by Greg Mayer
In an earlier post, Jerry called Janet Browne’s two-volume work the best of Darwin biographies, calling it “magisterial and engagingly written.” I concur, and some of our readers have mentioned it approvingly in the comments. But, at 1200 + pages, it may be a bit daunting as a starting place. Let me offer two other starting places for the Darwin enthusiast. The first is Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man, by Tim Berra, an ichthyologist from Ohio State. In this slim (144 pp.), well illustrated, volume Berra covers most of the highlights of Darwin’s life, work, and death, and includes a handy annotated list of Darwin’s books and chronology of his life. There is a nice section of color plates (many by Berra himself of the Galapagos and Down House, Darwin’s home), including my favorite, a painting of 32 breeds of domestic pigeon, one of Darwin’s favored study animals. An afternoon’s read, it is a good place to start.
For a broader view of the science of evolution, but, like WEIT, aimed firmly at the general reader, I highly recommend The Discovery of Evolution, by David Young of the University of Melbourne. Richly illustrated with both color and line art from contemporary scientific publications, and covering a broad sweep of history, from John Ray and Francis Willughby in the 17th century through to the Modern Synthesis, with a quick tour of more recent developments, it is one of the finest books I’ve ever read not just on the history of the field, but on evolutionary biology itself. It achieves this distinction by introducing and explicating, in chronological sequence, not just the ideas and historical figures, but the evidence on which the major discoveries of evolutionary biology are based. It is refreshing and, indeed, exciting, to have these discoveries and attendant scientific debates addressed through the evidence adduced by the discoverers and debaters. Thus, for example, the phenomenon of natural extinction, which we today take for granted, is presented as the lively debate it was at the time, and we see it is resolved not by some textbook fiat (as too much of science education seems to be), but by careful anatomical, biogeographic, and geological research, with the great Georges Cuvier’s work on elephants, mammoths, and mastodons playing a major part in the resolution. The entire book is replete with such examples, and is itself an edifying model of how science should be taught and learned: by direct consideration of the evidence.