Darwin, full of "Bible-quoting piety" in his youth, famously became an agnostic later in life. In the clash between theistic evolution (change has occurred over the millennia, but God guides it) and materialistic evolution (there's no Guide), Darwin's a materialist. When it comes to reconciling science and religion, perhaps we all need to become agnostics.
Variations within a species pop up randomly; natural selection operates on them without any overarching intentions. The argument from design (creation has order, so there must be a divine Orderer) crumbles in the face of Darwin's harsh, unforgiving materialism. "The beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell, unlike the hinge of a door, doesn't imply the existence of an intelligent designer," writes Quammen. "'There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection,' Darwin wrote, 'than in the course in which the wind blows.'"
But as chaos theory (and meteorology) are demonstrating, what appears to be random may have underlying order. The wings of the butterfly affect the way the wind blows; apparent randomness may be explicable.
Quammen makes heavy material seem light. By omitting the famous Beagle voyage, in just 243 short pages he can concentrate on the man's quirks (billiards player, barnacle lover, perpetual dyspeptic) and on the gist of the Origin. When it comes to the most controversial scientist of the past 400 years, Quammen captures what the general reader wants to know.
But even if you don't much care for evolutionary biology, read Quammen for his style. For writers seeking to convey ponderous material with a light tone, practically every page teaches a lesson. The ostrich is an "avian lummox." A secluded scholar, Darwin "settled into village life as though it were a witness protection program." When his ideas were first presented at a scientific meeting after a 20-year delay, Darwin stayed at home "with a dead child and a bad case of ambivalence." Knowing that his claims would cause a Victorian ruckus, Darwin had secreted himself away. For Her own inscrutable reasons, God's a reclusive author too