Synopses & Reviews
Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionaryand#8212;some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mountain glaciers, focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World. Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, he never left, becoming the most famous scientist of his time. A pioneer in field research and an obsessive collector, Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens, dead or alive, for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers, men and women alike. Irmscher sheds new light on Agassizand#8217;s fascinating partnership with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a science writer in her own right who would go on to become the first president of Radcliffe College.and#160;
But thereand#8217;s a dark side to the story. Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassizand#8217;s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy. The bookand#8217;s potent, original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as the merciless, often amusing exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over Agassizand#8217;s stubborn resistance to evolution.
A fascinating life story, both inspiring and cautionary, for anyone interested in the history of American ideas.
"Charles Darwin took 20 years to write his theory of natural selection: he produced On the Origin of Species only on learning that he was about to be scooped. Was he a chronic procrastinator? Or was he afraid of the reaction of his peers, who had scorned earlier books on the 'transmutation' of species? A bit of both came into play, but as acclaimed science journalist Quammen (Song of the Dodo) shows, during those two decades, Darwin was busy conducting scientific research that would bolster his observations of the finches and mockingbirds of the Galpagos Islands. He raised pigeons and theorized that domestic varieties could be traced back to a species of wild dove. He floated asparagus seeds in saltwater to explain how plants moved from one continent to another. Quammen commences his portrait with Darwin's homecoming from his five-year trip on the Beagle and then focuses on how he gained enough confidence and evidence to publish a book that would displace humankind from its privileged position as a special creation. This often slyly witty book stands out among the flood of books being published for Darwin's bicentenary. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A first-rate look at the English naturalist's career after the Beagle....Quammen's portrait of the greatman and his magnum opus is affectionate and well-paced." Kirkus Reviews
"Walking readers through the origin and the content of The Origin of Species, Quammen proves an informative, often wry guide to Darwin's life and continuing influence." Booklist
"[A] concise, tightly focused, engaging, and informative biography that...provides a satisfying portrait of this controversial man and has the potential to reach a larger audience. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Though much more than a reductionist Darwin for Dummies
, Quammen's biography is also a bit less than the 'intimate' portrait it advertises. Yet with clarity, brevity, and quick, colorful anecdotes, he sketches a compelling story. While we may not end up inside the head of one of the most influential thinkers in centuries, we certainly make his acquaintance in a most agreeable way." Gregory M. Lamb, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
Drawing from Charles Darwin's secret "transmutation" notebooks and his personal letters, Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work never ceases to be controversial.
A fresh look at Darwin's most radical idea, and the mysteriously slow process by which he revealed it.
Evolution, during the early nineteenth century, was an idea in the air. Other thinkers had suggested it, but no one had proposed a cogent explanation for how evolution occurs. Then, in September 1838, a young Englishman named Charles Darwin hit upon the idea that "natural selection" among competing individuals would lead to wondrous adaptations and species diversity. Twenty-one years passed between that epiphany and publication of On the Origin of Species. The human drama and scientific basis of Darwin's twenty-one-year delay constitute a fascinating, tangled tale that elucidates the character of a cautious naturalist who initiated an intellectual revolution.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is a book for everyone who has ever wondered about who this man was and what he said. Drawing from Darwin's secret "transmutation" notebooks and his personal letters, David Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work never ceases to be controversial.
Aand#160;provocative new life restoring Agassiz--America's most famous natural scientist of the nineteenth century, inventor of theand#160;Ice Age, stubborn anti-Darwinist--to his glorious, troubling place in science and culture.
About the Author
David Quammen, the author of The Song of the Dodo, is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award, most recently for a National Geographic story on Darwin. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrationsand#8195;ix
AGASSIZ AT RESTand#8195;9
THE ICE KINGand#8195;41
DARWINand#8217;S BARNACLES, AGASSIZand#8217;S JELLYFISHand#8195;121
MR. CLARKand#8217;S HEADACHEand#8195;168
A PINT OF INKand#8195;219
A DELICATE BALANCEand#8195;270
A GALand#193;PAGOS PICNICand#8195;311
Abbreviations and Notesand#8195;357