Reading Update: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Non-fiction, non-fiction, and more non-fiction!  I tell ya, for a fiction girl, I have been wandering outside the literature section for quite some time now, but thankfully, I haven’t burnt myself out yet.  The Reluctant Mr. Darwin:  An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and His Theory of Evolution by David Qaummen was actually on my list of books to read (culled from who knows where), but this book turned out to be more than merely a check off my life list.  This book, well, I learned something from it.  I feel like a better, more educated human being after reading it.  Nice job, Mr. Quammen.  Nice job.

Running the science and nature section at Half-Price Books, I’ve seen several of David Quammen’s books and so wasn’t sure if he would prove difficult.  Putting it rather crudely, I’m not a science person.  I know a lot of bookish people (bookish girls, I should say) make this claim, and I guess it’s as true for me as it is for anyone who would rather choose Dickens over Darwin.  This isn’t to say I’m dumb; I’m not.  I can read and comprehend almost anything.  And I don’t necessarily hate science.  For a very short period in elementary school, I thought I wanted to be a meterologist so that I could study the clouds (poetic, right?).  In college, I enjoyed my natural science classes (botany, “rocks for jocks”).  Even now, I get a secret thrill when Joel (an aerospace engineer) explains what are for him, relatively simple scientific concepts.  However, I’m a college graduate and free to pursue my passions: aka, literature.  So why, you may ask, would I spend my spare time reading a biography of Charles Darwin?

For several reasons. Oh, let me list the ways…

1.  Like I said, I don’t actually hate science.  In reality, a secret part of me actually loves learning about it.  Nature and the natural sciences, in particular, will always hold a tender spot in my heart.  Botany, geology, astronomy, ecology…it all fascinates me.  I won’t hide it:  I woke up early on Saturdays during college so I could watch the space shows on the History Channel.  I took geology in college because it seemed like the easiest class to fulfill my science requirement, but I actually loved learning about the processes that shape our landscape.  Anyone who works with plants (as I did, at a nursery, for four summers) can attest to their wonders.  Even now, I’m eyeing The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by David Pollan.  The Reluctant Mr. Darwin satisfied all of these secret cravings, and more.  Color me nerdy, but it’s true.

2.  For someone who only took the required 10 hours of science to graduate with a liberal arts degree, David Quammen’s writing is brilliantly readable and easy to understand. I was thrown off a little at the beginning—describing Darwin trundling up a dirty London boulevard, papers in tow, probably with a bit of a limp, seemed a bit much.  But Quamman, who is actually a science journalist, tells Darwin’s story with acute tenderness and explains the most complex scientific theories clearly and succinctly.  This isn’t The Origin of Species, and neither is it an academic treatise on evolution.  This is a book about a man, Charles Darwin.  His health wasn’t so good, and after riding around on The Beagle for five years, he barely left his home.  Apprently, he vomitted all the time.  He also happened to change how we view the natural world.  But, Qaummen argues, this is a story about a man, and with Darwin as his focus, evolution and everything surrounding it becomes easier to digest.

3.  For personal, religious and political reasons, I am increasingly drawn to the theory of evolution and all the hubbub surrounding it.  I tend toward the agnostic side on a lot of “hot button issues,” and so when it comes to evolution, I’m more prone to believe the theory supported by scientific evidence.  Books that claim to discredit Darwin and his “madcap theory” make me rather huffy, and I absolutely detest the efforts to remove the teaching of evolution from high school biology textbooks.  If you’ve heard me rant about the Texas School Board and national textbook standards, you would know what I mean.  In addition, only a little over an hour away from where I grew up is the infamous Creation Museum.  Suffice it to say, the more I can learn about evolution, Darwin, the evidence against and for it, and the processes by which it takes place—the better.

And that’s about it.  Well, I’m sure there are a thousand more reasons why you should read The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, but I’m sure you wouldn’t be reading by that point.  But if you’re even the least bit interested in learning more about evolution, natural selection, and the quiet man who started this big fuss, read The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.  Read it if, like me, you’re “not a science person.”  It’s not difficult, and actually enjoyable (I found myself unable to pull myself away!).  If you are a science person, let The Reluctant Mr. Darwin be your gateway drug.  It goes down easy and leaves you hungering for more.  Hey, even I’m starting to feel the itch to read The Origin of Species.  It might not be too long before I indulge this non-fiction fetish once again.


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