The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is a short, essayistic biography of Charles Darwin, one of the gentlest and most cautious men ever to confront the world with a deeply radical, dangerous idea. The idea in question, of course, was evolution by natural selection. My account of Darwin’s life focuses on the conception, development, and announcement of that idea, and on the personal tribulations that he experienced while incubating it. Why did Darwin delay publication for twenty-one years? Why did he draft an early sketch of his theory and then file that away, with a note to his wife in case he died? Why did he digress for eight years into barnacle taxonomy? Why did he vomit so often? Why was his great book, On the Origin of Species, written in a hurry after two decades of procrastination? There were reasons, and the exploration of those reasons was my way of trying to capture the essence of him and his work.
In the early weeks of 1837, Charles Darwin was a busy young man living in London. Ambitious, intellectually awakened from a drowsy postadolescence, excited by opportunity, he was newly defining his life. He didn’t yet recognize the awful scope of the idea that was growing inside him. On February 12, he turned twenty-eight. . . .”
–from The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, p. 20
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin was published, in 2006, as a title in the Great Discoveries series from Atlas Books and W.W. Norton. It was written in response to an invitation from James Atlas, the founder of that series, who persuaded me that a radically concise and somewhat opinionated portrait of Charles Darwin, who had already been much biographied, could offer unique value to readers. You might ask: “Is this ‘Darwin for Dummies’?” No, this is Darwin for smart people who are busy.
On the Origin of Species, The Illustrated Edition, is Charles Darwin’s great book, as he wrote it, except festooned in this volume with lively filigree–historical prints, old photographs, graphic figures, cartoons from the time, portraits of Darwin and his colleagues, extracts from his letters and his Beagle journal, assorted other bells and whistles. I served as general editor of the book, which allowed me to supervise the selection of art, to contribute an introduction and a time-line of Darwin’s life, and to insist that we use the first-edition text of On the Origin, which is the freshest and most audacious of the six versions Darwin released during his lifetime.
This illustrated edition was published in 2008 by Sterling Publishing Company, and had been conceived there by Carlo DeVito, who asked me to become involved. What brought me to agree was my conviction that On the Origin of Species is, like Shakespeare and Mozart and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a fundamental pillar of human culture, to which every literate person should be directly exposed. You can page through article after article about evolution, you can watch programs on the Discovery Channel until your eyelids melt, but you don’t really know what Charles Darwin thought about evolution until you’ve read what he wrote. If illustrations and other editorial sugaring help bring people to the text itself, I thought, so be it.
Other Darwiniana. In 2001, I delivered an invited lecture at the Library of Congress, as part of the Bradley Lecture Series, on Darwin’s great book. The Bradley Lectures were intended to explore classic texts of the Western intellectual tradition, of which On the Origin of Species is clearly one. This invitation came from Prosser Gifford, then Director of Scholarly Programs at the LOC. My lecture, titled “The Origin of Species: Descent of a Text, with Modification,” was soon afterward published as a chapbook by the Library of Congress. It may or may not still be available in some corner of the Web.
In 2004, National Geographic Books published a new edition of Darwin’s The Voyage of the ‘Beagle,’ within the National Geographic Adventure Classics Series, for which I wrote an introduction.
My other scribblings on Mr. Darwin go back twenty-five years. An essay titled “Thinking about Earthworms,” a meditation on Darwin’s last book (about earthworms, yes) appeared in Outside in June 1986. A piece called “The Flight of the Iguana” ran in Outside a year later, soon after my first trip to the Galápagos. I addressed the subject of Darwin’s interactions with Alfred Russel Wallace, and their co-discovery of the idea of natural selection, at some length in The Song of the Dodo. It’s the same story I tell, with different nuances, in chapter five of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. A few readers have told me they found it perplexing that, having recounted the Darwin-Wallace controversy in a way sympathetic to Wallace in Dodo, I seemed to have switched camps and recounted it with sympathy for Darwin in the later book. Perplexed or not, they were right; that’s precisely what I did.
[Books by David Quammen]
by Charles Darwin
The Illustrated Edition
Edited with Burkhard Bilger