The Study of Charles Dawin's Life by Pete Bowler

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Peter Bowler presents a synopsis of Charles Darwin’s contributions to science, history, and culture. This book tries to provide a quick summary of the important periods in Darwin’s life, touching briefly on each significant aspect. Much of the book is written in a somewhat technical way and is a bit too wordy. I had a difficult time maintaining my interest while I was reading some of the chapters. Certain areas deserved more coverage, like the reaction when Darwin went public with his theories. On the positive side, this book does give some good insight on Darwin’s relationships with the other prominent scientists of his time and there are some moments where the slowness of the book becomes more interesting, like the section that covers Darwin’s voyage of discovery aboard the Beagle. For the most part of the book, it comes off as a history of ideas with some biography thrown in.

What resonated with me the most is Darwin’s early years and how much he bounced around in academics. It is fascinating to me that someone regarded as one of the most influential natural scientists of all time had such a rough start to his education. After apprenticing under his father to become a doctor, he went to Edinburgh to further his studies in medicine. He quickly learned how unhappy the study made him. The lectures were dreadfully boring to him and he couldn’t make a connection with surgery like his father, finding it too stressful. His father then sent him to study to be a clergyman at Christ’s College.

Charles Darwin obviously played a major role in the development of modern scientific thought and has become a multi-faceted mythical figure in terms of modern culture, competing with Christopher Columbus in the minds of many for the title of Dead White European Male who most contributed to the decline of Western Civilization in general and the American continent in particular. In ‘Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence,’ Peter J. Bowler, who has written several books on the history of evolutionary theory including ‘Theories of Human Evolution’ and ‘The Victorians and the Past,’ makes it clear that Darwin was not the first person to publish evolutionary ideas (not even in his own family) and emphasizes that his theory of natural selection was not generally accepted by his contemporaries. The publication of ‘The Origin of Species’ not only stirred controversy and debate among both the scientific community and the general public, but it also reinforced the Victorian concept of progress. When Darwin died in 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey as a national hero of scientific discovery Victorian culture had undergone a major transformation.

Bowler’s look at Darwin’s life and influence tries to explain how his contemporaries were unable to appreciate those aspects of these theories that are the ones we consider most important today. Ultimately, Darwin is seen as not only a product of his time but a person who transcended it by creating an idea that is still being explored by 21st-century scientists and intellectuals with beliefs and values very different from his own. Bowler shows us not only how Darwin reacted to contemporary ideas, at a time when science and the humanities were not seen as ‘two cultures,’ as well as how his ideas were received and adapted. Consequently, in addition to being a biography of a great man of science, it is also an examination of cultural history, which is perhaps the more important part of the effort. I had no problem following the scientific aspects and I never even took biology in high school, so I would think pretty much anybody can understand the arguments as well.

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The contents of ‘Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence’ is as follows: (1) The Problem of Interpretation, which looks at both the man and the myths that has arisen about him as well as the new perspectives on the rise of evolutionism; (2) Evolution before the ‘Origin of Species’ looks at both radical evolutionism and the opponents of transmutation that defined the scientific debate at that time; (3) The Young Darwin covers his family and university life; (4) The Voyage of the ‘Beagle’ details his famous trip to South America and across the Pacific; (5) The Crucial Years: London, 1837-1842 is when Darwin developed his theory of natural selection; (6) The Years of Development at Down House is when Darwin was able to develop his theory in relative security; (7) Going Public presents the argument of the ‘Origin of Species’; (8) The Emergence of Darwinism deals less with Darwin than those that picked up his cause such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Thomas Henry Huxley; (9) The Opponents of Darwinism covers the response of those who espoused theistic evolutionism and the rise of Lamarckism; (10) Human Origins is about the ‘Descent of Man’ and the idea of social evolutionism; and (11) Darwin and the Modern World looks at the death of Darwin and the rebirth of Darwinism after that point. The book is illustrated with photographs, cartoons and caricatures, and diagrams from Darwin’s notebooks.

The Cambridge Science Biographies are written by prominent international authorities in the history of science and are intended to be readily accessible to the general reader and student. While society depends upon science what scientists actually do remains a mystery to many people. Despite science usually being presented dispassionately and impersonally, editor David Knight points out that ‘science is a human activity, and the personalities of those who practice it are integral to its process.’ Other volumes in this series are devoted to Galileo, Isaac Newton, Humphry Davy, Henry More, Antoine Lavoisier, and Andre-Marie Ampere. These scientists were chosen for their eminence and these biographies are intended to both illuminate the scientific process and to place the scientists in the social and intellectual context of their age.

In his biography of Charles Darwin, Peter Bowler dispels many of the misconceptions surrounding Darwin’s immediate influence on the scientific world. Bowler argues that Darwin’s theory did not spark a scientific revolution which caused a majority of scientists to abandon their former views on natural history. Bowler explains that Darwin was not the first naturalist to advance a theory of evolution. Most importantly, Bowler reveals that Darwin’s theory was not accepted blindly by the scientific community. In fact, many of Darwin’s most faithful supporters found scientific weaknesses in his theory. As Bowler states, ‘Darwin’s greatest achievement was to force the majority of his contemporaries to reconsider their attitudes towards the basic idea of evolution’ (p. 128).

While you may not come away from this book feeling you would’ve called him Charlie, you will have derived a more than nodding acquaintance with an exceptional person. In the beginning -of the book- there seems to be an overemphasis on theological & philosophical issues but that is a clever construction that skillfully leads you to a profound grasp of Darwin’s iconoclastic interpretations of mundane phenomena from which his theories grew. In the end, you regret even more never having met the man.

Upon publication, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species excited much debate and controversy, challenging the foundations of Christianity, nonetheless underpinning the Victorian concept of progress. It still evokes powerful and contradictory responses today. Peter Bowler’s study of Darwin’s life, first published in 1990, combines biography and cultural history. Emphasizing in particular the impact of Darwin’s work, he shows how Darwin’s contemporaries were unable to appreciate precisely those aspects of his thinking that are considered scientifically important today. He also demonstrates that Darwin was a product of his time, but he also transcended it by creating an idea capable of being exploited by twentieth-century scientists and intellectuals who had very different values from his own.

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