[This page printed from http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/BerraReviewForRNSCE]
[To be published in Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Berkeley, California.]
Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man by Tim M. Berra (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 144 pages. $19.95 hardcover.
Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man is an excellent and well-written book. Had I not received a copy for review I would have immediately purchased it to add to my own collection of Darwin and Darwin-related items. Tim Berra, a professor emeritus of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology at The Ohio State University, was too modest when he wrote this is "not original Darwin scholarship, but a synthesis of existing essential information." That is the equivalent of writing, "this review consists of letters and words from the English alphabet and has nothing original to add for the readers." Truly, it is all in how one strings the information together and Berra has done masterful work, providing a lively and succinct account of Darwin's life that will provide an excellent introduction for the new reader who is interested in Darwin as well as a helpful review for knowledgeable Darwin enthusiasts!
The Concise Story developed out of a series of lectures Berra gave on Darwin (after his book entitled Evolution and the Myth of Creationism was published in 1990) and although The Concise Story is a slim volume (only fourteen chapters and several chapters are but two pages), it is a volume rich with detailed information and excellent photographs (some in color). Just as this reviewer has been both to Down House and the Galápagos Islands and has taken extensive photographs, Berra has included some of his own first-hand photographs of these seminal locations in Darwin's life. The Concise Story also contains several color plates of paintings from locations in the United Kingdom, such as a portrait of Erasmus Darwin (Grandfather of Charles Darwin), as well as the earliest portrait of a seven-year-old Charles Darwin with his sister Catherine, and a portrait of Robert FitzRoy (of HMS Beagle fame). Berra has also included numerous black-and-white illustrations from the time of Darwin, including a photograph of Darwin's funeral ticket from April 26, 1882. While Darwin enthusiasts may have already seen some of the illustrations that are reproduced in The Concise Story and are easily familiar with Darwin's history (from his early years and travels to his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood and finally to his death in 1882), Berra has woven the most important events and personalities involved in Charles Darwin's life into an excellent "Concise Story" and the dimunitive volume (complete with four appendices, 118 references, and index) is an outstanding publication. (Several of the references are also identified by Berra as recommended reading.)
The Appendices are Books, Chronology, Darwin Online, and Dates. "Dates" provides the years that various individuals mentioned in the text were born and died, and "Chronology" traces events in Darwin's life from his birth of February 12, 1809, until his death on April 18, 1882, and his eventual burial in Westminster Abbey on the 26th of that month. The four items listed in "Darwin Online" are but a fraction of the Darwin information available on the World Wide Web, but an important fraction, as Berra provides the address for the Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online (http://darwin-online.org.uk/).
The "Books" Appendix consists of an annotated bibliography of eighteen of Darwin's publications. Although Berra does point out that Darwin's celebrated Origin (first published in 1859) was revised and re-published in five subsequent editions (through 1872) and that "the 1876 printing of the sixth edition is considered the first issue of the definitive text," this reviewer always points out that a significant change that Darwin made was between the first edition of 1859 and the second edition of 1860. In that second edition, Darwin's closing words were:
"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator [emphasis added] into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
I believe that the significance of this 1860 paragraph stems from the fact that in the first edition of 1859 Darwin did not have "by the Creator" in this paragraph. I also believe this is important for an understanding of Darwin since Darwin retained that paragraph in all of the editions that were published in his lifetime. Although there is an on-going controversy as to which particular edition of Origin is the "best" one to read, the reader of this review should consider the fact that Darwin did not remove the word "Creator" in editions three, four, five, and six published in his lifetime. What paperback or hardback edition of Darwin is the reader of this review most familiar with? Who is the "real" Darwin that you think you know and lecture about?
Early in the book, Berra explains, "The aim is to show not only that Charles Darwin was one of the most important men who ever lived but also that he was a good man &emdash; a decent human being who had a wonderful family life" (p x). Certainly I have always shared Berra's esteem for Darwin both as a scientist and as a human being, and I needed no convincing on that score. But I am glad to have had the benefit of his concise and lucid biography, which amply accomplishes its aim.
If you wish to read but one book to develop your own understanding of Darwin, or if you wish to give someone a book to learn about Darwin, this concise story by Tim Berra is the book!