Friday, April 23, 2010

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

“In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper. He had been back in England for almost tow years, after a monumental voyage around the world. He was in his late twenties. It was time to decide. Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry on the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question.”
(Charles and Emma, p 5)

Thus opens Deborah Heiligman award winning book about Charles and Emma Darwin. How can you not want to read on after reading an opening like that? This humorous little scrap of paper still exists! Who knew that a boring scientist could be so hilarious and intriguing?

I have to stay that I absolutely adored this book, but first off I should make clear that it is a biography, and not a historical fiction novel. The biography specifically focuses on Charles Darwin and his wife (and cousin) Emma Wedgewood, and they life that they built together. They really did love one another and lived a happy life, but their views differed greatly on the topic of religion.

I think the author did well at representing how Darwin was a moral man, and even at one point a man of faith, but how he slowly changed his views of religion and God. He was a man, who thought seriously about the world, and his science, and how his theories would affect the scientific community at large. It also portrayed how hard it was for his wife Emma to know that he did not have a stronger faith.

I like how the author shows how Darwin’s contemporaries—family, friends, and other scientists—reacted to his theories. In particular, I like how she included Darwin’s correspondence with Asa Gray, who was a strong supporter of the evolution theory, and maintained that it did not necessarily have to take God out of creation. It was nice to know about those who objected to the theory on a religious basis, and those that agreed to the theory as atheist or agnostics, and those, similar to Asa Gray, that took a route in the middle. As a result, I as a reader felt that book encouraged a more opened-minded dialogue about how religion and science relate to one another. The author’s tone played fair to religion and science alike.

While I really liked how the author treated the eternal religion v.s. science debate I think my enjoyment of the biography was increased by the fact that I love this time period, and that I really do love studying nature and understanding how it works on a macroscopic level. I loved hearing about how Charles Darwin would compare how his children’s expressions of excitement to how animals expressed excitement. It was hilarious to read one of Emma’s letters about how he was trying to train worms with huge leafs of lettuce.

Overall, I really enjoyed this biography and would recommend it to all. I feel readers of many different opinions on the subject could read it and come away enlightened about the topic of evolution. In fact the book points out some of the misinterpretations and misunderstandings that surround the theory. There are a few pages that deal with Charles Darwin’s analysis of animal mating practices and how that was similar to how humans react to one another in a romantic way that could be slightly offensive to parents who have younger readers. So, while the book is for the most part family friendly, the book really is geared towards teens and older.

Author's Website


Andy Lemmon said...

Sounds interesting. I'll have to suggest it for book club.

Gamila said...

It probably would be an excellent book to read for book clubs. It would bring up interesting discussions about science and has enough of a romancey angle that people not interested in the science would be interested in the human element.