Simon & Schuster [1996]
ISBN: 0-684-81678-4

What's the most extraordinary scientific legacy of Charles Darwin's vision of life? Chance variation, juxtaposed by its primary motif of natural selection. A marvellously simple and elegant tale of how organisms are created and extinguished.
         Modern biology tells this fascinating story in terms of an equally phenomenal and beautiful voyage of their genes—which is one cogent reason why the organism vanished from Darwin's biology as the fundamental unit of life. The most basic and important component of life in the scientific idiom is the gene.
         Though Darwin did not foresee how this story of stories would unfold, our very geno-centric biology is a perfectly logical consequence of the way Darwin chose to describe evolution in terms of inheritance, random variation, and natural selection, including the survival of adapted species. In this sense alone, Darwin was ahead of his time. No routine experimenter, he researched with an eye for scientific justification. He was his own compass. There was no error in his induction.
         Darwin belonged to an age that had discovered historical explanations and was becoming preoccupied with change. And, it goes to his credit, notwithstanding his prosilient credo that there was nothing beyond biology, Darwin accepted that nothing was inevitable in science, even a science informed by interlocking levels of meaning and understanding. Yet, as may be the case with all scientific discoveries, Darwin's foremost critics contend that the great man based his arguments on historical continuity, random studies, a kind of inertia, and resistance to change. This is unfair both to Darwin and his monumental theory.
         Science, after all, is verified or verifiable knowledge, produced by conception of precepts, induction of deducts. For scientific imagination, not many percepts are needed. One never wrote a eulogy on Don Bradman just by looking at the words in the lexicon. This paradigm holds good for Darwinism, too. In our modern age of technology and scientific advance, it would only be folly to miss the woods for the trees.
         Many of Darwin's critics hold a profound belief that Darwin, towards the end of his long innings, had metaphysical leanings. Fair enough. Darwin had reasons to keep his powder dry. Metaphysics has a definitive impression on almost everything in life. Even Jungian analysis, in spite of being completely scientific, has had some predilection for metaphysics. So had Darwin's psyche. Darwin was so plagued with ill health and personal tragedies, that he was doubtless not averse to seeking solace in perceptual thought that presupposes the attainment of higher levels of consciousness.
         In Darwin: A Life in Science, authors Michael White and John Gribbin lucidly explain the enormous impact of his thinking on topics such as natural selection, evolution and genetics. In so doing, the duo brings readers up-to-date with how Darwinism has moulded modern scientific thought.
         Despite his privileged upbringing, Darwin was a humanist. He was also ambivalent; he had very little self-confidence. But, he had, as White and Gribbin put it, more than just genius to apply to science. Darwin was also a superb writer in the great Victorian tradition. He loved literature. Fastidious to a fault, he constantly rewrote his books, even at the proof stage, driving printers and publishers to distraction with his last-minute changes. His was a clear voice. He talked to the reader in a straightforward manner. Darwin was, indeed, the first-ever scientist to take his art into the minds and hearts of the common man.
         Observe White and Gribbin:

After all, how many of the original publications describing a revolution in science can be recommended as a good read for non-scientists? And, the writings of the quantum pioneers are not something you would take to while away a train journey. There is only one candidate—Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

         There's something special about Darwin that makes him eternally fascinating. Darwin: A Life in Science is a revelation of that vision—a temporal biography that gives new meaning to the great man's life and, in turn, to our own.   

Rajgopal Nidamboor is a Mumbai-based writer-editor. Visit him at www.wordoscope.com.