In March of 1837, some 171 years ago, Charles Darwin became an evolutionist. But, writes David Quammen in a new biography, Darwin “didn’t announce his apostasy” from the prevailing Anglican view that God had created each separate species as “natural kinds.” Darwin suffered most of his life with “chronic bad health,” but his distress was not the only reason he refrained from publishing his findings, in which he marshaled evidence of what he called the “transmutation of species” (only years later would he use the word “evolution”).
The story is told in “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution” ($14.95 in paperback from W. W. Norton) by David Quammen. The author has succeeded in his purpose of creating “a concise treatment, part narrative and part essay, accurate but pleasantly readable, of this huge and deeply complicated subject” and what he calls Darwin’s “difficult, scary materialism.”
Quammen is a National Geographic contributing writer, has won the National Magazine Award three times and has published 11 books, fact and fiction. He holds the Wallace Stegner Chair in Western American Studies at Montana State University. He will be appearing in a free public presentation next Tuesday, March 11 at Chico State University’s Laxson Auditorium as part of the On the Creek Lecture Series. Sponsored by Chico Performances (www.chicoperformances.com), the College of Natural Sciences and the Natural History Museum, Quammen’s lecture on Darwin begins at 7:30 p.m.; a book signing is scheduled afterward.
Though the lecture is free, tickets are required for admission. They are available at the University Box Office at 2nd and Normal Streets in Chico (898-6333).
Quammen writes that “Darwin was a complicated man . . . selfish and ruthless . . . in some ways, but selfish and ruthless mainly in service to his work. He was also sweet-spirited and dutiful, with a strong sense of personal morality grounded only in his materialistic notions of how human social behavior had evolved.” But for the threat of another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, usurping his work, Darwin might not have published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.
By then Darwin had identified the mechanism of species change—natural selection—and his idea altered the face of biology forever and spurred intense debate about its religious implications. Quammen writes, “The existence of God . . . is not what Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges. What it challenges is the supposed godliness of Man. . . .” The discussion continues, 171 years later.