Book reviews – ‘Darwin: For the Love of Science’ and ‘A Voyage Around Darwin’
We asked Bristol Festival of Ideas fans to review Darwin: For the Love of Science (published by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership) and its companion book, A Voyage Around Darwin, a compendium of poems by Ruth Padel.
Please feel free to add your own thoughts about these books in the comments section at the bottom of this page.
Review by Trevor Carter:
As it is two hundred years since Darwin’s birth, and a hundred and fifty since the publication of Origin of the Species, the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership have seen fit to mark the occasion by commissioning this beautifully produced book. It features a series of connected essays by eminent writers and is complemented by a book of poems by Darwin’s descendant Ruth Padel.
Reading the first essays one gathers an impression of a man who was socially and politically liberal, yet intellectually insistent, or perhaps even arrogant. Like other great historical figures, one gets the impression that he sensed in himself an instinct for his destiny, an inkling that he had something important to say. He eschewed his father’s encouragements to enter medicine, taking into account that, as a gentleman, the need to earn a living need not be the dominating driver of his life. However, thankfully for us, his personal predilections were sober, so he used the silver spoon he was born with to advance his thoughts rather than wallow in material or sensual indulgence.
We are told that Darwin’s father “consented” to let him go on the voyage that would provide the empirical basis for his theories, and hence change the way we look at our place in the world. His father’s concern was that he would never settle down to a respectable life after such an experience. Although Darwin set out to find evidence for his theories, he was so surprised by differences between islands only a few miles apart that he recorded “It never occurred to me” (that this could be so). Also, we learn that he was not always enchanted with the places he visited. He wrote that New Zealand was “not a pleasant place”, the natives being “absent (of) that charming simplicity” he found elsewhere, that the English settlers were “the very refuse of society”, whilst the country itself he dismissed as “not attractive”.
Marcus Waithe notes that whilst some of Darwin’s journal entries are very judgmental, at other times he merely observes; such as commenting on the high murder rate in Brazil and the “universal” habit there of carrying guns. He makes a good point in pondering whether Darwin was writing his journal in the genre of ‘travel writing’ or field research, noting that “It is sometimes unclear… for whom exactly Darwin is writing”.
He also explains how Darwin reworked his diary for public presentation, whereby it transformed from a sense of “experiential immediacy” to one of “artful recollection”. He notes that Darwin added poetic language to enthral the reader, such as talking about how cultures take “pleasure in society”. He describes this as using language in a “deliberately Shelleyan mould”. Waithe compounds this trend himself by saying Darwin’s impression of the Galapagos Islands was “Edenic”. Perhaps Darwin’s intentions were less contrived that Waithe imagines. It could be that his reworking had more to do with making a polished impression than inducing a particular conclusion in the reader.
Waithe points out a contradiction in Darwin’s socio-political observations. Darwin was repelled by slavery wherever he encountered it, and noted that “Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal”. Yet he is also quoted as saying that the British flag brought “wealth, prosperity, and civilization” wherever it appeared. Waithe does well to dramatically encapsulate why Origins was instantly controversial by saying that its theory represented a threat “to the traditional religious view of man as a special species, unlike any other because given an immaterial, immortal soul or spirit in the likeness of God”. We learn that Darwin’s theory rests on two interconnected interpretations of the development of life on earth: one being ‘the tree of life’; that at certain points species diversify into new forms: and the other being ‘natural selection’; which is perhaps better known as ‘survival of the fittest’.
Jonathan Hodge reviews the Oxford debate that followed the publication of Origins in 1860. Whilst it would be fair to say that all hell broke lose in this sanctum of academic discourse, Darwin was not there himself to face the flak. He left that task to T H Huxley, the man who became known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, and his old friend J D Hooker. It is Huxley who is credited with coining the term ‘agnostic’ to denote one who neither believes nor disbelieves in God. Huxley’s admiration for Darwin could be said to border on the sycophantic. He is quoted as saying that “One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates”. By such a comment he is casting Darwin as a benign seeker of rational truth; immune to the corruptions and vanities of ordinary mortals.
When we move on to George Dyson’s contribution, Darwin is cast in a more suspect light. Dyson discusses the rift that developed between the great man and Samuel Butler. Butler did not so much disagree with Darwin as try to contextualise his theories into a bigger picture. And within this picture it is Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus who emerges as the greater original thinker. Butler was annoyed that Erasmus was not mentioned in Origins. He further deflated Charles’ glory by advancing his own theory on the tree of life to include the world of machines in the equation.
It is left to Keith Ward and A C Grayling to argue the case as to whether Darwin’s theories have, as many contend, undermined or even disproved the existence of God. Whilst Grayling comes across as the more persuasive heavyweight in this contest, the debate will, as Andrew Kelly points out in the summary, run and run. Darwin himself was never conclusive on this crucial implication. Whether his agnosticism indicates a lack of intellectual arrogance or intellectual cowardice could provide a debate for further contention. To conclude, the book serves admirably as an evaluation, celebration, and perhaps ultimately an epitaph to the man who more than anyone else changed the way we think about what it means to be human.
Review by Lydia Morgan:
This beautiful book, titled from Darwin’s own assessment of what had determined his success as a man of science, was especially commissioned to mark the bicentrary in 2009 of Darwin’s birth. I was pleasantly surprised to find how readable the book is, always managing to neither border on the pretentious nor patronising. Despite it being a collection of essays, it reads very fluidly with a coherent string throughout, preventing it from feeling disjointed.
In many ways the book surpassed my expectations. I envisioned it to be nearly entirely about Darwin, however it gives succinct summaries of the lives and contributions of major influences to Darwin too; Charles Lyell, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Alfred Russel Wallace, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and Robert FitzRoy, among others.
For me the best feature of the book however, is the personal insights it gives into Darwin’s life and views, the family traditions and the relationship between the Darwin and Wedgwood families. This personal context combined with a clear explanation of the cultural context – of the general resistance to theories that do not support God as the designer and creator of life – goes far in giving a lucid picture of personal tragedies and cultural conflicts he was up against, as well as the social and educational opportunities that allowed him to become the famous man we know.
I also enjoyed the fact that the book did not merely give you the facts about the life and times of Darwin, but also engages in the influence that Darwin has had on the way we think about the world in the present day. A chapter is dedicated to the conflict between Christian beliefs about creation and Darwinism, addressing thoroughly the case for and the case against the two being compatible with one another.
The ongoing influence of these debates in the modern age is also demonstrated through discussion of the Dayton, 1925, and Dover 2005 trials, over how such theories should be taught in schools. Just when I thought I had just about run out of compliments for this book, I should also add that it is really quite stunningly presented with a plethora of drawings and paintings. My only criticism is that its large size does not make for easy manoeuvring. However for such an impressive evaluation of Darwin’s contribution to science, perhaps a less noble looking book would simply not be fitting.
Review by Jennifer Smith:
Darwin: For the Love of Science is a fascinating tome, well worth its large size for weaving a complex tapestry of the unfolding history of knowledge. It is full of exquisite illustrations, plates and engravings. Darwin’s world and family background – three generations – are painstakingly described in a series of interrelated chapters.
I found this family background a pleasure to read as it leads to a greater understanding of the social pressures and opportunities available to the young Charles Darwin. This helps to understand his motivations in relation to the politics and religion of the day. The study reveals a deeply reflective man, focussed on attention to detail and wanting to do the right thing.
This analysis helps us to see why he delayed publishing his findings. There is some repetition, but this helps to clarify interrelationships. The poems written by Ruth Padel, in the companion volume, skip along with the story, highlighting the stark reality and rigours of pre-aesthetic days.
The book is very readable, if somewhat large to manoeuvre. As the narratives gradually unfold the many facets of Charles Darwin’s character unfold, along with his relationships towards those who were significant to him, his family, friends and fellow natural scientists. Over three generations a close relationship between the Darwin and Wedgwood families, their similarities and differences are revealed and the role of fate in ensuring that Darwin did indeed take that voyage on The Beagle.
Chapters cover the lives of fellow scientists following parallel paths. The gradually emerging picture of change in the understanding of natural science, the different personalities Darwin meets and the clashes are revealed. How lucky he was to get to travel on The Beagle, which could not have been foreseen as he was first destined to be a doctor and then a clergyman before fate intervened.
The arrangement of the book facilitates, for the general reader, the gradual dawning of the religious, ethical and philosophical implications of Darwin’s findings and the moral agonies he must have suffered. Again, Ruth Padel’s poems in the companion volume help us to understand this stoic man.
One novel chapter describes Darwin as scientist and travel writer – an interesting comparison between the two processes – keen systematic observation and the conversion of experience into words. Darwin’s education sharpened his observation and enable a mastery of classification.
The book is stunningly colourful, the illustrations of fauna and flora from the voyages of discovery being particularly pleasing to the eye. Much of the book is illustrated by words from Darwin’s letters and journals which again help to highlight the unfolding story and his sensitivity to all that was around him. His personality shines through his professional standing, his social standing and his family life.
On a personal note he had his fill of tragedy. Darwin was young when his mother died. Despite suffering ill-health for most of his life, his family, along with many, suffered the grief of losing children, due to the high rate of infant mortality in Victorian times. Darwin seems to have managed to live with this without it spoiling his relationships with his surviving children and the special relationship he had with his wife. Again, the accompanying poems bring a vivid insight into these more private aspects of the man. His humanity shows through.
It is interesting that Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus wrote Zoomania: or The Laws of Organic Life in 1794 as a medical text, in which it has been argued, the seeds of On the Origin of Species can be seen. Zoomania was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.
The sensitive conflict between Darwinism and belief in God and the literal interpretation of the Bible are all part of the complex tapestry explained by several writers all focussing on different aspects of the complicated whole. The story is brought up to date as well, touching on the ideas of intelligent design. Two authors with opposing viewpoints argue whether or not belief in Darwinism can be compatible with a belief in God. Readers can make up their own minds.
Readers can also select from this large book those aspects which most interest them. Mine was the family and social history – I loved reading how family background, personality and the social and educational opportunities around made the great man as Charles Darwin undoubtedly was. The celebratory nature of the book comes through, too much maybe? I do not think I am qualified to say.
In this current book on Darwin each chapter is like a series of pictures, vignettes unfolding a huge complicated picture – Linnaeus and his complex classification system for cataloguing all living things- Lamarck’s evolutionary theory – Darwin’s journals and the chronicle of his voyage – maybe a time-line would have been useful for highlighting all the exciting happenings in science during the period covered in the text.
Ruth Padel’s poems are written and arranged chronologically, highlighting significant emotional events in Darwin’s life. The poems are in tune with the stark Victorian times he lived in, despite his wealth. The most poignant poem I found was the last: “I MADE HIS COFFIN JUST THE WAY HE WANTED IT, ALL ROUGH.” This summed him up so well.
Review by Annie Warburton:
In his influential lecture The Two Cultures, scientist and novelist C P Snow argued that a cultural fracture was splitting art and science. 2009 marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, as well as the 50th anniversary of Snow’s lecture. To celebrate Darwin, Bristol Festival of Ideas has published two books that turn out to challenge Snow’s claim. Together, Darwin: For the Love of Science, a sumptuously illustrated set of essays, and A Voyage Around Charles Darwin, a collection of poems by Ruth Padel, show the intricate interrelationship between artistic and scientific sensibilities.
Darwin comprises six commissioned expert essays linked by shorter pieces that together provide a rich biographical, historical, and scientific picture of Darwin’s life, work and legacy.
Great breakthroughs do not arise in isolation. The book sites the development of Darwin’s ideas in the context of his life and the work of earlier theorists, including Linnaeus, de Lamark and Erasmus Darwin. Profiles of geologist Charles Lyell, botanist Joseph Hooker and naturalist Alfred Wallace demonstrate how Darwin progressed his theories through questioning, dialogue and conversation with scientists in other fields. It was this willingness to welcome criticism and suggestions that for T H Huxley made Darwin “the incorporated ideal of a man of science”.
Darwin said the voyage of the Beagle was “by far the most important event of my life… I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.” It was a foundation that shaped Darwin’s work, affording the kind of extraordinary opportunity for intensive study that Malcolm Gladwell has argued is key to genius. Darwin chronicles the voyage in detail, enlivening the bare facts with observations from Darwin’s journals. David C Catling’s essay retraces the voyage, highlighting significant changes in the natural world over the last two centuries.
Two essays deal with Darwin’s major publications. Jonathan Hodge usefully elucidates key concepts of On the Origin of Species for a lay reader. Marcus Waithe’s reading of The Voyage of the Beagle demonstrates the interplay between Darwin’s empirical skill as a scientist and his literary artistry. A subsequent short piece on natural history illustration reinforces the point that art and science need not be ‘two cultures’ but rather complementary ways of knowing the world. Darwin itself is filled with drawings, photographs, and engravings that illuminate the stories it tells.
The book tackles the controversy that Darwin’s theories ignited, from the Oxford Debate of 1860 to the contemporary debate between evolution and intelligent design. Sober treatments of the issue of compatibility of evolution and faith in essays by Keith Ward and A C Grayling are welcome.
Necessarily, Darwin gives a broad overview of Darwin’s work and its context, but it stimulates desire to learn more and read the original texts. Overall, the tone is celebratory, but in reviewing Darwin’s enduring impact, co-editor Andrew Kelly’s concluding essay emphasises the ethical and ecological challenges we face today.
In a beautifully composed addendum to his autobiography Darwin regretted losing the love of poetry he enjoyed as a young man: “if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness.” Fitting, then, that to complement Darwin, Bristol Festival of Ideas commissioned a collection of twenty poems by Ruth Padel, Darwin’s descendant and a distinguished contemporary nature poet.
A Voyage Around Charles Darwin is a poetic mini-biography told through a sequence of vignettes significant in the development of Darwin’s thought. It opens, in Finding the Name in the Flower, with the ineffable wonder of the natural world and an eight-year-old Darwin awakening to its mystery.
Subsequent poems trace the unfolding of this fascination and the shaping of Darwin’s ideas by events, observations and discoveries leading to breakthrough set out in He Finds His Own Definition of Grandeur: “All living forms have to adapt…/ So, from a period short of eternity to now, the world fills/ like a well, with expanding myriads of distinct forms.”
Despite the delight in nature of poems like On Variation in a Tortoise Shell, there is “violence / under the bright surface all the time”, “blind, pitiless indifference”, “the problem of pain” and the “brutal discipline” of man. Weaving plosive consonants in taut rhythms, Padel makes one viscerally aware that All Nature is at War: “Red ants battle black. A rainwind / lashes trees in the garden and the leaves toss / they bash the rain back.”
Poetry, like science, demands fine observation of detail. In this, Padel has inherited Darwin’s skill, brilliantly evident in poems that combine close study of nature, imaginative reach and intricate attention to sound, rhythm and image. The poems succeed both as individual pieces and as a sequence. The pathos of Apple Blossom, on the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie, gives way to percussive violence in All Nature is at War. The word ‘bright’, which recurs in this poem, links it to the next piece, A Crunch on the Gravel. This opens with a hymn-like “Bright early one morning” heralding the letter from Alfred Wallace that spurred Darwin finally to publish his great theory.
Tracing the struggle between faith and reason, the collection conveys Darwin’s emotional as well as intellectual development. It is the poems of loss that are most affecting, particularly the exquisite Apple Blossom, a title that recalls imagery in W B Yeats’ The Song of Wandering Aengus. Other titles have a Yeatisian ring too: the tender love poem She Thinks the Hairs under his arm Grow Like a Crescent Moon and the closing piece, I Made His Coffin Just the Way He Wanted it, All Rough, in its way another love poem.
Darwin was a fine writer, his powers of intellectual innovation matched by skill as a communicator. Observation and imagination are common to art and science. These complementary books demonstrate that integration of these two ways of knowing – artistic and scientific – is essential to human understanding.Jump to top 1 Comment »
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