Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

by Adrian J. Desmond

Hailed as the definitive biography, this monumental work explains the character and paradoxes of Charles Darwin and opens up the full panorama of Victorian science, theology, and mores. The authors bring to life Darwin's reck student days in Cambridge, his epic five-year voyage on the Beagle, and his grueling struggle to develop his theory of evolution.Adrian Desmond and James Moore's gripping narrative reveals the great personal cost to Darwin of pursuing inflammatory truthstelling the whole story of how he came to his epoch-making conclusions.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Biography
  • Rating: 4.25
  • Pages: 896
  • Publish Date: June 17th 1994 by W. W. Norton Company
  • Isbn10: 0393311503
  • Isbn13: 9780393311501

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Happenstance brought this biography to my attention while I was reading D&M's re-examination of certain events in Darwin's life, which they explored in "Darwin's Sacred Cause" (2009), and now I"m beginning to understand why they authored a second book. D&M are seeking an answer to a question that has sustained their abiding and apparently compelling, even passionate and obsessive, interest in the facts of Darwin's life: What inner "force" propelled his project? However did Darwin contrive to take up the issue of the origin of species and sustain the altogether indefatigable labor that he expended over decades to establish a plausible and defensible basis for his views of descent and differentiation of all life forms, even while his views, once widely known, evoked nearly universal rejection, scorn, contempt, and the rabid hostility of his contemporaries? Hostility that provokes violent confrontations today - nearly 175 years after Darwin first formulated his theory and 153 years after the first edition of The Origin of Species appeared? In this biography (1994) they offer answers those questions - answers that satisfied them at the time, I suspect, and in their second consideration of them in "Darwin's Sacred Cause" (2009), they present different answers. The fact of this difference, however, merits more detailed consideration, I think, because it raises important questions regarding the possibility of entirely credible biography. So they do what they have to do - they seek plausible answers that accord with whatever apparently relevant evidence they can scratch together at the time they write. And so it is with biography, and in this case so it is with D&M's two biographical studies of Darwin. So annoying, in fact, that I'm tempted to formulate and explicate my own set of rules that I will apply in my reading and writing of biography - not that anyone else cares. D&M's violations concern several central issues of Darwin biography: (1) What was the source of his compelling, even obsessive, drive to observe life in every form in every setting accessible to him - and in such obsessive detail?

Darwin has two free-thinking grandpas. Erasmus Darwin is a freethinking doctor plus erotic poet. Henslow passed on to Darwin. But by the time he returned home, he is already famous, thanks to Henslow circulating his technical letters. The doctor (dad) supported him to work on his selection and not go into clergy. Theres influence everywhere, including Babbage who believes in a programmer God. Very gingerly, CD started to broach the subject and even asking his letter back for security. When his daughter Annie got sick, the same treatment didnt help. He wrote to CD, who included the rectors words in the next revision. He clearly speaks of not believing in bible, but stopped short of supporting radicals and he has never denied the existence of God. Later in his years, he finished a (boring Botany book.) He was very glad Wallace (who didn't enjoy the fame CD did) in 1881 got Queens pension of 200.

The strength of this biography lies also in describing the evolution of Darwin's thinking and how he linked the various puzzles from his observations, experiments, and readings to formulate his theory on the origin of the species by natural selection.

There of course is plenty of science in this great book, but it's not the main focus of the authors.

The presumed thesis of the book is that Darwin was a solid Christian who lost his faith due to his discoveries and suffered from a deep-seated inward struggle in this area for decades. Truth be told he published several other works during this time period and sat at the feet of some of the biggest apostates of his day as he refined his thoughts on evolution. The book also does an admirable job of humanizing Darwin.

This book outlines his journey in life comprehensively, from being a bit of a waster at college, through to the lucky opportunity to sail on the Beagle and then, with the good fortune of money, a life of experimentation in his garden, and communication widely with experts in biology.

A good biography should give a clear portrait of the person and in addition fully colour in the background so you feel you have unintentionally learnt about the world this person inhabits along the way.