Charles Darwin died in 1882, but his theory of evolution lives on, debated by generation after generation. As for the evolution of the theory itself, author Randal Keynes, great-great grandson of Darwin and a descendant of economist John Maynard Keynes, gives us some unique insights in Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution. Keynes believes Darwin's life and science were intertwined and offers a fascinating, detailed look at Darwin's family life and the impact the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter Annie had on his work. In a chest of drawers he inherited from his grandmother, Keynes found Annie's writing case. Among her mementos were the notes Darwin kept throughout Annie's illness and a "memorial" of her, in which he describes her character and joyful spirit. We sense Darwin's profound loss, even at a time when the death of a child was not uncommon. Unlike his wife Emma, who was a devout Christian, Darwin, an agnostic, could find no solace in religion for dealing with Annie's death. Religious belief at the time held that humankind was on a higher level than animals. Suffering and illness were meant for man's moral improvement. In contrast, Darwin believed that death was simply a natural process. Humans were on the same plane as the rest of life and subject to the same evolutionary forces.

Based on his work as a naturalist, Darwin first developed his species theory in 1838, three years before Annie was born. It was 21 years and many re-workings later that he published The Origin of the Species. In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin dealt with the animal ancestry of mankind. Both of these works were brought into sharper focus, according to Keynes, as Darwin reflected on Annie's life and death.

Drawing on a wealth of previously unseen material, including personal diaries and family photographs, Keynes gives the reader a thorough understanding of Darwin's life and times. Interweaving religion, medicine, science, poetry and philosophy, he offers a thought-provoking portrait of a grieving father who became a ground-breaking scientist.

Ellen R. Marsden writes from Ashburn, Virginia.

 

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