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Review: Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species
The idea of a graphic version of the Origin of Species is a good one, since many casual readers will never get through the original. This is perhaps unfortunate, but so much misinformation is available on evolution in the popular literature that any attempt to clarify Darwin’s views on evolution by natural selection has to be welcomed. A graphic format might be easier to read and understood by those who have no time to read more deeply or are casually interested, but do not want to commit more time on it than a graphic format would require. Some of this audience would certainly include students, especially in high school. Years ago I found the book Darwin for Beginners by Jonathan Miller and illustrated by Borin Van Loon (New York: Pantheon, 1990) to be a rather charming graphic account of Darwin’s ideas, and it is still available and of use in this regard. In this same genre, Rodale Press has recently published Michael Keller’s Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation.
I did not particularly like the illustrations, but tastes differ. When Nicolle Rager Fuller (the illustrator) concentrates on animals, she does very well, but her people sometimes are a bit strange. While I don’t think the illustrations are up to more rigorous scientific standards, they are more than adequate for a book of this nature.
However, the main point is that the theory of natural selection is well covered and I think pretty well explained in Keller’s book. Compared to Miller, Keller concentrates more on the basic ideas in each chapter of the Origin and less on the historical and philosophical background. His treatment of modern ideas in regard to evolution is also more up–to–date. Starting in part 2 on page 41, after 34 pages of background, Keller goes through each chapter of the Origin, briefly summarizing the evidence and arguments used by Darwin. These summaries are generally accurate and present the reader with at least the main ideas involved, although some topics get lesser treatments than others. The discussions of variation under domestication, the difficulties of the theory, geographical distribution, and mutual affinities of organic beings, are especially well done. The last chapter brings the reader up to the present with short panels on Mendel and genetics, the Synthetic Theory, genes and the discovery of DNA as the blueprint for life, jumping genes, and punctuated equilibrium, among others.
I have a few gripes, which primarily have to do with content. For some reason, Keller apparently used later editions of the Origin in which Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” was added. Darwin did not invent this phrase and it was not in the first edition. The phrase, while accurate if “fit” is understood to apply to any adaptation that works to allow an individual to reproduce, does not necessarily mean that the strong overcome the weak; Spencer’s phrase has unfortunately been used to imply that there are “inferior” peoples because they do not fit preconceived notions of superiority. It would have been wise for Keller to explain this if he was going to use a later edition of the Origin.
I can also quibble with the fact that while Keller abruptly introduces Emma Darwin as Charles’s wife on page 26, he never really explains her background or the circumstances of their marriage (they were first cousins, which concerned him later because of problems that he perceived with inbreeding). Also unaddressed is her religious faith (she was a devout Unitarian) and how it affected their relationship. The death of Annie, their beloved daughter, discussed on page 31, apparently caused Emma to doubt her beliefs; when Darwin died, Emma refuted the rumor that he had recanted his agnosticism on his deathbed. These are important points to discuss if Emma and Annie are introduced, and I felt they were given short shrift.
There were several other places in the book where new subjects seemed to be introduced without much in the way of a connection to what went before, and some important points about modern theory were glossed over in my view, but in a book of this nature some information has to be omitted.
Finally, I found an unfortunate error on page 14: Robert Chambers’s and John Henslow’s occupations are reversed. Chambers was a journalist and author (Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation) and Henslow was a botanist and geologist, as well as mentor to the young Darwin. The reader should not expect an in–depth treatment in what is essentially a comic book, but these were errors that could have been easily avoided.
That said, Keller has produced a mostly accurate and reasonably complete book that introduces the intelligent layperson to the principles of and evidence for evolution by natural selection. It certainly will serve as a good introduction for high school students or for an introductory course for non–biology majors in college. Those who want more depth to the background information on Darwin’s life would do well to read Janet Browne’s two volumes on the subject, and those who would like more detail about Darwin’s arguments should read a reprint of the first edition of the Origin. But the more casual reader will find a reasonably good synopsis of the theory and its more modern developments within the pages of this book. It is to these readers that I recommend this slim volume, with the minor reservations mentioned above.