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A Darwin roundup

A new biography shows how Darwin's theory of evolution was inspired by his experiences of human slavery and desire to show our common humanity.

February 08, 2009|M.G. Lord | Lord is the author of "Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science" and "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll."

Thank God for Evolution

How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World

Michael Dowd

Viking: 432 pp., $24.95

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Evolution

The First Four Billion Years

Edited by Michael Ruse

and Joseph Travis

Belknap Press: 1,008 pp., $39.95

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 15, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Charles Darwin: In a Feb. 8 review of several books about the life and work of Charles Darwin, the family name of Darwin's relatives, the Wedgwoods, was misspelled as Wedgewood.

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Only a Theory

Evolution and the Battle

for America's Soul

Kenneth R. Miller

Viking: 256 pp., $25.95

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Darwin's Sacred Cause

How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution

Adrian Desmond and James Moore

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 486 pp., $30

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Darwin

A Life in Poems

Ruth Padel

Alfred A. Knopf: 128 pp., $26

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Two hundred years after his birth, English scientist Charles Darwin, author of "On the Origin of Species," is a powerful global brand. To commemorate his bicentennial, the "Darwin industry" -- as Cambridge historian Martin J.S. Rudwick terms it -- has been in high gear, generating books, papers, greeting cards, T-shirts, car ornaments and, of course, fresh scholarship. Surprisingly, it has not generated much controversy -- except in the United States, which has a stubborn contingent of religious fundamentalists who maintain that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

Yet they too may soon be won over, if Michael Dowd, author of "Thank God for Evolution," has his way. Dowd is a Christian evangelical minister; his wife, Connie Barlow, an atheistic science writer. Their marriage evokes a Hollywood romantic comedy. After being "born again" and receiving a master of divinity at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dowd met Barlow, author of two books with "evolution" in their titles, at a cosmology lecture. Against all odds, they fell in love and found a mission: to travel around the country preaching that evolution is indeed God's plan.

Today the couple has no permanent residence. Dowd thumps "Origin of Species" as ardently as the Bible. His movement's logo is a Christian fish smooching a Darwin amphibian (which, if you can bear its cuteness, can be purchased on a baseball cap at ThankGodForEvolution.com).

Dowd's writing has the cheesy tone of a self-help book; his gooiest chapter is a workbook of "Evolutionary Integrity Practices" that parallel the "steps" of 12-step recovery programs. Yet one can forgive such tackiness if Dowd persuades but a single extremist to heed physicist Sean B. Carroll: "Biology without evolution is like physics without gravity."

A more rigorous history of the conflict between dogma and science can be found in "Evolution: The First Four Billion Years," a comprehensive essay collection edited by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis. For a personal perspective, Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, offers "Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul." In 2005, Miller served as an expert witness in a trial in Dover, Pa., where creationists sought to replace the teaching of science with that of mythology.

But if you read only one book to honor the bicentennial, make it "Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution." This first-rate work breaks new ground and persuasively locates the inspiration for Darwin's theory in his abolitionism. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, the book's authors, published a much-lauded biography of Darwin in 1991. But after examining previously unavailable material -- ships' logs, letters, journals, marginalia in Darwin's library -- they rethought their conclusions. Published in 1859, "On the Origin of Species," which detailed animal evolution, antedated "The Descent of Man" by 12 years. Darwin deliberately purged references to "human races and ape ancestry" from it. But critics knew the book was "really about mankind."

Darwin grew up amid anti-slavery societies -- some started by his free-thinking grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin (the philandering doctor) and Josiah Wedgewood (the Unitarian industrialist). His mother's family also worked against slavery, viewing abolitionism as a core Christian belief.

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The origins of 'Origin'

Some biographies dismiss Darwin's first year of medical school as uneventful. Edinburgh, where he studied, was not as rigorous as Cambridge and was overrun with wacky phrenologists, who believed character was revealed by head bumps. But Desmond and Moore see that year as a turning point: Darwin apprenticed with a "Blackamoor" -- a former slave -- to learn taxidermy. He also learned respect for the intelligence and humanity of his tutor.

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