The Brilliant Plodder

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Charles Darwin is ever with us. A month seldom passes without new books about the man, his life, his work, and his influence—books by scholars for scholars, by scholars for ordinary readers, and by the many unwashed rest of us nonfiction authors who presume to enter the fray, convinced that there’s one more new way to tell the story of who Darwin was, what he actually said or wrote, why he mattered. This flood of books, accompanied by a constant outpouring of related papers in history journals and other academic outlets, is called the Darwin Industry.

There’s a parallel to this in publishing: the Lincoln Industry, which by one authoritative count had yielded 15,000 books—a towering number—as of 2012, when an actual tower of Lincoln books was constructed in the lobby of the renovated Ford’s Theatre, the site of his assassination, in Washington, D.C. It rose thirty-four feet, measured eight feet around, yet contained less than half the total Lincoln library. You could think of the Darwin library as a similar tower of books three stories high, big around as an oak, festooned with biographies and philosophical treatises and evolutionary textbooks and Creationist tracts and the latest sarcastic volume of The Darwin Awards for suicidal stupidity and books with subtitles such as “Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity.” Janet Browne’s magisterial two-volume life would be included; so would David Dobbs’s Reef Madness, about Darwin’s theory of the formation of coral atolls, and a handful of books on the Scopes trial. Lincoln and Darwin were born on the very same date, February 12, 1809: a good day for the publishing business.

One lesson from all this is that Darwin’s name sells. A less mercantile way of viewing it is that Darwin’s name stands for what Daniel Dennett has called “the single best idea anyone has ever had,” and therefore serves as a portal to scientific and philosophical ruminations of vast depth and breadth. We can’t stop reading and talking about Darwin, 138 years after his death, because the great theory of which he was co-conceiver (with Alfred Russel Wallace) and chief propounder (in On the Origin of Species) was so big and startling and forceful, yet so unfinished when he died in 1882, that there’s always more work to do. We’re still trying to figure out how evolution by natural selection—Darwin’s dangerous idea, in Dennett’s phrase—applies to every aspect of life on Earth, from virulence in coronaviruses to human social behavior. It takes a lot of books to follow all those tendrils out to their end points, and a lot of other books to examine Darwin’s digressions and lesser fancies (pigeon breeding, the taxonomy of barnacles, the facial expressions of orangutans, climbing plants), his place in scientific history, and his continuing influence on how we understand the living world and humanity’s place within it.

Each of the three new books considered here…

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