Reviews

The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin by Peter Sís

Wesley Burnett

Children need heroes. Science has many. Unfortunately, few of them have lived lives as adventuresome as Robin Hood.


The Tree of Life

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Subtitle: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin
Author: #237;s
Price: $18 (US)
Display Artist: Peter Sís
Length: 44
US publication date: 2003-10
Amazon

Parents and teachers have few greater responsibilities than inculcating in our children the basic ideas of Western Civilization. In the realm of science, one way of accomplishing this is through biographies. Among the list of prospects, Charles Darwin is probably the most difficult to approach since his ideas have been, and remain even now, controversial. Peter Sís has undertaken a brave and ambitious project, a children's biography of Charles Darwin. In the The Tree of Life, Sís completes his task brilliantly and sensitively with a beautifully illustrated text based largely in Darwin's own words.

Although he came from a well-known English family, Charles didn't exactly fit in from the very start. His father hoped to make him into a medical doctor. That failing, he thought Charles might be a good minister. Charles would have none of it. He preferred shooting, riding and collecting bugs.

His studies completed, he was offered a position as a naturalist on the Beagle. Not only was this an unpaid position, but Charles had to provide for himself and pay “tuition” as well. Daddy Darwin, thinking this kid wouldn't ever settle down or amount to squat, objected in no uncertain terms. Others in the Darwin-Wedgwood clan defended the project, and Charles was off on his great life-adventure.

There follows a tale of fever, seasickness, homesickness, bug bites, death on the high seas and some on land as well, not to mention a reckoning with humankind's appalling conditions. Slavery. Spanish governors who hunt Indians for fun. There is also humor. To the great glee of the gauchos, Charles trips his own horse while trying to use a bolas and splatters himself all over Patagonia. There are also many moments where he contemplates the sublime.

And in the Galápagos there is the moment of realization. He writes, “... Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact -- that mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

Back in England, Charles divides his life into the public Darwin, the private Darwin and the secret Darwin. Publicly, Charles is a rising star in English geology and something of a celebrity. Privately, he marries his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and becomes a father. Some of his children live, others don't. He delights in the former and is tormented by the latter. He also takes to breeding pigeons, birds that will eventually perform great service in the interests of science.

Secretly, he suspects that species are not “immutable” and starts working on a theory to explain their “transmutation.” This idea, he realizes, is so “presumptuous” that he dares share it only with Emma and Joseph Hooker.

If his secret musings are ever to see the light of day and be taken at all seriously, he must establish his credentials as a “naturalist.” So, he takes a little time off (about eight years) to write about barnacles. By then, Alfred Wallace sends a paper to the Linnaean Society that argues exactly the proposition Charles has been contemplating. His friends warn Charles that he's about to be bested and a joint Darwin/Wallace presentation is developed. Everyone is bored. For awhile anyway. Then, all hell breaks loose. Wallace, himself a brilliant star in the scientific heavens, is content to study birds in the nether reaches of the British Empire. He stays out of the fray in England.

Darwin didn't invent evolution out of thin air. Folks had been playing with the idea ever since Aristotle first brought it up. But Charles defined for the first time an evolutionary process on the basis of immense and meticulous evidence. On its surface, it's pretty simple. Critters produce more offspring than they need. Those offspring vary. The most successful offspring contribute most to the next generation. That's all, folks.

Sís also makes the point that Darwin never reflected on God's role in all this. What scared us is a world that is nothing but change and a creation so long-term that we have to start thinking in terms of billions of years. And that, children, is pretty miraculous, too.

Now, parents, get this. Evolution IS the central unifying idea in biology. Your children can dissect frogs till they drop, but until they confront evolution, they've not studied biology.

Children need heroes. Science has many. Unfortunately, few of them have lived lives as adventuresome as Robin Hood or whomever. In looking for scientific heroes, Charles Darwin is the model. He couldn't fit into the mold his parents chose for him, but his filial piety was dutiful almost to a fault, particularly by today's standards. At sea, he was a loyal crewman and colleague who kept to his duties in true Victorian fashion. He was devoted to his family. He was an ambitious scientist, but tempered his ambition by being meticulous, careful and exacting.

Intellectually, he worried about the social, moral and religious implications of what he was doing. Daddy Darwin, listen! Chuck might not have become the medical doctor or minister you wanted, but he reshaped our vision of the world and did so with honor and dignity. A father could hardly ask more of a child. Even if you don't buy the ideas, Chuck's life is a model of decorum.

Of course, there is more to the story than this. The origin and evolution of Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism is a complex story full of many obscure trails and blind alleys. But your children can tackle those complexities in Intellectual History 201 when they go to state university. Between now and then, this is a solid, reasonable and beautiful initial approach to the Theory of Evolution, one of our civilization's most elegant ideas. Even if you're not a parent, but only a person who loves the natural world, you'll want a copy of this book on your shelf. It's a great book to admire on a cold winter's night when the spiders and the birds are all off doing secretive, obscure, incomprehensible things.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image