jueves, 10 de junio de 2010

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin - David Quammen

This book is devoted to a rather specific time in the life of evolution’s discoverer, Charles Darwin. From his return on his monumental voyage on The Beagle until his publication of his masterpiece The Origin of Species, this book seeks to explain and re-live those 20 years. What this book mostly seeks to display about Charles are his inner emotions during what were some of the most productive and difficult times in his life. During this period he experienced marriage, children, the death of children, harrowing sickness, and much interaction with scientists from across the world. Quammen seeks to interpret Darwin’s feeling and thus gain motives for his actions through the analysis of letters, books, and outside accounts. Sometimes he hits the nail right on the head such as when describing what may seem to be the ultimate marriage to Emma. However, as he describes, religious tension and deep sadness most likely was an unspoken skeleton in the closet for the entirety of the marriage. They were still the rock of each other’s lives as highlighted through another emotionally trying experience, the death of his daughter Annie. This time, the two could barely stand to be away from each other and the author readily conveys this emotion.
However, in other aspects it seems the author wants to read in too much to Darwin’s life and/or simply inserts needless commentary. Sometimes Quammen will paraphrase a quote of Darwin’s for no apparent reason. Sometimes he will make baseless statements after a barrage of facts that seems to be lacking any substantial evidence. The point of the book is really to give the reader an emotional attachment to Darwin and the pressure that he must have felt in preparing to release a book that he knew would change the world. The reader is expecting this event for the whole book and thus it does present a surprising element of suspense. After reading, one will definitely feel more emotionally attached to Darwin in a way that is not possible through the autobiography, and one will have an appreciation for some of the events that may have made Mr. Darwin reluctant.


The Greatest Show on Earth – Richard Dawkins

In Charles Darwin’s masterpiece The Origin of Species, he was the first person to propose natural selection as a mechanism for the process of evolution. Through ample studies and modern advancements such as DNA, we know that his theory is true in more ways than he could have fathomed. However, what we also know is that all of his ideas were not correct. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins attempts to recreate an argument for evolution that uses modern examples, experiments, and data. The book was written on and in honor of the 150 year anniversary from the publication of The Origin, and it very nearly mirrors the original outline of domestication, variation, limited resources… In this book Richard Dawkins maintains the rather snarky attitude that he is known for when it comes to dealing with people who don’t believe in evolution. While he presents mountains of modern evidence toward the conclusion of evolution, he does not talk about many of the areas on which evolutionary biology is still relatively naïve. He addresses the arguments of creationists which is one area that Darwin did not have the chance to dwell upon as I doubt he foresaw this being such an issue over 150 years after his publication.
Overall, this is the book that you want to read if you are a non or budding scientist that wants the evidence for evolution presented to you in an easily comprehendible manner. Having some background on the subject is helpful but not by any means necessary. This book explores issues such as domesticated breeding, forced laboratory evolution, examination of differences in DNA between related species, examination of the fossil record, and much more. It is not all encompassing but is still a fairly comprehensive book towards the foundation in modern science’s acceptance of Charles Darwin’s original theory.


martes, 8 de junio de 2010

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

After reading The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle, I found Charles Darwin's autobiography to be the liveliest of the three works. Its condensed format is likely responsible for the lively feel, with interesting anecdotes filling the book. His self-effacing writing (he calls his autobiography "short and dull") in many parts causes one to think: is this an attempt at humor, modesty, or honesty?

Darwin is clearly aiming to take an analytical view of his life. In his introductory paragraph, he says "I have attempted to write... as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life." His conclusion consists of recapitulating in a few sentences why a man with such "moderate qualities" should have had such a great influence in science. However, this book is not only about asking "why Darwin?". Also included are many amusing anecdotes, especially in his childhood. He talks about being tricked by friends, acting cruelly once by kicking a puppy (but not very hard), and taking long walks alone. Whether you are looking for more insight into Darwin's personality, a few good stories, or some comments on reactions to his master work, his autobiography is a good read.

The Voyage of the Beagle

The voyage of the Beagle when viewed in the correct light is like a treasure hunt. In contrast to The Origin of Species, this book was written by a much younger Charles Darwin who was feeding off his passion for geology and natural science rather than trying to convince the community of the reality of natural selection. Throughout the book, Darwin makes hundreds of observations; the reader's job (besides enjoying the descriptions of places, people, and animals around the world) is to determine which of these are important to Darwin's development as a scientist and as the pioneer of the Theory of Natural Selection. In his lengthy descriptions of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, one can see his interest in nature vs. nurture. Are the "Fuegians" genetically savage, or are their vile actions caused by the environment in which they live? Darwin seems to edge towards the latter. Darwin of course chronicles the hundreds of animal and plant specimens he collects and sends back to England, although many times he does not seem to know how to classify them. In fact, he does not learn until after the trip that the various birds he collected on various Galapagos islands were all finches. For reasons such as these, it is best to read The Voyage of the Beagle after familiarizing oneself with the later life of Charles Darwin. In this way, we can better see just how deeply the voyage affected his development as a scientist.


Darwin's Origin of Species

Having recently read The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle, I found that Janet Browne's book Darwin's Origin of Species did not greatly enhance my knowledge of Charles Darwin. Most of the facts and events of Darwin's life presented in the book are widely known and are included in other biographies. While Browne does a good job condensing the information from Darwin's works into a more readable format for the casual reader, I felt that analysis on Darwin's life was limited. I would have been more interested in Browne's thoughts on certain Darwin quotes than simply a regurgitation of the facts.

I found the book most interesting when Janet Browne provided a historical context for events in Darwin's life, as this were largely missing from his autobiography. Perhaps the best example of this is in Browne's description of Darwin's return to England after five years on the Beagle. She explains: "Darwin... could not help but notice how much England had changed. Railways were snaking across the land where stagecoaches had once travelled, towns crept relentlessly outwards, shops, chapels, and newly built churches sprouted everywhere. This was the England of Dickens's classic tales."


lunes, 7 de junio de 2010

Book Review: Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life by Niles Eldredge

“Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life” (2005) does a good job of presenting an account of Charles Darwin’s life that is grounded in the primary sources left by Darwin himself. I think at times Eldredge doesn’t question the record Darwin has left us enough, but still the narrative is consistent and thorough. Let it be clear that I do love Darwin and find his life very interesting, but though this portion of the book was well done, since it stayed so faithful to Darwin’s primary texts, I don’t think anything he presented there was revolutionary or unique to his book.

Thus, for me, the most interesting and valuable portion of the book was the final chapter, which was dedicated to disproving Intelligent Design as an alternative scientific theory for evolution. The precision with which Eldredge goes through this very controversial subject is impeccable. Eldredge summarized all of my disagreements around Intelligent Design into a succinct message that anyone with an open-mind can understand. If like me, you were searching for someone to help you sort through your thoughts on Intelligent Design, this book is a must read.

My Review on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Darwin-Discovering-Tree-Niles-Eldredge/product-reviews/0393059669/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

Darwin Rocks. Eldredge is worth a read as well.


Book Review: The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

“The Autobiography of Charles Darwin” (1958 - Barlow, unexpurgated) provides an interesting insight into the life and mind of the renowned biologist, Charles Darwin. Though I think it is commonly held in too high regard as the final authority on the life of Darwin, I still believe it is an interesting and important text when read through the correct lens. I found it a meaningful source when considering it as a text about how Darwin wanted to be remembered. Whether or not Darwin actually can precisely recall intricate details from his childhood like praying to God to help him run faster is not as important as what that means about why the man who was writing the story felt this was an important detail to aid. Through this lens I feel you can learn a lot from this book about who Charles Darwin, the man, was and not just think about him in terms of his theories and his impact on society.

I found the restored version very interesting and would have been disappointed to read an older edition, which did not include some passages related to his private life as well as others on his religious views. Read it in the form that Charles intended you to!

My Review on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Autobiography-Charles-Darwin-1809-1882/product-reviews/1450524370/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

Darwin Rocks.