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Darwin Biography February 6, 2007

Posted by Andre Vellino in Book Review.

I have just finished reading a magnificent, two-volume biography of Charles Darwin by Janet Browne. She took some 15 years to write these books (Charles Darwin, Voyaging and Charles Darwin, The Power of Place) and the quality of the research shines! As one reviewer put it about Voyaging, in anticipation of The Power of Place, “if Browne’s second volume is as comprehensively lucid as her first there will be no need for anyone to write another word on Darwin”.

Her main “point of view”, if there is such a thing in a biography, is that Darwin was not alone, by any means, in formulating, discovering, and publicizing the theory of evolution by natural selection. She paints Darwin as a man in his time, a man of social standing who achieved what he achieved in no small measure thanks to the help of others – the Cambridge mafia (she doesn’t call it that), Captian Fitzroy, his father, his brother, indeed pretty much the whole crew on the Beagle, but also scores of correspondents and other people whom he “took advantage” of in certain ways. She also makes very clear the critical roles played by the geologist Charles Lyell (starting from the Beagle voyage and all the way through to the end of Darwin’s life,) by the biologist Thomas Huxley (grandfather of Aldous) and by the botanist Joseph Hooker. None of Darwin’s achievements would have been possible without them (or Wallace, for that matter, which is why Darwin was so generous to him at every turn.)

Browne sets the scientific context of geological, botanical and zoological natural history in Britain by portraying it as part of the British project of imperial colonization and trade. She explains the scientific beliefs of the time (geology, chemistry, ornithology, etc.) in quite a lot of detail, but never pedantically and always at just the right moment to explain the full force of a stinging retort by one or other eminent scientist or theologian.

The picture she conjures of Victorian England, the descriptions of the presuppositions that Darwin held (later in life he thought, it seems, that British culture was a “superior” adaptation) as well as the ethical views he vigorously upheld (he was a staunch abolitionist – the slave trade in Britain ended just before Darwin’s birth) give the reader a genuine appreciation for the man and his time.

Every anecdote is meticulously documented and yet it reads like a thriller. You follow the ups and downs of Darwin’s intellectual life, such as his receiving Alfred Wallace’s manuscript, thus scooping 15 years of Darwin’s reflection on natural selection as a mechanism for evolution (Darwin behaved as the gentleman, but it really hurt him to be loose priority for the idea), with excitement and anticipation.

Browne gives you an understanding of why, before writing the Origin of Species, Darwin spent 8 years studying barnacles (he wanted to do really hard-nosed zoology to put natural selection on firm empirical evidence and this work was critical to his later ideas about sexual selection and reproduction) and why he pondered botanical questions (e.g. Orchids and insectivorous plants) for years after the Origin (he wrote on the Descent of Man because he was provoked by Wallace, who started to stray from the fold.) She guides the reader gently into understanding the (often complex) intricacies of natural selection (Darwin, it appears, became something of a Lamarkian about the inheritance of some acquired characteristics, such as some behaviours) and his attempts at coming up with proto-genetic explanations (“pangenesis”) of heredity.

There are all sorts of interesting side-lines in these books. She spends some time setting up Wallace’s story and what brought him to his theory of natural selection (he spent years collecting butterflies in the Amazon and was strongly influenced by Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation) There’s a section on the role of cartoons, caricatures in 19 century British social criticism which underscores the increasingly important role of Darwin’s thought in social consciousness. Here and there, Browne also offers up miscellaneous references to what other contemporary luminaries thought of the Origin of Species (Mill, Marx, Spencer) etc.

I have some (minor) criticism to offer about this book. It could have been edited a little more carefully. Browne often repeats herself, especially about Darwin’s worries regarding the reproductive consequences of inbreeding and how his marriage to his cousin might have been a contributing factor to the premature death of two of his ten children. It was interesting to hear about the first couple of times and a little tiresome on the 6th or 7th occurrence.

I also found her rather Victorian usage of English a little jarring at first. Speaking of Darwin’s “researches” rather than “research”, for example, seemed a little quaint, if not off-putting – to my ear anyway.

Not having read any other biography of Darwin, I can’t say whether or not Browne’s is the final word, but I was somewhat taken aback by the short shrift she gave to the only scientific part of this history that I know a little about: Lord Kelvin’s objection to the Origin about the age of the earth. Notwithstanding Kelvin’s religious prejudice against the theory of evolution, his objection based on the age of earth was an entirely valid one (given the then state of knowledge about the rate of heat radiation from the earth) and a much bigger scientific problem for Darwin than Browne makes out.

Also, I have to confess that I skimmed many of the personal anecdotes – I was looking for the intellectual history more than the personal one. For example, I would have welcomed a deeper analysis of Darwin’s epistemological reservations about natural selection. My sense is that he withheld Natural Selection for so long because he wanted more empirical evidence, not because he was worried about criticism from the clergy. It looks to me like he was being a solid empirical scientist and that the early criticisms that the Origin was high on speculation and low on empirical support is a substantial one.

All in all, though, I found this a gripping read and (almost) entirely satisfying!


1. Peter Turney - February 7, 2007

That was a great book review. But you left out one of the most important figures, Thomas Malthus. Both Darwin and Wallace were very much influenced by Malthus.

“Both Darwin and Wallace independently arrived at similar theories of Natural Selection after reading Malthus.”

“When Darwin and Wallace read Malthus, it occurred to both of them that animals and plants should also be experiencing the same population pressure.”

“Wallace called Malthus’s essay ‘…the most important book I read…’ and considered it ‘the most interesting coincidence’ that both he and Darwin were independently led to the theory of evolution through reading Malthus.”

2. Andre Vellino - February 7, 2007

Thanks Peter. Yes, you’re quite right about the influence of Malthus.

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