Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman.
Henry Holt and Company: NY, 2009.
Printz Honor Award

The focus of this biography is Charles Darwin's adulthood, primarily his married life, but also showing his own struggle with the subject he chose to study. After returning from his world trip on the Beagle, Charles set about cataloging his specimens and mailing some to experts who could verify his own suspicions of rarity. Even before he decided to marry, he realized the importance of his independence for his career and that he would be lucky to find a wife (in that time period) who would accept the controversial material he was compelled to study.

The newish field of biological study, which included the collecting and comparing of specimens, was in fact leading biologists towards the understanding that species do change over time. He was not the only one to come to this understanding on his own, though he also used his observations of people and pets to form his views. Unfortunately, this was counter to the Christian world view of the time. Darwin knew the difficult decision he had to make for himself regarding the contradiction. So it would be that much harder for others to accept, because either they were more religious than him or they were not looking at variations of creatures day after day. Then, after coming to the conclusion that his theory was right, to publicize the knowledge in such a hostile environment was something he feared to do. He delayed publishing his theories for about twenty years, partly because he wanted them to be irrefutable, but also somewhat out of fear of the public's reaction.

Darwin found a wife who respected his work, his cousin Emma, but she also did worry about the contradictions between his work and religion. They had a happy marriage, but he exhibited recurring illnesses, which likely were related to his anxiety over his work and his fear that it would not be accepted. Partly because Emma could not embrace his views. He was compelled to do the work, because to him it was incontrovertible. But knowing oneself and broadcasting the knowledge are two different things. It took another biologist publishing a very similar belief to motivate him to finally publish his work.

I like Heiligman's approach to Darwin's life and work. Nowadays this subject is still seen mostly as the contradiction between science and religion, with little of the actual work involved in the discussion. It is good to see the struggle within the man himself and interactions with his friends, family and colleagues on the subject. It is also good to have some clarifications about the religious environment of the time, to see past beliefs that have changed (like the idea that God created each species as unchangeable). It is important to understand that some of his work can be accepted by all, even if the whole of evolution theory is not accepted for religious or other reasons.

For me, there was a little too much focus on Emma's resistance to Charles' theories. It was reiterated too many times, but I like that the book centered around the idea, because her concerns are the crux of why his work is still not accepted by many. As open as she was to her husband, she still feared to accept his evidence. Also, the religious and social climate was so different then than now. Religion permeated all of life for so many. I think it is important for people to see how much our beliefs have changed since then, whether we are religious or not.

related-Charles Darwin, Emma Wedgwood Darwin, naturalists, evolution, British history, The Origin of Species

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