Evolution and Its Discontents

Exhibition on Charles Darwin at New York's American Museum of Natural History (2005)
Exhibition on Charles Darwin at New York's American Museum of Natural History (2005) (Mary Altaffer / Ap)

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Reviewed by David Brown
Sunday, August 27, 2006


An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin

and the Making of His Theory of Evolution

By David Quammen

Atlas/Norton. 304 pp. $22.95


The Case Against Intelligent Design

By Michael Shermer

Times. 199 pp. $22

Evolution isn't hard to understand; you don't need to know about thermodynamics or the unique property of the speed of light. Evidence for it is part of ordinary life, visible in both the general similarity of many organisms and the crucial differences between them. Evolution has an intuitive logic that isn't the case with, say, Einstein's ideas.

So why do people have such a hard time accepting evolution and its engine, natural selection? How could it be that in 2005, according to a Pew Research Center poll, 42 percent of Americans surveyed believed that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time"? These two wonderful books try to explain why such a richly documented and proven theory (by science's standard, which allows no certain proof outside mathematics) remains so difficult for some people to accept.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin comes at the theory, and opposition to it, historically. It lays out the conditions, both personal and cultural, that allowed the brainstorm of natural selection to hit Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, two Englishmen, more or less simultaneously in the late 1850s. David Quammen, a science writer whose previous works include The Song of the Dodo , begins his story with Darwin's return to England in 1836 after five years wandering with the survey ship HMS Beagle. (He would never leave again.) Quammen's book is about the birth of an idea, seen through the life of person who birthed it.

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