What about Darwin?

Thomas F. Glick, What about Darwin? All Species of Opinion from Scientists, Sages, Friends, and Enemies Who Met, Read, and Discussed the Naturalist Who Changed the World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2010). $29.95, 552 pages.

What I hoped this book would be is a sort of Bartlett’s Darwin Quotations, containing both friendly and hostile quotes about the man and his theory. As such, the book would be a useful compendium for writers looking for a piquant quote to make their point. Unfortunately, my hope for this book is unrealized.

What about Darwin?
is indeed a book of quotes about Darwin by friendly and hostile sources, but its usefulness lies elsewhere. If you are a historian looking into the reception-history of Darwin’s ideas, as well as primary sources describing the man, this is the first book you need to read. Thomas F. Glick organizes the quotes by last name and puts an asterix next to the names of people quoted elsewhere in the text. This allows the reader to uncover the social networks in 19th-century England and North America that helped disseminate Darwin’s ideas, and critiques of those ideas.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, many of the quotes have little usefulness beyond that limited purpose. Take, for example, the entry on P.T. Barnum. Barnum, described as an “American Circus Impressario,” was eminently quotable. Glick doesn’t quote Barnum on Darwin, however. He quotes George Templeton Strong and an advertisement about Barnum’s “What is IT?” exhibit, as well as the April 18, 1873, issue of the Brooklyn Eagle on Barnum’s contribution to natural history. As illustration of reception-history, these quotes work well to show how Darwin’s ideas were transmitted to and perceived by popular culture. But what else is a writer to make of Strong’s quote: “Stopped at Barnum’s on my way downtown to see the much advertised non-descript, the ‘What-is-it.’ […] The creature’s […] anatomical details are fearfully simian, and he’s a great fact for Darwin”?

There are far better quote’s in the book, of course. But there’s also a lot of this stuff.

As I said, these quotes are useful for a very narrow purpose. But if you’re a writer looking for something like Bartlett’s Darwin Quotations, this is not the book for you.


P.S. If you found this review helpful, please click “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.


P.S. If you found this review helpful, please click “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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