Picks and Pans Review: Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

updated 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Adrian Desmond and James Moore

People are special, or so we like to think. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution threatens that complacent assumption. Darwin not only argued that human beings are literally kin to all living things, but he also maintained that we are not evolution's predestined end point. Indeed, said Darwin, evolution has no end point.

In 1831, before he even dreamed of such heretical opinions, the young Englishman signed on as a gentleman traveler aboard HMS Beagle. After a long and exotic voyage, Darwin's independent wealth allowed him to pursue his budding scientific interests. Although he sought only a life of tranquillity and detachment, his ideas about evolution drew him into a sea of controversy. In Darwin's day the origin of life forms was not a technical subject but a passionate concern to a wide public, which saw it as vitally connected with the issues of slavery, the treatment of the poor and the authority of church and aristocracy.

In this excellent biography the authors use the rich personal musings left by Darwin the compulsive diarist to paint a detailed portrait of the inner man. The conflicts that Darwin ignited on the public stage seared his own heart. He long delayed publishing his ideas about evolution to avoid subjecting his wife and 10 children to the ridicule heaped on others who had advanced similar theories. Conflict and struggle were central to Darwin's emotional life, just as they are to the natural world that his revolutionary theories sought to describe. (Warner Books, $35)

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