BookBrowse Reviews Darwin's Armada by Iain McCalman

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Darwin's Armada

Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution

by Iain McCalman

Darwin's Armada by Iain McCalman X
Darwin's Armada by Iain McCalman
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2009, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2010, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution

The Miriam Webster dictionary defines an armada as "A fleet of warships." In Iain McCalman's Darwin's Armada, the term refers to the three scientists who were early supporters of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and who paved the way for its acceptance by Great Britain's scientific community: Joseph Hooker, botanist (1817-1911), Thomas Huxley, biologist (1825-1895) and Alfred Wallace, zoologist (1823-1913). The book is, in essence, the story of how the theory of evolution by natural selection came to be (how evolution evolved, if you will), and the vital role played by these men in its development.

The first half of Darwin's Armada provides brief biographical sketches of Darwin, Hooker, Huxley and Wallace, and then concentrates on the voyages the men took to other lands and the scientific skills they acquired during these adventures. Darwin was a naturalist aboard the Beagle, Hooker served aboard the Eramus, and Huxley on the Rattlesnake, while Wallace spent nearly 20 years exploring the Amazon and Southeast Asia. McCalman's emphasis in these chapters is on the various men's observations of the exotic flora and fauna, as well as their interactions with the native inhabitants of the areas they visited. McCalman does provide some description of the wooden ships on which they traveled and the hardships they endured, but overall his emphasis is on how their experiences shaped their scientific understanding. These chapters are well written but do drag from time to time as the author delves into the intricacies of the science involved.

On the voyage out, Huxley had discovered, by means of dissection and microscopic examination, an underlying set of structural and functional characteristics, undetected by previous naturalists. These characteristics linked several seemingly unrelated forms of Medusae (jellyfish) and the order of Siphonophora (colonies of stinging Medusae and polyps with siphon-shaped mouths), including the Portuguese man-of-war and the Vellela (by-the-wind sailor). Later research would add a further class of Anthozoa, including corals, to this new group.

The book's second half is set in England and focuses on the process involved in the publication of Darwin's theories and the ensuing battles with other scientists and theologians of the day, and at this point the narrative becomes utterly fascinating. McCalman makes it clear that Darwin's theories would likely have languished for decades without the active intervention of Hooker and Huxley; indeed, Darwin did very little himself to promote his theories, largely leaving the debate to others.

Interestingly, Wallace independently developed a very similar theory of natural selection. Darwin, who'd been working on his own theory for nearly twenty years, was spurred to finally publish out of fear that Wallace would beat him to it. In a very complex – and shrewd - political move, Hooker arranged for a brief on the theory of evolution through natural selection to be presented at the Linnean Society (a British scientific society that promotes the study of all aspects of the biological sciences) on 1 July, 1858, with authorship attributed to both Darwin and Wallace (without Wallace's knowledge). Further encouraged by Hooker and driven by competition from Wallace, Darwin set about expanding on his work, and it is this manuscript that eventually became the groundbreaking masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, published in late 1859. Its release caused quite a stir, but it was meant to; Hooker and Huxley wanted to wrest control of Britain's scientific societies from the Church of England, which was responsible for all scientific appointments. The resulting debates were as much about forcing a changing of the guard as they were about Darwin's theories. McCalman chronicles this effort with a fast-paced narrative that most readers will find entertaining and enlightening.

Darwin's Armada is a must-read for anyone interested in how the theory of evolution developed. It is recommended particularly for those with an interest in the biological sciences, although non-scientific readers will find it very accessible.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the November 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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