Review: Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik

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    Makers of modernity

    Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik ,

    Knopf, $24.95

    Reviewed by Sam Kean

    THAT Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on 12 February 1809 is surely nothing more than coincidence. Seeing

    a deep cosmic link is for mystics and Whiggish historians.

    Adam Gopnik sets out to

    In his rightful place

    Evolutionary Writings by Charles

    Darwin, edited by James A. Secord ,

    Oxford University Press, $25/12.99

    Reviewed by Amanda Gefter

    THIS fantastic anthology paints an enthralling and complex portrait of Darwins ideas and his character, with selections ranging from

    his adventures on the Beagle to On the Origin of Species and his autobiographical writings. Especially enlightening are the snippets of book reviews, editorials and personal letters contemporary to the texts, which, with James Secords excellent introduction, put his work into a rich historical context and illuminate the debates over religion, morality and human nature that still rage.

    Scholarly jewels

    Evolution: The first four billion years

    edited by Michael Ruse & Joseph Travis,

    Belknap, $39.95/25.95

    Reviewed by Laura Spinney

    THIS curious hybrid of essay and encyclopedia aims to provide both background on Darwins theory and a snapshot of modern

    evolutionary biology. It should have stuck to the essays, among which there are some real gems, including Michael Benton s concise chronology of life.

    IN HIS OWN WORDS

    My whole soul is absorbed with worms just at present!

    To William Turner Thiselton-Dyer ,

    23 November 1880, when Darwin

    was working on his final publication

    The Formation of Vegetable Mould

    Through the Action of Worms .

    Published the following year, just

    six months before he died, it shows

    that he retained an undiminished,

    almost childlike passion for his

    research. Shelley Innes

    Poor Baby died yesterday evening. I hope to God he did not suffer so much as he appeared .

    To Joseph Hooker , 29 June 1858.

    Darwin was famously absent from

    the Linnean Society meeting of two

    days later when, in a hastily written

    paper, natural selection was formally

    presented to the world. His

    correspondence at the time is,

    however, dominated by a domestic

    crisis. Scarlet fever had hit his family,

    taking the life of his youngest child,

    baby Charles. Alison Pearn

    If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow men, he ought to do what I am doing: pester them with letters

    To John Jenner Weir, 6 March 1868 .

    In 60 years of letter-writing,

    Darwin badgered nearly 2000

    people into exchanging more

    than 15,000 letters with him, many

    providing detailed observations of

    plants, animals and people from all

    over the world. His correspondents

    discussed both his ideas and theirs,

    helping to shape his published

    works. Today the letters are a

    window not only into Darwins life

    and mind, but also into the lives of

    these, often otherwise unknown,

    collaborators. Alison Pearn

    Shelley Innes and Alison Pearn

    are editors with the Darwin

    Correspondence Project. To

    view transcripts of more than

    5000 of Darwins letters, visit

    www.darwinproject.ac.uk

    Back to the beginning

    The Young Charles Darwin by Keith

    Thomson , Yale University Press,

    $28/18.99

    Reviewed by Rowan Hooper

    IT HAS always irked me that Darwin is known by the iconic image of him as a bearded ancient being, when his world-changing

    ideas came to him as a virile young man. Happily, this book redresses the balance.

    We see how he was a mediocre student, a slacker at university even though he read voraciously. Highly sensitive, introspective and obsessive he made lists of everything, and it has been suggested that he had Aspergers syndrome he eventually pushed an idea to its logical conclusion and changed the world forever .

    Theory on the rocks

    Darwins Lost World by Martin Brasier ,

    OUP, 16.99/$34.95

    Reviewed by Douglas Palmer

    THE seeming lack of fossils in Precambrian rocks was a problem for Darwins theory of evolution: where were the ancestors of the plethora of

    fossils in the earliest Cambrian strata? This is Brasiers engaging account of the investigation by palaeontologists into whether the Cambrian explosion was really an outburst of life or only of fossils.

    persuade us otherwise. His dual biography argues that science is inextricably bound to modern liberal democracy, and hence that these two men helped to make the modern age. If their lives work seems unrelated, it is only because the dispute over Darwins ideas is ongoing and visible while Lincolns once-disputed convictions that democracy is a viable long-term form of government have become ingrained in us to the point of invisibility.

    Gopniks breezy book tills no new soil, but it blends essay and biography so superbly that you dont care. Especially good are his reflections on death: thousands died in wars waged by Lincoln, and the struggle to escape death dominates Darwins ideas. Yet neithers philosophical views of death were much consolation for private tragedy.

    Gopnik knows well enough that Darwin and Lincolns shared birth date is a mere accident of history, but he comes as close as anyone can in convincing you otherwise.

    The art of evolution

    On the Origin of Species,

    150th anniversary edition edited

    by William Bynum, Penguin, 30

    EVEN artist Damien Hirst joins in

    the Darwin celebrations with his

    cover image Human Skull In Space

    for this special anniversary edition

    of Origin. Eleanor Harris

    7 February 2009 | NewScientist | 49

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