Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reconciling Religion and Science

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith
by Deborah Heiligman
National Book Award finalist 2009, Printz Honor 2010

I would like to preface this review with two statements. Firstly, I don't typically read non-fiction, so I may not be judging this work by the same criteria as one more familiar with non-fiction writing. In fact, I think the only other non-fiction work I've read in the past several years has been Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which I absolutely loved.

Second, since this book has a good deal to do with religion, I want my audience to be aware of my own views, which I hope won't colour this review too much. I am first and foremost a humanist, and I would also consider myself an agnostic. I feel that people are free to believe and practice religion however they choose to do so, as long as they are respectful of other people's belief systems and are not harming anyone or anything. Any comment bashing my beliefs will be deleted.

Rather than focus the entire book on an explanation of Darwin's famous evolutionary theory and how he formulated it, Ms. Heiligman instead chooses to focus on the relationship between Darwin and his wife Emma, as well as their opposing religious views. Despite having studied theology at college, as Darwin devotes more time to understanding the theory he is concocting, he begins to doubt God's part in creation more and more. This greatly concerns his religious wife, as she fears that they will be parted after death, and she often entreats him to reconsider his religious views. What I personally found to be particularly interesting was Darwin's fear that his work would offend religous parties. As such, he would ask his wife's opinion before publishing his various scientific works and would alter certain passages if she so recommended. This was extremely refreshing to me, given how hostile the religious can be to the secular and vice versa in our current society.

As someone who doesn't particularly like reading non-fiction, the focus on character made the book more enjoyable for me than it otherwise might have been, as it reads more like a romance than a biography. I also felt that the work handled the religious question extremely well without catering too much to the secular or to the religious, presenting both Charles's and Emma's perspectives clearly. For the most part, the narrative moves at a good pace, though there was never a moment when I forgot that I was reading non-fiction. Ms. Heiligman presents a captivating new look at a brilliant scientist, and I encourage people of all philosophies to give it a look.

Grade: A-

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