WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was published in 1859 as “On the Origin of Species,” was a very cautious man with a radical idea growing inside him, his latest biographer told a standing-room only audience in Maxey Auditorium last night.

David Quammen, an award-winning science writer who has spent the past two years researching the British naturalist, introduced Darwin, the man, to the Whitman audience as a mild-mannered Englishman who dropped out of medical school because he found it boring, couldn’t stand the sight of blood, married his cousin Emma, helped produce 10 children and conceived a persuasive explanation of how species evolve that remains controversial to some people even today.

The story of Darwin’s conception of natural selection is that of a careful, cautious man dealing with the fact that inside him was a world-changing idea, and it was a very uncomfortable situation, said Quammen. It was like a “large egg growing in a small bird,” and it created some rather extensive internal cognitive dissonance in this gentle, unassuming Englishman who had been trained as an Anglican minister. The theory itself evolved after a trip on the H.M.S. Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, on which Darwin brought back a number of bird specimens that turned out to be “new” to the scientific community. His eventual ponderings on these findings led him to the conclusion that perhaps there was such a thing as “transmutation,” a popular evolutional theory of his day, and eventually to his own theory of evolution, which is largely accepted by biologists today.

Biologists have proved Darwin’s theory over and over again, said Quammen, and yet he is still a controversial figure in America today. The reasons for so much philosophical, political and religious controversy and animosity toward Darwin in the United States (he is not nearly as controversial in other countries), said Quammen, are mainly these three:

  1. U.S. proselytizers have done a very good job of confusing the public about evolution and the nature of science;
  2. Apart from the effects of proselytizing, there is a very stubborn American characteristic that says “don’t tell me what to think”;
  3. At the core of Darwin’s work is an element that frightens some people by challenging the idea that God wanted man to evolve to be his “special partner.”


CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156

Email: parishlj@whitman.edu