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Origin Story

The Trials of Charles Darwin


Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D. (View Bio)
Hardcover: W.W. Norton & Co., 2024.

Origin Story

This is a lively account of how Darwin’s work on natural selection transformed science and society, and an investigation into the mysterious illness that plagued its author.

By early morning, June 30, 1860, a large crowd began to congregate in front of Oxford University’s brand-new Museum of Natural History. The occasion was the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the subject of discussion was Charles Darwin’s new treatise: fact or fiction? Darwin had introduced a cogent explanation of the origin of species?how they adapted, even transmogrified, through natural selection. At stake was the very foundation of modern biology, not to mention the future of the church.

In Origin Story, Howard Markel recounts the two-year period (1858–1860) of Darwin’s writing of On the Origin of Species through its spectacular success and controversy. Simultaneously, Markel delves into the mysterious health symptoms Darwin developed, presenting the first accurate diagnosis of a case that has long fascinated medical historians. The result is a colorful portrait of the man, his friends and enemies, and his seminal work, which resonates to this day.

"Markel, a medical doctor and masterful science chronicler, turns his attention to the time just before Darwin published his world-changing Origin of Species—and just after, when critics blamed its author for unseating God. Wildly entertaining and thoughtful, too." — Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

"Medical historian Markel presents a gripping account of the period between 1858 and 1860 when Darwin wrote and published On the Origin of Species. On June 18, 1858, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace in which the 'obscure journeyman naturalist' naively outlined for his competitor a theory of evolution that was 'a near-perfect summary' of the same ideas 'that Darwin had pondered for more than two decades,' lighting a fire under Darwin to publish his conclusions soon or risk getting scooped. Recounting the difficulties Darwin faced during this period, Markel notes that grief over the death of his infant son from scarlet fever in June 1858 cast a pall over the writing process and exacerbated the 'flatulence and stomach pain' that dogged Darwin for much of his adult life. The most revelatory material examines Origin’s heated reception, including a tense climactic account of an 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science during which zoologist Thomas Huxley’s fierce defense of Darwin against the skeptical Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, proved pivotal in shifting 'moral authority from the church to the intellectual power of science.' The result is a detailed and dramatic close-up of a consequential period in scientific history." — Publishers Weekly

"A deeply satisfying new account of two crucial years in Darwin’s life. Science historian Markel, author of The Secret of Life, The Kelloggs, and An Anatomy of Addiction, illuminates a short period beginning in 1858, when the 48-year-old naturalist suddenly realized that he needed to get his act together. An obscure researcher, Alfred Russel Wallace, had mailed Darwin a paper proposing that species evolved, thrived, or vanished according to their success in obtaining limited resources such as food. This 'struggle for existence,' wildly controversial because divine creation was not involved, had preoccupied Darwin for 20 years. Too squeamish to follow tradition—i.e., dump Wallace’s article and quickly publish his own—Darwin took the advice of friends and submitted Wallace’s paper, along with one of his own, to a local scientific society. They produced little controversy, but Darwin immediately set to work writing On the Origin of Species, 'a book that would change the world.' In the final 200 pages of Markel’s book, the author delivers an entertaining account of Origin’s initial reception upon publication in 1859. Friends wrote enthusiastic reviews, while opponents wrote nasty ones; all of the criticism appeared anonymously, but the critics’ identities were usually not a secret. Darwin either agonized or rejoiced, and his recurrent digestive upsets became crippling. Historians tend to dismiss them as hypochondria, but Markel, a physician, concludes that Darwin 'most likely suffered from systemic lactose intolerance.' The author concludes with the epic June 1860 Oxford meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Many historians have argued that pugnacious Darwin defender Thomas Huxley crushed anti-Darwinist Samuel Wilberforce. Examining contemporary accounts, Markel intriguingly wonders if this may be a case of history-by-the-winners because both pro- and anti-Darwinists claimed victory. Darwin’s two iconic years rendered masterfully by a highly knowledgeable chronicler." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"In Origin Story: The Trials of Charles Darwin, Howard Markel, a medical historian (he favors a diagnosis of lactose intolerance as Darwin’s primary ailment), details how the scientist came to write his magnum opus, as well as the many trying days he endured on its behalf.... The most entertaining section of Markel’s book dives into the composition of On the Origin of Species and the toll it took on Darwin.... He does capture the pathos and passion of the debate." — Sam Kean, The New York Times Book Review  (Read the full review)

"Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species landed like an asteroid, generating surges of intellectual excitement and extreme criticism. The debate over his theory of natural selection set up a central clash between science and organized religion. Quarrels among scientists also flared. Historian and physician Markel asserts, ‘Darwin’s thesis forever changed our understanding of the life sciences and the natural world.’ Surprisngly, the sole mention of evolve is found on the last page, where ‘evolved’ is the final word. Sickly for most of his adulthood, Darwin had considerable personal wealth, was an affectionate father of 10 children (three of whom died young), and relished walking for exercise and thinking. Markel’s book concentrates on the brouhaha ignited by the concept of natural selection and the prominent players, Darwin’s defenders and antagonists, entangled in the dispute. The noun Darwinism and adjective Darwinian are now commonplace. But Markel cautions, ‘there are almost always unintended consequences to an idea, theory, or doctrine.’ As examples, look no further than social Darwinism or eugenics. An illuminating approach to the Darwin disputes." — Tony Miksanek, Booklist

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