Book Review

Weanée Kimblewood

Eugene Byrne & Simon Gurr:
Darwin. A Graphic Biography.

Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Smithsonian Books (DC) (5 Feb. 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1588343529
ISBN-13: 978-1588343529
Price: 9.17 EUR (hard­cover)

A Vivid Life

The biography of the most influential natural scientist of all time has been rewritten – in black and white, but as multicoloured as one could possibly imagine.

There are dozens of biographies of Charles Darwin and many more that introduce his scientific oeuvre to the lay reader – each of them usually many hundreds of pages long and often written by awe-inspiring nerds that give the reader depressing nightmares in which he is attacked by hostile Galápagos finches and agitated creationists.

This comic book biography is different. Instead of conventional plain text, Darwin’s life and theory is portrayed in cartoons. We see the evolutionary theory trailblazer as a cheeky child, born in the midst of the industrial revolution into a rapidly changing England. Almost every aspect of daily life changed at that time, transferring the majority of the working population from their small villages in the countryside to noisy, smelly cities, full of traffic, factories and steam engines.

Like grandfather, like grandson

However, earlier in the book we learned that Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), was an avid naturalist, philosopher and inventor. In common with his grandson half a century later, Erasmus, “was fascinated by new knowledge”. His acquaintances were prominent figures of the industrial revolution, including James Watt (who improved the steam engine crucially), Joseph Priestley (who discovered oxygen), and Matthew Boulton (an entrepreneur who became the most important producer of forgery-proof copper coins). They met as the “Lunar Society of Birmingham” from 1765 onwards and were one of the most influential scientific think tanks in England, requested and visited by celebrities like Benjamin Franklin and William Herschel, for example.

Strictly speaking, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who once refused to become King George III’s physician, probably had more talent than his grandson. Erasmus had a very precise view of the genesis of life on earth (remember that he lived when Charles wasn’t even born!),

Life on Earth hadn’t been put there as fully formed plants and animals by God. [They] had evolved over the centuries having started out as microscopic life-forms.

But Darwin. A Graphic Biography isn’t just about the regrettably forgotten grandfather, of course. So let’s move on to Charles, who was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, in the West Midlands of England. We learn that,

Schools then were very different from now [and] subjects like science were non-exist.

Illustrations taken from the reviewed book

Setting up a chemistry lab

But young Charles had a best friend: his brother Eras, five years older, a person very close to him that doesn’t, strangely enough, appear in many conventional biographies. With Eras, he set up a laboratory at home to run chemistry experiments, “an expensive, time-wasting hobby”, his contemporaries thought. So it’s no surprise that Charles,

did not well at school (...). He preferred collecting rocks, coins and birds’ eggs,

and that his father, a popular doctor as well as a keen stock market investor, who, “stopped weighing himself after he reached 336 pounds” (152 kilogrammes; also a fact that conventional biographers kept secret!),

often despaired that his son would never do anything useful with his life: (speech bubble) “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family!”

But Darwin made his way. He abandoned his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School when he was 18, was forced by his angered father to become a clergyman and collected beetles with his cousin William.

One day he (...) had two rare beetles one in each hand. Suddenly he saw a third one (...) so he put the beetle from his right hand into his mouth. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bombardier beetle.

Of course, the authors describe in detail what such a beetle is, what it is able to do (“two separate chemicals turn into a hot, stinking mixture of liquid and gas”) and what happened to our unenthusiastic seminarian, Charles.

Three years later, he met with captain FitzRoy in London, boarded the HMS Beagle in Plymouth and started the five-year-voyage that made him immediately sea sick and famous when he published On the Origin of Species more than twenty years later.

In brief, Darwin. A Graphic Biography is an absolute must-read.

Letzte Änderungen: 25.05.2015