I have always found pleasure in Charles Darwin as a writer of vigorous prose, apart from his obvious accomplishments as a scientist. I see him as of those ambitious, larger-than-life, hyper-energetic Victorians – think of Ruskin, Dickens, Eliot – with the temerity to conquer worlds and who, by doing so, create new worlds of their own. I have almost finished reading The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen, who wrote The Song Of the Dodo, one of the best science books ever written for non-scientific readers. Quammen is gracious enough to describe Janet Browne’s two-volume biography of Darwin as “magisterial,” and his goal is not to challenge Browne’s eminence but to provide a brief (304 pages) but detailed life.
After acknowledging The Origin of Species as “one of the most influential books ever written,” exceeded only by the Bible, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, “and a few other scriptural texts that have inspired millions of people to piety and bloodshed,” and placing it in the revolutionary company of works by Copernicus, Newton and Einstein, Quammen writes:
“Unlike those other great works of science, though, The Origin of Species is a book written in plain everyday language and meant by its author to speak to any attentive reader. Some of its grammatical constructions are a bit sinuous in the Victorian style; much of its writing is clear and crisp. Darwin was inconsistent as a literary stylist, sometimes bad, sometimes good, but even when bad he wasn’t esoteric. Occasionally he just tried to put too much into a single sentence, a run-on construction with syllogistic premises, qualifications, facts, stipulations, and conclusions all linked together by semicolons and dashes like a giant protein molecule folding back on itself. Once in a while he wrote something beautiful and brilliant. Mostly he was an amiable explainer and narrator presenting one of the more astonishing tales ever told.”
This is a fair and insightful estimate of Darwin’s prose – fair, because the biologist occasionally indulged in the Victorian sin of garrulousness, a failing that might in his case might be attributed, in part, to a surfeit of thought. Darwin saw more than most people and made more connections. Insightful, because Quammen describes Darwin as a storyteller, and evolution by natural selection is a great, endlessly told story. Likening one of Darwin’s sentences to a protein folding is brilliant. Here’s an example of that serviceable-but-attractive prose, chosen randomly from Chapter V, “Bahia Blanca,” of The Voyage of the Beagle. Darwin has been cataloging the fauna of Argentina:
“The Trigonocephalus has, therefore, in some respects the structure of a viper, with the habits of a rattlesnake: the noise, however, being produced by a simpler device. The expression on this snake’s face was hideous and fierce; the pupil consisted of a vertical slit in a mottled and coppery iris; the jaws were broad at the base, and the nose terminated in a triangular projection. I do not think I ever saw any thing more ugly, excepting, perhaps, some of the vampire bats. I imagine this repulsive aspect originates from the features being placed in positions, with respect to each other, somewhat proportional to those of the human face; and thus we obtain a scale of hideousness.”