assertions, but out of callow distaste for their implications.

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