The Young Charles Darwin


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Keith Thomson

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On the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, a new investigation of Darwin’s early years and how he arrived at his revolutionary ideas

What sort of person was the young naturalist who developed an evolutionary idea so logical, so dangerous, that it has dominated biological science for a century and a half? How did the quiet and shy Charles Darwin produce his theory of natural selection when many before him had started down the same path but failed? This book is the first to inquire into the range of influences and ideas, the mentors and rivals, and the formal and informal education that shaped Charles Darwin and prepared him for his remarkable career of scientific achievement.

Keith Thomson concentrates on Darwin’s early life as a schoolboy, a medical student at Edinburgh, a theology student at Cambridge, and a naturalist aboard the Beagle on its famous five-year voyage. Closely analyzing Darwin’s Autobiography and scientific notebooks, the author draws a fully human portrait of Darwin for the first time: a vastly erudite and powerfully ambitious individual, self-absorbed but lacking self-confidence, hampered as much as helped by family, and sustained by a passion for philosophy and logic. Thomson’s account of the birth and maturing of Darwin’s brilliant theory is fascinating for the way it reveals both his genius as a scientist and the human foibles and weaknesses with which he mightily struggled.

Keith Thomson is professor emeritus of natural history, University of Oxford, and senior research fellow, the American Philosophical Society. He is also the author of more than 200 scientific papers and twelve books. Thomson lives in Philadelphia.

“Keith Thomson's fresh and lively account will surely bring Darwin back into focus as an exceptional scholar, traveler, family man, and author. Highly recommended.”—Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

"I don't think that there is a book of this kind anywhere in Darwiniana, and that gap is surprising given how critical Keith’s insights are into the development of Darwin’s thought. . . . I sincerely hope that it won't get lost in the flood of Darwiniana scheduled for publication next year, because it will certainly be one of the most authoritative efforts.  It should be very heavily publicized and marketed, in my view."—Kevin Padian, University of California, Berkeley

“The image of Darwin as the doddering old sage of Down, taking his daily constitutional walks about the backyard sand path thinking deep thoughts about the philosophical implications of evolution, has become so iconic that we forget what he was like in his youth and prime. Keith Thomson has brilliantly resurrected the young Charles Darwin, revealing the inchoate mind of a genius in the early stages of countless starts and stops, hunches and hypotheses. This compelling narrative reminds us of how creativity and insight really begin.”—Michael Shermer, Publisher Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist Scientific American, author of Why Darwin Matters 

"Keith Thomson’s Young Darwin is a fine book, a real contribution to the literature. He lays out, perhaps more thoroughly than anyone ever has done, the scientific context, the intellectual environment at Edinburgh, the relationship between the development of geology and theories about the living world, the philosophical and epistemological underpinnings, the wide-ranging collection of ‘facts’ about the natural world, the various theories and classification systems that were current during Darwin’s youth, his experiences with medical training, the authors that influenced him. I have never seen a Darwin biography with such a richly detailed account of the scientific and educational milieu in which the young naturalist was nurtured and that formed the basis for his ideas and achievements. And the whole is written in the flowing, accessible, entertaining, nontechnical style that has graced Thomson’s other books."—Richard Milner, author of Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z

"… a readable and very detailed account of Darwin’s early years and the influences that shaped him." - Jim Endersby, Sunday Telegraph ‘Seven’, 8th February 2009

"Thomson delivers a lively account of how this naive young student became the iconoclastic bearer of 'the most dangerous idea of the past two hundred years.' . . . Drawing on his letters, diary entries and autobiographical work as well as his public intellectual struggles, Thomson's angle on Darwin's early life is fresh and vivid."—Publishers Weekly

"Thomson, who manages to be stylish, scholarly and entertaining all at the same time, investigates Darwin's early years and how he arrived at his revolutionary ideas."—Scientific American

“Thomson ably charts the concept of ‘transformism’…to ultimate formulation.” - Jonathan Keates, The Spectator

“…a subtle and scrupulous account of what Darwin learned as a young man…and how this differed from what he was prepared, as an old sage, to admit to having been taught.” - Andrew Brown, The New Statesman

“It has always irked me that Darwin is known by the iconic image of him as a bearded ancient being, when his world-changing ideas came to him as a virile young man. Happily, this book redresses the balance.” - Rowan Hooper, New Scientist

"More accessible than previous weighty volumes on the great scientist…Thomson qualifies the conventional image of Darwin as an altruistic scientists and family man."—Jonathan Sale, Cambridge Alumni Magazine

“What we have here is not just a specific study of how Darwin came to write what he did but a general study into the working of a mind.”--Contemporary Review

"[In] this well-written and interesting book, Thomson works out and demonstrates in detail the education of Charles Darwin. He removes that apparent discrepancy between the "ordinary boy" and the man buried in Westminster Abbey nearby that other English genius, Isaac Newton."—Léo F Laporte, Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"[The Young Charles Darwin] is no mere retelling of the familiar story of Darwin's years at Edinburgh, Cambridge, and aboard the Beagle.  Perhaps the book's greatest strength is Thomson's analysis of early intellectual influences on Darwin. . . . Thomson's writing style is fluid and engaging and his grasp of the Darwinian literature encyclopedic.  His scholarly thoroughness is balanced by his very human appreciation for a very human scientist. . . . Highly recommended." —R. Gilmour, Choice

"Thomson's The Young Charles Darwin is written in a highly accessible style that will appeal to a wide range of readers...There is much of value here."--Catherine Day and James G. Lennox, Review Forum on Charles Darwin and Darwiniana
ISBN: 9780300167894
Publication Date: October 19, 2010
288 pages, x
5 b/w illus.
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