Charles Darwin

Adrian Desmond & James Moore
Darwin : The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

This is probably the best biography I've ever read. Unlike most biographies, which cause me to go through frequent bouts of boredom, this one is incredibly lucid--especially for its length. Darwin's adventures upon the Beagle are particularly well presented.

As a scientist, Darwin kept rigorous notes and journals. Drawing from these sources and the countless letters that Darwin exchanged over his life, the authors have presented a very accurate portrait of one of the most fascinating minds to have ever lived. Of particular interest to me was the various dichotomies Darwin's life included. He was a radical living in Victorian England who displayed traits of ironically and simultaneously being both a radical thinker and a conservative from the Victorian tradition. He was also a man of high standing among his family, society, and the science community. He seemingly had nothing to gain and everything to lose by propagating some of his conclusions. He did in fact lose many friends and honors because of his published views in The Origin of Species. He sat on his ideas for decades because of concerns for family and society. (For Mormon readers: You'll find many similarities in this regard between Darwin and famous Mormons like B.H. Roberts and Thomas Ferguson.) Like many others, he considered waiting to have his works published posthumously.

The biggest surprise for me in Darwin was the realization that 'evolution' wasn't a concept that Darwin came up with. Darwin was very much a product of his environment. That's not to say that he didn't come up with much on his own, but most of the things he is credited for were not pulled out of thin air. Ideas and events from his background were the springboards for his discoveries and thoughts. There were many evolutionists before Darwin. His contribution was the means (mostly natural selection) by which evolution is achieved. He even hung onto some ideas from the past which we now know to be false. For instance, he still believed in some variations from false Lamarckian thought such as traits acquired after birth being passed to offspring.

Like Galileo, Darwin spent a large portion of his life suffering from illness. It is incredible what these two accomplished given their unhealthy conditions for most of their lives. Both were fond of rigorous experimentation and sampling before letting their views be known. Darwin did not care for those who were 'too theoretical'.

A reader of this biography will also learn about several other famous figures from the 19th century like Huxley, Owen, Hooker, Wallace, and Lyell.

Regardless of religious preference or knowledge of (and interest in) science, Darwin should be fascinating to anyone who is fortunate enough to read its contents.

From the publisher:
"It is like confessing a murder." These are the words Charles Darwin uttered when he revealed to the world what he knew to be true: that humans are descended from headless hermaphrodite squids. How could a wealthy gentleman, a stickler for respectability, attack the foundations of his religion and Anglican society? Authors Adrian Desmond and James Moore, in what has been hailed as the definitive biography of Charles Darwin, not only explain the paradox of the man but bring us the full sweep of Victorian science, theology, and mores. The style is lively and accessible. The 800+ pages of this book contain a wealth of new information and 90 photographs.

"Unquestionably, the finest biography ever written about Darwin. Desmond and Moore are brilliant in their relentless and integrative pursuit." -- Stephen Jay Gould

"Brilliantly successful. Darwin is a rich, entertaining and always convincing portrait...It is impossible to resist the fascination of a man who deciphers nature, dethrones its creator, and then chooses to conceal his great discovery for 20 years." -- The Guardian

"At last, a biography to match the man...Darwin, his family, his colleagues, and his milieu come alive in this book which is superbly written and finely produced." -- Everett Mendelsohn, Professor of the History of Science, Harvard

"It's one of the most interesting (and enthralling) biographies I've ever read, and will be enjoyed by a very broad range of people." -- Danny Yee