Dec 14, 2009

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – a Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller and Nicolle Rager Fuller

 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – a Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller and Nicolle Rager Fuller

Yes, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – a Graphic Adaptation is exactly what it sounds—only more awesome than you’re thinking, promise. The book is divided into two parts: the first chronicles Darwin’s life from the time of the Beagle’s return to England (which was in 1836) until the publication of On the Origin of Species: we’re shown how he systematized his theory; how he came across works by other researchers such as Malthus, and how these helped him find answers to questions he was still unsure about; and how he hesitated for years until he finally decided to publish his controversial book in 1859.

The second half is an actual chapter-by-chapter adaptation of On the Origin of Species—and if you’re wondering how well that could possibly work, worry not. The answer is very well indeed. Michael Keller does an excellent job recapping Darwin’s main points in a way that’s completely accessible even to enthusiastic but not all that knowledgeable humanities amateurs such as myself. He also adds editorial notes with updates or corrections whenever one of Darwin’s suppositions has been disproved in the meantime (which actually doesn’t happen nearly as often as people tend to assume), and he draws examples from discoveries that were made long after Darwin’s time.

One of the reasons why this adaptation is so accessible is because of Nicolle Rager Fuller’s stunning art. There are not only some seriously gorgeous illustrations, but also schemes and diagrams that really help convey complex ideas in a simple way. Besides, any nature lover will find Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – a Graphic Adaptation a feast for the eyes. I wanted to share a few panels so badly that, when I couldn’t find any online, I took my own pictures. Apologies for the appalling quality—it’s not that I’m careless; it’s that I’m a complete disaster behind the camera. But anyway, these should still give you an idea of what to expect:

ETA: Quality pictures! Because Nicolle Rager Fuller is awesome like that:

On the Origin of Species – A Graphic Adaptation

On the Origin of Species – A Graphic Adaptation

On the Origin of Species – A Graphic Adaptation

On the Origin of Species – A Graphic Adaptation

On the Origin of Species – A Graphic Adaptation

On the Origin of Species – A Graphic Adaptation

Another thing I loved about this book was the fact that it really captures the sense of awe that the best science and nature writing always fills me with. It’s such a lovely feeling, and so final-chapter-of-Nation. For me, thinking of life in terms of a struggle for survival isn’t bleak in the least—it’s actually wonderful and completely awesome that such a seemingly ruthless system has led to so much beauty and diversity:
We continue to turn the focus knob, bringing the world into crisper and crisper view. As we do it, it becomes apparent that the improbably complex web of life on this planet is more beautiful and more elegant than I could have imagined (…) It’s beautiful, the way it all comes together, isn’t it? Like a giant chaotic orchestra replete with a cast of all the organisms that now exist or have ever existed. There is a grandeur to it.
I know that sadly the two have become nearly indivisible, but while I’m always interested in talking about Darwin, I’m actually not nearly as interested in debating what the implications of his ideas might or mightn’t be in terms of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I’m sure most of you have realised by now that I’m not a person of faith, but you’d never ever catch me saying things like “Religions Are Evil”. And I think that these matters are mostly far too personal to be worth arguing about. Live and let live is pretty much my philosophy—but one thing that does bother me is the amount of misinformation that exists about Darwin and evolutionary biology. Shocking distortions of his ideas are constantly disseminated, not only by those who oppose them for religious reasons, but even by those who vaguely accept Darwinism but simply don’t know better.

Example: last week I couldn’t help but overhear a discussion among a small group of undergraduate students. One of them was a creationist, and her main objection to evolution was: if humankind came from apes, then why did apes stop evolving? As I’m sure you all know, Darwin never ever ever said humankind evolved from modern-day apes, but that we all have a common ancestor. There is a world of difference there. Another student, who said he supported evolution, argued that while we evolved, over species have, er, de-evolved—some apes are furrier than we are, for example, or have opposable thumbs they don’t use (?!?), and there are also lizards that have legs while snakes don’t (?!!!1). (Yes, these were the actual examples used.)

It all seemed to make sense in this student’s head, but what he said actually shocked me a lot more than the creationist’s argument. His idea of evolution seems based on some Platonic notion of Perfect Forms, in which having less fur and more legs is Better and More Perfect than having lots of fur and no choice but to crawl. Therefore, animals that are distant from this ideal of perfection have “de-evolved”.

Also, I’d better not get started on how impossible it is that someone with even a very basic understanding of evolution could ever utter the word “de-evolve”. I swear, I had to fight the urge to ask this student for his name and address so that I could mail him a copy of this book. The only thing that stopped me was the vague awareness that to do so would be slightly on the creepy side. But it took all my willpower to keep this in mind.

So: hooray for books like this! Hooray for science literacy and for efforts of this kind; efforts whose aim is not to argue with people about their faith, but to disseminate a real understanding of how science works and what evolutionary biology is.

Other Opinions:
Dick-o’s Deep Thoughts (In case you’re thinking, “Pff, and just what do you know, O you humanities major, you?”, Rich is a biologist and he gives it the thumbs up!)
Graphic Novel Reporter

(Did I miss yours?)


Debi said...

:D I'm so happy you enjoyed this so much! Will I be able to hold off until the start of the year for the Graphic Novels Challenge? I don't know...your review has put my ability to wait in serious jeopardy!!!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Just the artwork is stunning, but when you add it to such a topic, this is mind-blowing stuff. You have such an amazing array of interests. I never know what I'm going to get when I come visit you!

Amanda said...

I have never had any desire to read the Origin of the Species, solely because I really can't stand reading science books. Science is one of my worst subjects and just contemplating reading a book about it makes me melt into a pile of cringing jello (how's that for mixed metaphor?). However, this looks like something that I might be able to read! I probably ought to, since I know next to nothing about the actual theory of evolution - in school they mentioned it in passing only.

Aarti said...

I am thoroughly disturbed by the conversation you overheard. It sounds like the "evolutionist" was talking out of his behind and probably didn't really know what he was saying. Hopefully he learns all about it in school!

My takeaway from the theory of evolution: It's all about the mutants ;-)

Steph said...

This sounds like so much fun! I actually snagged a copy of Darwin's original text a few months ago, so I'm hoping to read it sometime soon. But this sounds like a great read to get those less scientifically inclined up to speed in a fun and engaging way! I'm not sure I would have been able to resist butting in on that undergrad conversation you heard! It sounds like they all needed copies of this book!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I would love to read this graphic version of Darwin! We have a number of non-graphic versions at home, and they're mostly very dry (except for David Quammen, who is a biology essayist who is rarely dry). Plus the illustrations look like they could be wonderful!

That's odd that more fur should be considered de-evolving, since we less fur types are always trying to rip the fur off the other species to enhance our own survival!

Zee said...

Graphic novels are not really my thing but this one looks great. Thank you for such a thoughtful review and for articulating what I feel on the topic of evolution :) *off to add this book to my wishlist*

Staci said...

Where did you find this one!! I'm not sure if I would enjoy it even though it is a graphic novel!!

Vivienne said...

I always think of The Origin of Species being one of those books everyone knows about, but no one has actually read. I am amazed that you found a graphic interpretation of it and I have to say it sounds like a fascinatinating read.

Rich said...

What an awesome review! I'm so glad you liked the book. I loved it myself.

I had a student ask me in class that if we evolved from apes then why are apes still here. Almost as good as the student who asked me if I was related to apes on my mothers or my father's side...kind of like the same question the Bishop of Oxford asked Darwin's friend Huxley. There is, as you said, so much misinfo about Darwin and evolution. I wish most sincerely that schools did a better job with this.

Thanks again for a thoughtful and excellent review of an excellent book!

Jeane said...

Wow. I wish I could see those illustrations better. I've never really felt like reading a graphic novel, but if I do this will definitely be the first one I pick up. And I failed to finish that chunky Irving Stone book I tried to read about Darwin, so maybe something like this would get me through the subject better! Excellent review.

bermudaonion said...

I figured this book would be really good or really bad. I'm glad to see it's good. I think I would enjoy it and learn something too.

Eva said...

I WANTS this right now! But that conversation you overheard hurt my heartbeat. I thought it was just crazy Americans who had so many weird ideas re: evolution. So I guess in a way, I'm happier to know the crazies aren't limited to my nationality. Still, *sigh*.

She said...

How cool! If only the schools used books like this to teach evolution and all the sciences... le sigh. Darwin is a pretty righteous dude, too. His cousin, Galton, however, was a bit nuts though. Hmmr.

heidenkind said...

De-evolve. Hahahahahaha! That sounds like the most hilarious class ever.

Jenny said...

"Yes, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – a Graphic Adaptation is exactly what it sounds—only more awesome than you’re thinking, promise."

There is just no way in which this can be true. More awesome than I'm thinking, it would pretty much have to be Shakespeare. :P

kiirstin said...

Just added this to my list of Darwin-related reads. I loves me some Darwin, and this looks very cool. I've actually enjoyed the bits of his writing I've read (mostly sections of The Voyage of the Beagle, and some letters) although as with others I've not actually made it to the Origin yet. I was once in the same building as North America's only first edition Origin, though, which counts for something, right?

BTW, I work in a seriously religious (in some cases fundamentalist), conservative town. In the library. I have learned to turn a deaf ear to conversations I don't want to hear, because espousing my own personal beliefs in a professional capacity could lose me my job. But the conversations I have with some people in my head are pretty okay, sanity-keeping substitutes.

J.T. Oldfield said...

This is so going on my list for the graphic novel challenge!!!!!!!!!!

Amy said...

This does look very interesting, I like the pictures!

I'm not really all that motivated to care strongly about creationism vs. evolution or theistic evolution even. But it might be because science has always gone way over my head. I do get that for some people it's important to choose something to think and understand why. I'm just as happy not to know in this one small area of my life. ;)

softdrink said...

No this looks like a science book that my brain could handle. :-D

ds said...

That was a very scary conversation you overheard, Nymeth. Kudos to you for your self-control. Anyone who can make Darwin accessible to us humanities-types gets loud applause from here! Thanks for pointing this one out.

Alice Teh said...

I love science books. I have always wanted to read The Origin of Species but haven't. Thanks for this wonderful, wonderful review!

Rebecca Reid said...

Oh this sounds just wonderful! I'm a bit wary of reading Darwin straight but in a graphic novel adaptation, now that would be good. See how easy it will be to read those three books for the GN challenge\?!? You're making it hard to resist.

For what it's worth, I am a religious person who believes in creationism but I certainly believe science is science. And why wouldn't God work through natural laws to create?

Rebecca Reid said...

Oh this sounds just wonderful! I'm a bit wary of reading Darwin straight but in a graphic novel adaptation, now that would be good. See how easy it will be to read those three books for the GN challenge\?!? You're making it hard to resist.

For what it's worth, I am a religious person who believes in creationism but I certainly believe science is science. And why wouldn't God work through natural laws to create?

Jason Gignac said...

Ambrose (that's the second of the three boys :) ) is a big biology fan, I wonder if this will be good for him in just a few years :).

JaneGS said...

I have been toying with the idea of reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but this is definitely the approach for me, being a "not all that knowledgeable humanities amateur" myself. Plus my kids may pick it up and browse through it, and that's not a bad thing.

Thanks for the terrific suggestion.

carolsnotebook said...

Sounds like a great book - and it is amazing sometimes what people think.

Memory said...

I really like the sound of this one! I'm going to see if my library has it for the graphic novels challenge next year.

naida said...

this sounds really good, and the illustrations look great!

Nymeth said...

Debi: Thank you again! :D And you can start early and still count it for the challenge, you know ;)

Sandy: Sometimes I think I have too many of them...not enough time to devote to each! :P

Amanda: Aww, poor science *hugs it* :P

Aarti: I think they were English majors, so not much hope for that anymore :( And lol!

Steph: I've actually read parts of the original - in an abridged version that was recommended reading for a class I took a couple of years ago - and I quite liked Darwin's writing! But of course, quite a lot of it went over my head because I just don't have the background to follow all the details.

Jill: *takes note of David Quammen's name* And HA! Excellent point :D

Zee: You're tempting me to come up with a Zee-centred list of GN recommendations ;)

Staci: Debi sent it to me! :D

Vivienne: lol, that's probably spot on :P

Rich: I can't believe a student actually asked you the same thing they asked Huxley!! What year is it again?! The misinformation is indeed shocking, but fortunately there are people like you out there making a difference!

Jeane: Thank you! I think it'd definitely get you through the subject much better.

Kathy: Really good, yep, but I can see how it could have been really bad :P

Eva: It's definitely not just America!

She: I know! Wouldn't that be awesome? And during my first year as a psych major I had to do a presentation on Galvin...a memorable dude for sure :P

Heidenkind: It'd be hilarious if it weren't also so worrisome :P

Jenny: lol, fair enough :P

Kiirstin: lol, I think it counts, yes! And I'd love to read his letters. Conversations in your head, hmmm... I might need to start doing that :P

J.T. Oldfield: yay :D

Amy: I understand why people care too, but I'm personally fine with lack of certainty as well :P I think it's because I don't feel that definite answers would affect how I live my life.

softdrink: lol, if mine could yours could too for sure!

ds: I suspect that if taught properly, biology and evolution are a lot more accessible than they seem! The problem is the "if"...

Alice, I love them too! I think you'll enjoy this :D

Rebecca: Your position makes total sense to me! And yes, the challenge will be VERY easy, promise :P

Jason, I think so!

JaneGS: You're most welcome! I hope you and your kids enjoy it :)

Carol: Isn't it? Sigh.

Memory, I hope you find it!

Naida: The art is just gorgeous!

kiirstin said...

Have a look here:

The letters I read are digitized on there. Emma Darwin's diary is online, too. I haven't spent a lot of time there; I find there's so much information and it's not terribly easy to browse. But still very cool.

Debi said...

OMG! What are you trying to're going to have Rich ditching me and flying to Portugal to profess his love for you if he reads what you wrote in the comments to Stephanie: "...and I quite liked Darwin's writing!" :D He loves Darwin's writing, too! And not just for his scientific brilliance. I'm pretty sure he's read all his books now, and the only one I can safely say that he won't reread is the one about the formation of vegetable mold by worms (or some such thing). Even he found that one a bit dry. ;)

mariel said...

Excellent review! I am so glad that there are adaptations out there making such important scientific works more palatable for the interested public. I found the Origin of Species dry enough, and I am a scientist, so I can only imagine how easily other people could be put off it!

I must admit that I find the creationism vs evolution debate so frustrating. It seems that much of the time, both "sides" are just trying to rile each other up or get tha last word, rather than actually having any kind of sensible discussion. Sadly even Richard Dawkins went on the offensive in his recent television show and wouldnt let the poor creationist get a word in edgeways. That is no way to have a balanced discussion. I hope that more books like this might help educate people. Thanks!

Left an award on my blog for you, have a merry yule!

Zibilee said...

This looks like a gorgeous book, and the illustrations are just stunning! I am really glad that you enjoyed it and I will be trying to find my own copy. Great review!

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