Few Englishmen have had a more profound – and controversial – impact on history than Charles Darwin. Born in 1809 to a prosperous family of doctors and manufacturers, he received training first as a doctor and then a clergymen before embracing a career as a naturalist. His five-year voyage on the “Beagle” became the defining experience of his life, inspiring him to reevaluate natural history and giving him a wealth of material to study. Establishing a career as a gentleman scientist, he gradually came to embrace the concept of “natural selection”, yet shied from publishing his conclusions until prodded by a similar paper by Alfred Russell Wallace. Publication of “The Origin of Species” in 1859 triggered an onslaught on controversy, one that did not deter Darwin from continuing his biological studies until his death in 1882.
Darwin’s life has received enormous attention – so much so, as Adrian Desmond, James Moore, and Janet Browne note in the preface to this book, that today “historians know more about his career than his family did, and in respects . . . they even know more about the man.” Such a massive amount of information can prove difficult to summarize, but the three authors rove more than capable of the task. Taken from their entry on Darwin for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, each draw upon their particular specialty - Desmond on the politics of evolution, evolution and Darwin’s colleagues, Moore on the secular and religious contexts, and Browne on the history of botany – to present a comprehensive portrait of Darwin, one that captures the amazing range of his natural studies. Supplemented with a final chapter on his legacy, the book serves as a good introduction to the famous naturalist, as well as a guide to the mountain of further literature on his life and legacy.