Skip to main content

Introducing Darwin – Jonathan Miller & Borin Van Loon ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Many of the pages feature large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise a point.
This contribution to the series is as much curate’s egg as marmite. Written by the then-famous (perhaps now rather less so) Jonathan Miller, it mostly does what it says on the tin, concentrating on Darwin with only a relatively small amount of context and post-Darwinian development of his ideas. It’s very old for a popular science book – written in 1982 (though this is a new edition). This means that evolutionary development doesn’t get the weight you would now expect in the post-Darwin coverage (there is a small amount of indirect reference to it at the end), nor does molecular biology. Even so, it isn’t as out-of-date as a physics book of the time would be.
For me, this was one of the less effective books in the series as far as the use of illustrations go. They rarely added much, and frequently seemed to refer to Alice in Wonderland for reasons that aren’t entirely obvious. Every drawing of Darwin’s face was different, sometimes almost unrecognizably so. Miller’s text was also variable. Some of the detail gone into in Darwin’s gradual development was a touch tedious, suggesting an over-scholarly approach – but then there were some surprising factual errors. For example William Paley, the ‘watch on the heath’ man, is referred to as a bishop, which he wasn’t, and there’s a very strange comment about the Lunar Society of Birmingham. It was called the Lunar Society because they met on the full moon so it could light them home. But Miller writes that they met on the ‘new moon’ (i.e. when the moon gives no light). This even contradicts the illustration, which shows a full moon.
Bits of the text seemed quite childlike in approach. For example ‘He worked much harder than most ordinary people, and enjoyed a happy life with his large family.’ is the sort of thing I’d expect to see in a children’s science book. But elsewhere it has a much more adult feel. There’s another contrast in style with the last 14 pages covering the post-Darwin new synthesis. Here the illustrations drop away to a negligible little bar at the bottom (up to here you can’t miss them, but you tend to ignore these), and the text flows much more like a conventional book.
This isn’t a bad book on Darwin and his work, but it’s not outstanding writing, and the visual approach doesn’t work particularly well, so it’s not a high point of the series.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…


Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…