biography, Book Review, science

Review: Simply Darwin

29995275Simply Darwin

By Michael Ruse

In his new book, Michael Ruse writes: “No educated person today should be ignorant of the life and labors of Charles Darwin. In science and in culture, he is one of the seminal figures of all time.”

The size of Simply Darwin—135 pages—makes it a good starting point for someone who wants to begin studying Darwin. There is a brief chapter about Darwin’s life, but the remaining 7 chapters are a bit more like a science or philosophy text than a biography.

Ruse tells us about scientists who influenced Darwin, what they discovered and believed, and how Darwin agreed or differed with them. He writes much about natural selection and how it was not as well received by Darwin’s contemporaries as was the “fact of evolution,” (a phrase used several times throughout the book).

While reading Ruse’s accounts, one thinks that evolution was more widely accepted in the 1870’s than it is in the U.S. today. Ruse quotes the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti to show that people in Europe during Darwin’s time still believed in creation. This seems hardly necessary to a reader in rural Texas surrounded by Bible literalists. But it may prove a point—perhaps nineteenth century Europe was indeed more forward thinking than the 21st century South.

Ruse devotes a chapter to Darwin’s Origin of Species, another to its reception, and then another to the Descent of Man. But he also devotes numerous pages to one scientist after another, and then philosophers, and poets, and novelists, and while they all fit into the discussion, the discussion becomes much more than “simply” Darwin.

It would be silly for a reader to want a book on Darwin that doesn’t deal with science. But this book may get a bit too scientific in places. Here’s a typical passage:

In Newtonian mechanics, his first law (that bodies remain at rest or in

uniform motion unless acted upon by a force) acted as an equilibrium law,

against which one could introduce intervening or distorting forces. In

“population genetics,” the Hardy-Weinberg law had the same function. This

law essentially stated that in large populations with no impinging forces—such

as selection, mutation, immigration or emigration—the gene ratios would stay

constant. In other words, it was the background equilibrium against which one

could now introduce distorting forces like mutation and selection.

The above is not a criticism, but more of a clarification. For readers interested in the man himself, they should maybe look elsewhere–Darwin’s own autobiography for instance. But, for readers interested in Darwin’s ideas, this may be the perfect starting point. Ruse writes well and certainly knows his subject.

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