Some scholarly biographies can bridge the gulf between an academic audience and the general reader. Whether this one will make it is uncertain; our conclusion would have to be, à la Goldwyn, ‘a definite maybe’. The first thing to be said about this book is that the authors and publisher have given too many hostages to fortune and provided a rod for their own backs by their grandiloquent claims. ‘Previous biographies have been curiously bloodless affairs. They have broken little new ground and made no contact with the inflammatory issues and events of his day’ (authors); ‘the most far-reaching and evocative biography of Charles Darwin this century’ (publishers). The book therefore needs to be, nay, cries out to be judged by the severest standards. Let it be said, first, that this volume is a considerable achievement. Pace the timid received opinion of British publishing, a decent biography of a significant historical figure cannot be accomplished in 100,000 words; it is therefore good to see Michael Joseph being sensible on this issue and letting its authors breathe and take their time.
I have not read a really good synopsis of evolution since Julian Huxley’s Evolution: A Modern Synthesis, published fifty years ago. The strength of this book is in its authors’ profound knowledge of evolutionary studies, their erudition and their successful placing of Darwin in a full historical context. There can