Darwin’s Evolving Identity

Darwin's evolving identity x2My first book offers a new explanation for Charles Darwin’s apparent caution in publishing On the Origin of Species, which appeared more than two decades after he privately developed his first theories of evolution by natural selection. Whereas this restraint is often attributed to Darwin’s fear of admitting that he was an evolutionist, I argue that what concerned him most was not the potentially transgressive topic, evolution, but the transgression of publishing any theoretical book. The one other time he had tried to do so, as a young man using his theory of coral reef formation to offer an ambitious account of the history of the earth and its inhabitants, the public criticism of his “speculations” distressed him and destroyed his geological publishing strategy. Meanwhile he viewed his private speculations on species as an exhilarating distraction from the challenge of fulfilling his publishing obligations to the geological community. He plotted a conservative course for finishing his geological publications and privately bolstering the species theory, aiming to protect himself (and eventually his species theory) from charges of rash speculation. My book is a study of scientific authorship, of theorizing in natural history, and of the importance of mentorship in science. I offer a new interpretation of Darwin’s first major theory, on the origin of coral reefs and atolls, as well as his evolutionary theory, and I reveal the important roles played by Darwin’s Beagle shipmates and by the geologist Charles Lyell in shaping his methods of fieldwork, theorizing, and publishing.

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From reviews of Darwin’s Evolving Identity:

“Alistair Sponsel’s first book, Darwin’s Evolving Identity, [is] an important contribution to Darwin studies that is beautifully and fluently written. As the book’s title makes clear, its main concern is with Darwin’s ‘identity’, a term which Sponsel acknowledges is problematic and ambiguous, but is nevertheless the easiest way to capture the tension between Darwin’s self-perception and his reputation (and his conscious desire to shape and reshape the latter) . . . . Sponsel’s superb book shows very clearly that there were numerous Darwinian publics and thus many public Darwins.” Jim Endersby, Annals of Science

“Sponsel resoundingly succeeds in his effort to reevaluate Darwin, making an important contribution to understanding Darwin as a scientific practitioner and as a writer . . . . The book is clearly argued at every level, making plain along the way where and how it engages historiography and primary sources, in a way that is engaging and even elegant.” Penelope Hardy, Endeavour