Charles Darwin — A Man Of Enlarged Curiosity by Peter Brent (Heinemann, £12.50).
MUCH OF WHAT has been written previously about Charles Darwin has concerned the controversy arising from his elaboration of the idea of evolution.
This new volume looks rather at the man, particularly the young man who was to evolve into the greatest scientist of the Victorian age.
The author has drawn on a wealth of unpublished material letters, journals, diaries — as well as Darwin's self-effacing autobiography to produce a very personal biography full of fresh insights.
Darwin grew up in a wealthy family which was happy and supportive. His school career was un impressive — the classics, Latin and Greek bored him but the idea that he was lazy and incompetent is a myth, according to Peter Brent.
Young Darwin worked hard at his Outside interests which were to flourish and survive as his life's work.
He dropped out of medical school at Edinburgh and it was his interest in natural history at Cambridge that led to his appointment as scientific officer on HMS Beagle for the voyage that was to provide his most valuable data for his later speculations.
Because Darwin's notebooks survive, it is possible to trace an evolution of his scientific method from schoolboyish listings of shells and moths to the analyses of the mature naturalist.
His earliest formal scientific papers thawed that he had the capacity to ask simple questions that others had overlooked and to use his observation to try to discover the answers.
But as well as detailing his scientific career and achievements, this books tells a story of Darwin's love life, like a novel. In parts it is a captivating human story, interrupted only by tedious passages of detail from original documents, like boring letters from his sisters.
It gives scant attention to the place of religious faith in Darwin's personal life. There is evidence elsewhere that he was deeply Christian for much of his life, and here was cause for inner struggle and pain — and not just indifference as this book suggests.
Darwin knew his theories as they were developing provided no answer for the spiritual nature of mankind.
Brent portrays Darwin as a modest, diffident and anxious man, plagued with self-doubt and uncertainty except where his convictions were based on his own laboured observations and thought.
Although Brent makes little of it in this book, Darwin still had a final lingering doubt about the divine creator, and never wrote out God completely. In later life he had become something of an agnostic though not an atheist.
With the light of faith, his theory can be seen as the way the hand of God acts in creation, rather than as an alternative to it.