Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, published in 1859, is arguably one of the best known and most influential books ever written. How Darwin arrived at his ideas of natural selection accepted, rejected and debated then and even now and what Darwin was really like makes for a fascinating story in David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Quammen, author of Song of the Dodo and three-time winner of the National Magazine Award, sheds light on the more private Darwin, and the effects of social, familial, religious and scientific influences on the man and his times. He focuses on Darwin after his years on the HMS Beagle collecting marine specimens as the ship charted the South American coastline.

In fact, after that voyage, Darwin never again left Great Britain. It took him more than 20 years to write his theory about evolution of the species. He had notebooks full of observations, yet there was always more to learn and more to think about. With his retiring personality and his tendency to be ill with anxiety and delicate digestion, Darwin was cautious about publishing a book that was guaranteed to be controversial.

But then there was Alfred Wallace, a field naturalist whose independently developed ideas Darwin found alarmingly similar to his own. Unlike Darwin, Wallace was eager to publish, impelling Darwin to finish his book and be recognized for his many years of work.

Quammen also offers an exploration of Darwin's personal life, including his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood of Wedgwood china fame. Emma was a devout Christian in contrast to Darwin's intensifying agnosticism. Despite differing views on creation, life and the afterlife, the two had a very loving and respectful bond.

There is much to know and appreciate about Charles Darwin, and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is replete with detail and insight. Ellen R. Marsden writes from Mason, Ohio.

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