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 Even so, it isn’t as out-of-date as a physics book of the time would be.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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Quantum Menagerie - James Stone ***

This is a well-structured introduction to the mathematical basics of quantum mechanics, highly recommended for the right readers. Stone wisely, in terms of introducing the physics, avoids a purely chronological approach, instead aiming to fit together a picture in the way that makes it easiest for readers to get their heads around, building mathematically through the book. Stone does a good, solid job of this. In the book's preface, he tells us 'Books on quantum mechanics come in two basic formats: popular science books and textbooks. By contrast, this book represents a middle way between these formats, combining the informal approach of popular science books with the mathematical rigour of introductory textbooks... The material in this book should be accessible to anyone with an understanding of basic calculus.' The approach and the resultant impact on its audience is interesting. Providing something in-between popular science and a textbook is an interesting concept, but

Fundamentals - Frank Wilczek ****

In keeping with the trend of having seven this or ten that (Carlo Rovelli has a lot to answer for), physicist Frank Wilzek sets out to give us 'ten keys to reality'. As Wilczek explains in his introduction, the aim is to explore two themes: abundance and seeing things differently, with a childlike curiosity and lack of preconceptions. The author also points out that he aims to offer an alternative to religious fundamentalism. As he notes, many of his scientific heroes were devout Christians, and he 'aims to transcend specific dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious'. In essence there are two things going on in this book. On the one hand, each of the ten main sections covers a fairly straightforward aspect of physics and cosmology, though not from the viewpoint of a physical theory so much as context such as space, time, natural laws and so on - in this, it will be familiar ground to anyone who has read a popular science physics primer. But the aspect that lifts Wilc

A Song for Molly - Jeremy Bernstein ***

This is quite probably the strangest popular science/maths book I have ever read. There have been a good few attempts to combine science writing with fiction, as A Song for Molly does. It's a great idea, but from the results I have seen so far, extremely difficult to do well. What Jeremy Bernstein does is different from anything I've seen before, and in some aspects works very well. Let's start with what I love about this book. Every now and then I have lunch with the varied collection of individuals who once made up the Lancaster University Christmas University Challenge team. We're a very different bunch, and the group includes brilliant raconteurs. The lunches are a delight, in part because of the way the conversation ranges far and wide. There is a similar joy in Bernstein's range of interests as his book skips from the ideas of Wittgenstein to the attempts to decipher Linear A/B, from Cantor's ideas on infinity to game theory. It really feels like sitting