The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory
By Edward J. Larson
(Modern Library, Hardcover, 9780679642886, 368pp.)
Publication Date: May 4, 2004
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“I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking.” So wrote Charles Darwin aboard The Beagle, bound for the Galapagos Islands and what would arguably become the greatest and most controversial discovery in scientific history. But the theory of evolution did not spring full-blown from the head of Darwin. Since the dawn of humanity, priests, philosophers, and scientists have debated the origin and development of life on earth, and with modern science, that debate shifted into high gear.
In this lively, deeply erudite work, Pulitzer Prize–winning science historian Edward J. Larson takes us on a guided tour of Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” from its theoretical antecedents in the early nineteenth century to the brilliant breakthroughs of Darwin and Wallace, to Watson and Crick’s stunning discovery of the DNA double helix, and to the triumphant neo-Darwinian synthesis and rising sociobiology today.
Along the way, Larson expertly places the scientific upheaval of evolution in cultural perspective: the social and philosophical earthquake that was the French Revolution; the development, in England, of a laissez-faire capitalism in tune with a Darwinian ethos of “survival of the fittest”; the emergence of Social Darwinism and the dark science of eugenics against a backdrop of industrial revolution; the American Christian backlash against evolutionism that culminated in the famous Scopes trial; and on to today’s world, where religious fundamentalists litigate for the right to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in U.S. public schools, even as the theory itself continues to evolve in new and surprising directions.
Throughout, Larson trains his spotlight on the lives and careers of the scientists, explorers, and eccentrics whose collaborations and competitions have driven the theory of evolution forward. Here are portraits of Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, Galton, Huxley, Mendel, Morgan, Fisher, Dobzhansky, Watson and Crick, W. D. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, and many others. Celebrated as one of mankind’s crowning scientific achievements and reviled as a threat to our deepest values, the theory of evolution has utterly transformed our view of life, religion, origins, and the theory itself, and remains controversial, especially in the United States (where 90% of adults do not subscribe to the full Darwinian vision). Replete with fresh material and new insights, Evolution will educate and inform while taking readers on a fascinating journey of discovery.
EDWARD J. LARSON is Russell Professor of History and Talmadge Professor of Law at the University of Georgia. He is the recipient of multiple awards for teaching and writing, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. His most recent book is Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands. His articles have appeared in dozens of journals including The Atlantic Monthly, Nature, The Nation, and Scientific American.
"Infectious good reading. The prose is limpid, the chapters are luminous."
—James Moore, co-author of Darwin
“The history of evolutionary science from the 18th-century to the present is a history of controversies and seemingly incompatible views. It takes an author like Ed Larson to provide an account of this crucial history. . . .The reader will be rewarded by an intellectual delight.”
"Larson masterfully takes us from the 18th century French enlightenment to the 21st century evolution wars. From Buffon and Cuvier, through Darwin and Wallace, to Dawkins, Gould, and Wilson, he provides a scholarly, readable history of the ups and downs of the theory of evolution. Larson shows us how firmly this theory is established, as firmly as Einstein's theory of relativity."
—Duncan M. Porter, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project
"Larson has written a brilliant introduction to the history of evolution, equally sensitive to scientific, religious, and social factors. It is, hands down, the most readable and reliable account available."
—Ronald L. Numbers, Hilldale and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine. Department of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin
"Ed Larson is both a historian and a writer who knows how to bring his subject alive. In Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory he combines the latest historical scholarship with an understanding of recent issues in science, religion and social debate. This powerful book will help everyone understand the foundations of modern evolutionary ideas and the origins of the latest controversies."
—Peter J. Bowler, Queens University Belfast
"An indispensable guide to the sometimes weird, but always wonderful, world of Evolution. Every species inhabiting this contested territory is here: Darwinian materialists, Lamarckian progressivists, hopeful-monster mutationists, theistic evolutionists, neo-vitalists, six-day creationists, mathematical geneticists, intelligent designers, molecular reductionists and on and on. Yet this is no monochrome chronicle of disengaged scientific ideas. It is a rich and compelling narrative portrayed in glorious technicolour, as grand and sweeping in scope as the theory of evolution itself. In the struggle for shelf-life among publications on evolution, Edward Larson?s book is superbly fitted for long-term survival."
—David N. Livingstone, author of Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought
“Larson’s acclaimed gifts as a writer who can make the history of science exciting to a wide audience are visible again. The story, which takes seriously the cultural meanings of new science, has many twists and turns and is told with humor and vivacity.”
—JOHN HEDLEY BROOKE, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion, University of Oxford