Book review: ‘The Origin of Darwinism’ by James Randerson (ed.)

Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species

The Origin of DarwinismThe Guardian/Observer newspapers (henceforth, simply the Guardian) has launched the Guardian Shorts initiative, a series of short ebooks designed to provide ‘detailed guides to topical news stories, public policy, sports and cultural events [...] curated and packaged for a quick, portable read’. In other words, old Guardian articles repackaged and resold to you as ebooks.

Some will no doubt whinge at this flagrant attempt on behalf of Guardian Media Group to make new money from old rope, but I think it's a great idea: I don't object to buying DVDs of old shows from the BBC, so why not stump up a little—and it is only a little—of my hard-earned cash for a collection of carefully curated Guardian pieces on particular subjects? (Although, having declared a general willingness to pay for such material, I should, at this point, disclose that I received a free review copy of this particular ebook from the Guardian.)

In The Origin of Darwinism: Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species, editor and contributor, James Randerson, brings together a number of Guardian pieces concerning Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. These are padded out with some passages by the great man himself, lifted from On the Origin of Species. The full list of contributors comprises: Simon Conway Morris, Charles Darwin, Caroline Davies, Richard Dawkins, Richard Harries, Laurence Hurst, Armand Leroi, Ian McEwan, Kenneth R Miller, Alison Pearn, Justin Quirk, Tim Radford, James Randerson, Nick Spencer, and John van Wyhe.

As is almost inevitable (and very welcome) in any non-fiction anthology, The Origin of Darwinism contains things you agree with, things you don't, differences of opinion, and different writing styles. Although you might not agree with everything he has to say, Richard Dawkins writes with characteristic clarity about how Darwin's theory ‘assumes little to explain much’, while Simon Conway Morris (one wonderful sentence about mushrooms excepted) is as nebulous as ever:

Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material? Well, yes, some argue just as much, but their explanations seem to have made no headway. We are indeed dealing with unfinished business. God’s funeral? I don’t think so. Please join me beside the coffin marked Atheism. I fear, however, there will be very few mourners.

Wh…? Bu…? Huh?!!

On a less silly note from a man of faith, I was pleased to read the former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries' piece on how the majority of the Christian public ‘quickly accepted Darwin’s theory and found no incompatibility between it and their Christian faith’. I was also interested in non-scientist Justin Quirk's analysis (mostly correct, but some of which I disagree with) about Darwin's writing style. But, incorrigible Darwin groupie that I am, I was far more interested in the trivia revealed in Caroline Davies's account of Darwin's recently rediscovered Cambridge University bills.

One thing I would like to have seen in this anthology was some older Guardian pieces. This is perhaps outside the of scope of the Guardian Shorts series, which aims to be topical, but the Guardian archive must contain many interesting pieces concerning Darwin and Darwinism going all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century. I would particularly like to have read the (then) Manchester Guardian's 1860 piece entitled National and individual rapacity vindicated by the law of nature which James Randerson mentions in his introduction, with its ‘brain-aching 114 word sentence summing up how natural selection works’. But I guess I'm just a sad, old Darwin groupie.

Anyway, enough of your whinging! The Origin of Darwinism ebook costs little more than a cup of coffee, and can be downloaded in seconds. What are you waiting for?

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletter

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