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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin - a good read.

For Christmas, my son gave me David Quammen’s, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. I’ve enjoyed reading it even though I know how it ends.

The book covers the period 1837 through 1882. Quammen deliberately bypasses the “Beagle years” (1831 – 1836) and concentrates on Charles Darwin, “the shy patriarch with bald head and the full beard, the breeder of pigeons and primroses, a very private Englishman who wound up buried in Westminster Abby, the fellow with a good for bank notes, presents to us a comfortably downy image” but not everything is so comfortable. “At the core of his work is a difficult, scary materialism.” Quammen explores that theme as well the idea that it was difficult and scary even to Darwin.

What I find interesting about this book is how different the times are. All through my read I am struck by two ideas:

1) How people communicated and socialize 140 years ago. Letter writing was the personal chat medium of the times. Publishing and membership in interest societies was a major source of exchange when it came to examining lofty ideas. And if you should think that Victorian text of the times was stogy and formal . . . well, Darwin wrote in abbreviated forms that would make any modern text message guru proud.

2) How much we take medicine for granted today. Darwin and his wife Emma had 10 kids. Three died in childhood. Darwin was sick most of his life. Down’s syndrome was not yet discovered as it is known today and pathogenic microbes had yet been discovered. Malaria was thought to be caused by miasmal vapors from swamp land. Diseases that we take vaccines for today were epidemics and ravished towns and villages because their causes were unknown. Yet, it is easy to neglect that when you think of just how thoroughly Darwin changed science and our understanding of the causes of the great diversity of life.

Tis a good read and not too technical. There is even a bit of the thrill of racing as a young untrained adventurer pushes Darwin and cause Darwin to dig deep for the personal character to do the right thing.

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