Archive for the ‘Reading List 2010’ Category

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

While reading evolution books ranging from popular like Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to specialized like Evolution: The First Four Billion Years and Encyclopedia of Evolution I felt the need to read Darwin’s biography. My first encounter with Darwin was even before a primary school when I was looking at illustrations to his voyages in a library. Later, during my school years in Soviet Union, I saw a movie about him. I vividly remember a Wilberforce and FitzRoy scene. So you might imaging that I was very keen to read 680 page book (not counting notes and bibliography). Unfortunately I found it a bit boring and written in a difficult language compared to other biographies I read in English. May be the language was chosen deliberately to emulate Victorian epoch?

Almost in the middle of reading this book I stumbled across another book: The Darwin Conspiracy: Origins of a Scientific Crime and reading the latter (it’s like a thriller and you can download the free PDF from gave me an impulse to continue reading Darwin’s biography with a critical eye. Looking at the same facts your can always interpret them differently and the conspiracy book reminded me to read behind the lines more carefully and remember about politics in science and class issues in society. I’m very interested in memetic engineering Darwin used to delicately arrange and propagate his ideas. The biography mentions Wallace in passing a few times but there is no discussion about the priority and the crucial Linnean Society meeting is not in the focus and doesn’t grab any attention.

One fact I didn’t know before reading this biography is that Darwin was always sick. Now “tormented evolutionist” phrase acquires the new meaning to me. I also got the feeling that Darwin’s hesitation to publish his ideas (if he had any to publish) was caused by sickness as well. Actually the sickness was the main focus of the book. However I really wonder how could such a sick man (as described) could write that huge amount of correspondence, do research and write many books.

One quote I found at the end of the book says that Darwin would not approve anti-religious stance of Dawkins and Co.: 

“Moreover though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.”

The quote got my attention probably because I recently read another book: The Selfish Genius.

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

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- Dmitry Vostokov @ -