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July 17, 2006 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, A Biography

What did Darwin’s father do? For how long did Darwin travel around the world in the good ship Beagle? How many children did his poor wife have? If you already know the answers to these questions, this book may be nothing new to you, but, if you don’t, you will no doubt it enjoy it as much as I did.

Before I opened this book I knew that Darwin’s first name was Charles and that he was responsible for the phrases “evolution” and “natural selection”. That was the extent of my knowledge. Having now closed the book (after devouring its contents in almost one sitting) I feel much wiser; in fact, I feel like attending a zoologist cocktail party and trying to pass myself off as a Darwin aficionado. This feeling is proof that the book has worked. It is one of a series of ten “Books that Shook the World”, designed to introduce the average ignoramus to some of history’s greatest thinkers’ greatest ideas.

I’ve been referring to this book as ‘Darwin for Dummies’ ever since I started reading it, partly because I like the alliteration, but mostly because that is, essentially, what it is: a palatable, brief, yet necessarily detailed account of the man’s life as it related to his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. If you’ve read OOS cover to cover, know it back to front and are practically Darwin’s great, great grand niece or nephew, you’ll probably find the lightness and brevity of Browne’s writing frustrating and would prefer her two book, 1600 page Darwin biography, which is available from Unity Books. If, like me, you haven’t the time, money or inclination to trawl through that much life story, then this baby version is perfect. I suspect Browne, having written so much on Darwin already, was able to write this mini biography pretty much off the top of her head, neglecting to footnote and concentrating on including the human interest aspects of Darwin’s story

‘Human interest’ can have patronizing connotations, but in this case they are invalid. I hate being talked down to, I love to feel smart and I enjoy gathering new tidbits of knowledge without revealing my ignorance in the process; if this book had been patronizing, this review would be a lot less favourable. On the contrary, Browne’s writing explains Darwin’s process of discovery in a way that allows the reader to understand something complex without having to do a lot of brainwork. For example, Darwin’s realization that species are not immutable came about, in part, from his breeding domestic pigeons. He found that one could change the species’ type of feather in two generations, and could alter a type of beak in three or four generations.

Simple, concrete examples, generously laced with personal details, let me easily absorb the information this book provided, and Browne’s obvious respect for both Darwin the scientist and Darwin the man made this a compelling and enjoyable read. It’s not particularly academic, so I doubt it’d look that impressive in your essay’s bibliography, but if you need to cram in information about Darwin into your head for a test, it’s probably the safest and most painless bet.

Written by Janet Brown


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