Thursday, 27 May 2010

Introducing Darwin – Jonathan Miller & Borin Van Loon ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Many of the pages feature large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise a point.
This contribution to the series is as much curate’s egg as marmite. Written by the then-famous (perhaps now rather less so) Jonathan Miller, it mostly does what it says on the tin, concentrating on Darwin with only a relatively small amount of context and post-Darwinian development of his ideas. It’s very old for a popular science book – written in 1982 (though this is a new edition). This means that evolutionary development doesn’t get the weight you would now expect in the post-Darwin coverage (there is a small amount of indirect reference to it at the end), nor does molecular biology. Even so, it isn’t as out-of-date as a physics book of the time would be.
For me, this was one of the less effective books in the series as far as the use of illustrations go. They rarely added much, and frequently seemed to refer to Alice in Wonderland for reasons that aren’t entirely obvious. Every drawing of Darwin’s face was different, sometimes almost unrecognizably so. Miller’s text was also variable. Some of the detail gone into in Darwin’s gradual development was a touch tedious, suggesting an over-scholarly approach – but then there were some surprising factual errors. For example William Paley, the ‘watch on the heath’ man, is referred to as a bishop, which he wasn’t, and there’s a very strange comment about the Lunar Society of Birmingham. It was called the Lunar Society because they met on the full moon so it could light them home. But Miller writes that they met on the ‘new moon’ (i.e. when the moon gives no light). This even contradicts the illustration, which shows a full moon.
Bits of the text seemed quite childlike in approach. For example ‘He worked much harder than most ordinary people, and enjoyed a happy life with his large family.’ is the sort of thing I’d expect to see in a children’s science book. But elsewhere it has a much more adult feel. There’s another contrast in style with the last 14 pages covering the post-Darwin new synthesis. Here the illustrations drop away to a negligible little bar at the bottom (up to here you can’t miss them, but you tend to ignore these), and the text flows much more like a conventional book.
This isn’t a bad book on Darwin and his work, but it’s not outstanding writing, and the visual approach doesn’t work particularly well, so it’s not a high point of the series.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
Review by Brian Clegg

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