Darwin in a Nutshell (audiobook)

This is a sparkling introduction to the great naturalist's milieu and the evolution of his ideas, says Christina Hardyment

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Reviewed by: Christina Hardyment
Author: Peter Whitfield (written and read)
Publisher: Naxos
Price (RRP): £8.99

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Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution simmered for over 20 years before going into print: “What can be more curious than that the hand of man formed for grasping, that of a mole formed for digging, the leg of a horse, the paddle of a porpoise and the wing of a bat should all be constructed on the same pattern and should include similar bones in the same relative positions?”

Today, 200 years after his birth and 150 after publication of The Origin of the Species, we are more, rather than less, impressed by his achievement. Darwin in a Nutshell is a quick way of getting an overview of the self-effacing naturalist who altered the physical and spiritual orientation of mankind.

Full of direct quotes, illuminating details and lively touches, it explains the personal circumstances that made Darwin’s life as a naturalist possible: a personal fortune inherited from one grandfather, ceramics-maker Josiah Wedgewood; and an interest in nature and elegant way with words inherited from the other, poetical botanist Erasmus Darwin. It also sketches in the intellectual climate of the day as scientists and divines struggled to accommodate geology and Genesis (dinosaurs were explained away as having missed Noah’s boat).

In 1831 came the seminal voyage to the South Seas on the scientific survey ship HMS Beagle, after which Darwin discreetly developed theories that he must have known to be theological dynamite despite his avoidance of any mention of man. Forced to publish – or cede fame to Alfred Wallace – in 1859, he was cursed by the bishops, and acclaimed by Karl Marx. Well-protected by his wife, he tucked his head down while the war of words raged around him.

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Whitfield winds up by reviewing the development of the debate on evolution via Spencer and Mendel to DNA and Teilhard de Chardin.