Darwin’s Evolving Identity

Darwin's evolving identity x2My first book offers a new explanation for Charles Darwin’s apparent caution in publishing On the Origin of Species, which appeared more than two decades after he privately developed his first theories of evolution by natural selection. Whereas this restraint is often attributed to Darwin’s fear of admitting that he was an evolutionist, I argue that what concerned him most was not the potentially transgressive topic, evolution, but the transgression of publishing any theoretical book. The one other time he had tried to do so, as a young man using his theory of coral reef formation to offer an ambitious account of the history of the earth and its inhabitants, the public criticism of his “speculations” distressed him and destroyed his geological publishing strategy. Meanwhile he viewed his private speculations on species as an exhilarating distraction from the challenge of fulfilling his publishing obligations to the geological community. He plotted a conservative course for finishing his geological publications and privately bolstering the species theory, aiming to protect himself (and eventually his species theory) from charges of rash speculation. My book is a study of scientific authorship, of theorizing in natural history, and of the importance of mentorship in science. I offer a new interpretation of Darwin’s first major theory, on the origin of coral reefs and atolls, as well as his evolutionary theory, and I reveal the important roles played by Darwin’s Beagle shipmates and by the geologist Charles Lyell in shaping his methods of fieldwork, theorizing, and publishing.

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From reviews of Darwin’s Evolving Identity:

“Alistair Sponsel’s first book, Darwin’s Evolving Identity, [is] an important contribution to Darwin studies that is beautifully and fluently written. As the book’s title makes clear, its main concern is with Darwin’s ‘identity’, a term which Sponsel acknowledges is problematic and ambiguous, but is nevertheless the easiest way to capture the tension between Darwin’s self-perception and his reputation (and his conscious desire to shape and reshape the latter) . . . . Sponsel’s superb book shows very clearly that there were numerous Darwinian publics and thus many public Darwins.” Jim Endersby, Annals of Science

“Sponsel resoundingly succeeds in his effort to reevaluate Darwin, making an important contribution to understanding Darwin as a scientific practitioner and as a writer . . . . The book is clearly argued at every level, making plain along the way where and how it engages historiography and primary sources, in a way that is engaging and even elegant.” Penelope Hardy, Endeavour

“Scholarship is hugely more fun and productive if one has something against which to define one’s own position. Not just in science. Could Aristotle have produced his philosophy without Plato’s Theory of Forms to counter? Am I lining up Alistair Sponsel for false praise? Absolutely not. Darwin’s Evolving Identity is one of the most interesting books on Darwin that I have read in a long time. I do, however, think it wrongheaded and I would be a liar if I did not say I enjoyed that aspect immensely . . . . I learned so much from this volume and have so much respect for the author that, perhaps after all, he is right and I am wrong.” Michael Ruse, Quarterly Review of Biology

“One of the triumphs of Sponsel’s book is to shift utterly the way that we should think about Darwin’s theories and publications . . . . This is an acutely original and well-researched treatise that provides an often astonishing perspective on the development of Darwin’s mind and character as a scientist. It is also a greatly profitable read, regardless of your familiarity with Darwin and his scientific and social culture. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a great deal from it. Highest recommendation!” Kevin Padian, BioScience

“Alistair Sponsel is the ideal author to provide this fresh interpretation of Darwin’s work . . . . While others have written about the relationship between [Charles] Lyell and Darwin, Sponsel adds detailed reports of substance of the discussions between the two men. As Sponsel describes it, their relationship became so intense at points that Darwin came to fear that he was being drawn into releasing opinions of a theoretical nature that would come back to haunt him. Sponsel makes the intriguing suggestion that Darwin drew back partly by turning to, what was for him at the time, the less troubling topic of evolution. Sponsel discusses this point in his chapter “The Life of a Tormented Geologist (and Enthusiastic Evolutionist).” It is an interesting point, with merit.” Sandra Herbert, Earth Sciences History

“Recommended” Choice