Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Great books remain relevant for a reason – because they teach us something. They better us; broaden our understanding of the world and its many fascinating inhabitants. And for that reason they deserve to be re-introduced, from time to time, so they may find in this vast ocean of distractions, some few new fertile islets upon which to propagate. One such enduring saga is Irving Stone’s 1980 exploration of the life of Charles Darwin, The Origin. So much more than a fictional biography of one of the greatest minds who ever lived, it serves to immerse us in his world and enable us to understand better the true heights of his genius and courage. It lays bare the distinctly human aspect of the man himself through an exploration of his fears and insecurities over his own writing, and how the world may ultimately perceive him.
More than a century and a half after the publication of Darwin’s highly controversial, On the Origin of Species, there remains as animated a debate as in Darwin’s own time over its implications. Nowhere is this more evident than in the movement in some States’ schools to suppress even the merest exposure of our children to such theories, for fear they might take hold on those delicate minds and stamp out, once and for all, that most cherished of possessions – ignorance. Stone’s approach to the material is purely as an impartial observer. He delves admirably into the lives and work of all the leading men of science of the time, whether in favor of or violently opposed to Darwin’s theories, while at the same time painting such a moving and endearing portrait of Darwin’s family and personal relations, and his lifelong struggles with his health, that the reader truly feels a connection to the man whose name we have all known since childhood; the name that has become, whether it was his intention or not, synonymous with the decline of religion’s domain over science. The reader feels keenly the doubts that Darwin harbored, and the fears he justifiably maintained for his family’s safety as he debated within himself, over the course of twenty long years of diligent study, whether the world was ready for the truths which he had unwittingly unearthed, and whether he himself had the courage to unleash them.
Stone was a writer well known for his thorough researching of historical figures, having already by this time published to critical acclaim fictional biographies of Vincent Van Gogh (Lust for Life) and Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy) to name but a few. In fact, my only criticism of this novel may well be that it is too thorough, and those with less interest in the subject than I foster may well be mired in the Amazonian mud early on in the descriptions of the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. But if one perseveres, evolves with the reading of the material, it becomes clear how necessary the details have been in allowing us to understand the germination of Darwin’s radical theories from the simplest observation of parasitic Chilean barnacles, to the omnipresent image of those Galapagos finches. We are witness to the transmutation of Darwin himself – from a naïve and untested amateur naturalist of only twenty-two at the commencement of the HMS Beagle’s 5-year hydrographic voyage, to the revolutionary thinker and astonishingly prolific writer he would become. Who knew, for example, that Darwin penned 25 books in all, on such varied subjects as the classifications and variations of the world’s barnacles, earthworms and insectivorous plants, through the Descent of Man himself. All of these seemingly random and varied researches were connected, in Darwin’s mind, as explorations and further proofs of his one great theory of evolution. All his life he endeavored, with unfathomable energy, to delve so deeply and so profoundly into the very bedrock of the world’s mysteries, so far beyond any who had come before him, that there should be no doubt but that his theories were true; that even his detractors, for he knew there would be many, would find unstable and precarious footing no matter how, or from which hillock of antiquated knowledge they endeavored to attack him. That one man could have cast his net so widely, and with such bounty, to have written so extensively on such varied topics, is almost beyond comprehension. And yet Stone’s admirable research and fluid, at times poignantly witty dialogue manage to bring Darwin and his odd cast of fellow conspirators fairly leaping off the page to lie, no doubt in some distant epoch, fossilized in our brains.