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The Quotable Darwin - Charles Darwin, Ed. Janet Browne ***

There's something rather satisfying about a nice, chunky book of quotations. I treasure my Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations, for example. However, single author collections can be quite a struggle to get through. 

I've already seen both The Quotable Feynman and The Ultimate Quotable Einstein for two of the great names of physics, each of them rather good at profound sound bites and witty interjections. But also in each case, even though I like the author's writing, I found it difficult to get too enthusiastic, as it's neither a book you can read from end to end, nor one where you can necessarily find a useful quote on a particular topic, as is the case with the dictionary of quotations. And any concerns I have about those two are probably increased here because, though Darwin was, without doubt, an accomplished writer, the Victorian style rarely makes for a pithy quote.

As I'd recently seen (in the excellent Inferior, for example) some sharp criticism of Darwin for his remarks about women, the first thing I tried was to find some of these, and already the format let me down. There is quite a long index - but 'Women' does not appear in it (nor does 'Female'). Admittedly I was helped out by the arrangement into sections - so looking through the Intellect sub-section of 'Mankind' I did find what I was looking for. This section also led with a good example of why it might be best not to look for consistency in Darwin. The first quote is 'There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties' and the second (just 69 pages away in the same book) is 'There can be note doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense.'

Dipping into the book is certainly a quick, if disjointed, way to get an improved picture of Darwin, the man - whether it's appreciation of his disgust for slavery and hope for its abolition, or to get a more nuanced view of his attitude to religion and creationism. But I think I would get significantly more from a well-written scientific biography. This collection of quotes is incredibly useful for anyone who regularly writes about Darwin, but I'm not sure it's something that has a place on every science-lover's shelves.



Review by Brian Clegg


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