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The New York Review of BooksThis book deserves the adjectives of praise traditionally used by reviewers to describe masterpieces. . . . It is wonderful and marvelous, even magisterial.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Few lives of great men offer so much interest—and so many mysteries—as the life of Charles Darwin, the greatest figure of nineteenth-century science, whose ideas are still inspiring discoveries and controversies more than a hundred years after his death. Yet only now, with the publication of Voyaging, the first of two volumes that will constitute the definitive biography, do we have a truly vivid and comprehensive picture of Darwin as man and as scientist. Drawing upon much new material, supported by an unmatched...
Few lives of great men offer so much interest—and so many mysteries—as the life of Charles Darwin, the greatest figure of nineteenth-century science, whose ideas are still inspiring discoveries and controversies more than a hundred years after his death. Yet only now, with the publication of Voyaging, the first of two volumes that will constitute the definitive biography, do we have a truly vivid and comprehensive picture of Darwin as man and as scientist. Drawing upon much new material, supported by an unmatched acquaintance with both the intellectual setting and the voluminous sources, Janet Browne has at last been able to unravel the central enigma of Darwin's career: how did this amiable young gentleman, born into a prosperous provincial English family, grow into a thinker capable of challenging the most basic principles of religion and science? The dramatic story of Voyaging takes us from agonizing personal challenges to the exhilaration of discovery; we see a young, inquisitive Darwin gradually mature, shaping, refining, and finally setting forth the ideas that would at last fall upon the world like a thunderclap in The Origin of Species.
IF CHARLES DARWIN had spent the first half of his life in the world of Jane Austen, he now stepped forward into the pages of Anthony Trollope.
Victorian Britain seemed to be at peace with itself as political agitation at home and memories of the Crimean War and Indian uprising gave way to relative stability in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Free trade and carboniferous capitalism pushed ahead as the great manufacturing industries of the nation boomed. In the grand houses of London, Viscount Palmerston picked up his silk hat to become prime minister in 1857, followed in short order by Lord Derby in 1858, and then Palmerston again in 1859, while Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, and Richard Bright stalked the wings impatient to transform the face of party politics. Cathedral cities hummed with religious controversy; books and magazines poured from the presses; the newly affluent took tours and holidays; and a whole army of clerks, civil servants, bureaucrats, bankers, and accountants was called into being to administer the fresh commercial horizons that accompanied the emerging empire, as India, China, Canada, South America, and the Antipodes increasingly fell under British economic domination. Steam technology was the hero of society. At that time Britain possessed two-thirds of the world's capacity for cotton factory production and accounted for half the world's output of coal and iron, an unmatched degree of industrial preeminence. The length of railway track snaking across the countryside doubled from 1850 to 1868. Lawn-mowers, water-closets, gas lights, iron girders, encaustic tiles, and much, much more were available to those who could afford them.Although Queen Victoria and her ministers were soon to encounter complex foreign affairs in Garibaldi's Italy and painful consequences from the Civil War in the United States of America, the ethos of "improvement" prompted significant developments in domestic housing, health, education, communications, dress, and manners. "The genius of England is universally admitted to be of an eminently enterprising and speculative character," declared the magazine Once a Week.1 Confidence soared. Social boundaries shifted.
Even so, the contradictions at the heart of Victorian life were more obvious than ever. Fraud, filth, overcrowding, poverty, death, and violence were a fact of life in the urban slums. Rural communities had lost in a decade more than 40 percent of the male workforce to industrial, colonial, and military demands and bleakly faced another round of agricultural depression and distress. The nation's religious faith, although never coherent, was fracturing into fervour or dissent. While many from the ruling ranks of society turned a blind eye to these issues, a remarkable array of novelists, statisticians, medical men, radical divines, and social activists were starting to reveal the squalor alongside prosperity and discovering the interesting in the ordinary. In time, parliamentary leaders would open their minds to a second round of political reform in the nineteenth century, egged on by the high sense of purpose, moral earnestness, doctrines of self-help, and appreciation of decorum that characterised the emerging middle classes. From real-life Westminster to imaginary Barchester and back again, Trollope easily captured in his novels this sense of the personal and parochial. But life was not simple even for those whom Lord Salisbury called "persons of substance." These mid-century years were not so much an age of equipoise as framed by social and political contrasts. It was an age of capital, labour, complacency, and faith; at the same time, an age of cities, misery, change, commerce, deference, and doubt.
In among the contrasts stood the unobtrusive figure of Charles Darwin. Supported by a family fortune derived from the Industrial Revolution, Darwin was content to become a thoroughly respectable Victorian gentleman. He put away his Beagle shotguns, cast a discerning eye over his investments, and began to participate in the growing sense of national prosperity. He had no need to seek employment. Like many others in his circle he was free to pursue his interests, in his case a magnificent obsession with natural history.
In 1858 he was forty-nine years old, a steady and likable individual, "one of the kindest and truest men that it was ever my good fortune to know," said Thomas Henry Huxley. His scientific status was already secure, although he had not yet revealed his theories about species to anyone other than a few close friends. His Origin of Species was yet to come. His personal position was equally secure. He was married and comfortably settled with his wife, Emma, and their children in a country house in the village of Downe, in Kent, near enough to the attractions of the metropolis but a world away from its problems. For years now he had been troubled by continued ill health-"being ill was normal." Yet his home at Down House was the safe harbour he sought for the end of his personal voyage. "Few persons can have lived a more retired life than we have done," he wrote with undisguised pleasure. "My life goes on like clock-work and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it."2
In fact Darwin was far more sociable than his words allowed. In London, his friends were clever and influential, a cosmopolitan mix of university professors, authors, manufacturers, government officials, landowners, and politicians; here and there a baronet or a literary lady or two, a few old comrades from his time on the Beagle, and a clutch of intelligent nieces ready to discuss the latest concerts or exhibitions. Whenever he went to town, he sought out the company of his older brother Erasmus, pleasantly fixed in his bachelor ways, and his cousins Fanny and Hensleigh Wedgwood, all living close to each other on the outskirts of Bloomsbury and forming the hub of an extended circle of intermarrying Wedgwoods and Darwins.3 Darwin had married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839. Other cousin marriages among the clan drew the generations together.
Erasmus hosted dinner parties for him, gossiped, and kept parcels until his arrival. If Darwin was alone he would stay overnight and meet his old friend the geologist Sir Charles Lyell or some other scientific colleague for breakfast-meetings which he valued for keeping in touch and maintaining his intellectual momentum. Otherwise, he would bring Emma and the youngest children up for the pantomime or trips to the dentist. They would stay with Fanny and Hensleigh and see their other relatives visiting from the shires.
His country friends were no less pillars of the community. Darwin welcomed the soothing rhythm of local affairs, always willing to discuss the state of the weather or his poor health with neighbours, organise parish charities, and sympathise with John Innes, the resident vicar, over difficult young curates or problems with the village school. Every so often, a little debate about church doctrine with Innes made his strolls around the country lanes agreeably lively. Innes was just the kind of relaxed clergyman that Darwin himself might once have become if the voyage of the Beagle had not intervened. "I do not attack Moses," the naturalist remarked affably to him, "and I think Moses can take care of himself."4 At Downe Darwin took on duties as a local magistrate, an occupation at the heart of provincial life in which law-abiding, landowning gentlemen like himself imposed fines on poachers or issued licenses for keeping pigs.
This society was reassuringly sedate. Darwin and Emma regularly met Sir John Lubbock, mathematician and fellow of the Royal Society, and his son John, a young naturalist, who lived a few miles away at High Elms. They enjoyed the company of the Bonham Carters, in a neighbouring village, and George Ward Norman, a director of the Bank of England and country gentleman of Downe. Every so often they invited weekend guests from London, sending a horse and carriage to the nearest railway station to pick up visiting groups. Joseph Hooker, the assistant director of Kew Gardens, and Thomas Henry Huxley, the biologist and writer, were particular friends. Somewhat surprisingly for a period in which the prevailing motifs were industrialisation, social movement, urban expansion, and religious dissent, Darwin's parish was utterly secluded, almost a relic of a former age in its social structure and restricted occupational patterns. The long trip to the railway station made it seem further away from modernity than it really was. Downe village was small, no more than five hundred people in the 1861 census, and relatively stable considering its proximity to growing suburban centres like Bromley and Maidstone. The national post office had altered the spelling from Down to Downe early in the 1840s, a change that Darwin resolutely ignored when addressing letters. Twenty years later the population had increased by only fifty. Falling readily into the provincial swing of things, he unashamedly called himself a "Farmer" in Bagshawe's Directory. A Wedgwood niece tartly observed after one of these weekend parties, "We have enough dullness in the family & plenty of virtue-a little vice would make a pleasant variety."5
Yet underneath the mild exterior, Darwin's mind teemed with ideas-daring and unusual proposals that he hesitated to put before the world. He had balked at disclosing his theories before they were ready, fretting anxiously over his work, doggedly probing every crevice of the evidence, building up a tightly packed argument that he hoped would protect his scheme from at least some of the intense criticism he knew it would provoke. Ever since returning from the Beagle voyage in 1836, some twenty-two years before, he had believed that living beings were not created by divine fiat. From that time on, he had sought an alternative explanation that would depend on natural processes rather than on God's direct action.
He had found it in Thomas Malthus's Essay on the principle of population, an economic principle of checks and balances that Darwin applied to the survival rates of animals and plants and called "natural selection." Since then he had focused his energies on documenting the origin of species by these natural means, "slaving away" in private. Only recently, in 1856, Charles Lyell had pressed him to get on and publish, and in that year Darwin began writing a long manuscript intended for future publication. "I have found it quite impossible to publish any preliminary essay or sketch," he confided to another friend, "but I am doing my work as completely as my present materials allow without waiting to perfect them." This unfinished manuscript on natural selection already ran to 250,000 words, comprising eleven chapters of a probable fourteen, a great pile of paper on his study table that he ruefully called his "big book on species." He knew it was his life's work, before which everything else faded into irrelevance.6
As Darwin now conceived it, natural selection operated on living beings as if it were a statistical necessity, a law of nature stripped of any divine influences, invincible, predominant, and fierce, relentlessly honing animals, plants, and humans in the struggle for existence. His theories had no room for biblical teachings about Adam and Eve or the Garden of Eden. Organisms either adapted or died. His vision of nature had moved far beyond the cosy notions that fortified most Victorians, views about the perfect adaptation between animals and plants and their environment that, for many, mirrored the social stability they thought they saw around them. "Every class of society accepts with cheerfulness that lot which Providence has assigned to it," Palmerston optimistically declared. He might almost have gone on to include animals and plants. Darwin, on the other hand, saw the natural world as a constant competitive struggle for survival.
Much of the lasting fascination of Darwin's life story surely lies in the relationship between this prolific inner world of the mind and the private and public lives that he created for himself. His power of analysis was outstanding; his creative imagination remarkable. As a biologist, his distinctive gift was to envisage all living beings not only in their relations to one another but also in their relations to the places in which they lived and to the unfolding sequence of time. He would become one of the most famous scientists of his day, a Victorian celebrity whose work even in his own lifetime was regarded as a foundation stone for the modern world, not least for the manner in which he changed the way human beings thought about themselves and their own place in nature. And yet he liked to be a countryman, pottering around his garden. He was an invalid plagued by disorders that probably fed on his intense intellectual activities. He was a husband, father, friend, and employer, as well as a naturalist, author, and thinker. To explore what sort of person he was adds significantly to the evaluation of his part in history-or, putting it round another way, to know something of Darwin and the way he operated explains a good deal that might otherwise be perplexing about the scale of his achievement and the revolution in thought that customarily bears his name. The manner in which his daily life interlocked with his theories and with his public role as the author of On the Origin of Species brings to light a long and unexpectedly eventful life story.7
The Origin of Species was to dominate the second half of his life. Where Darwin had once voyaged on the Beagle through new oceans of thought, he now turned his mind towards writing and publishing, towards being an author. The events surrounding the book's publication were exacting enough. Afterwards Darwin would emerge as a remarkable tactician-a man who prefered to remain behind the scenes but a canny and dedicated publicist for all that. The strategic effort that he put into disseminating his views was intense. As has long been clear, the Darwinian revolution was neither completely Darwinian nor completely revolutionary,8 and there was no steady march towards the publication and approval of his ideas. The recasting of contemporary scientific horizons was hardly carried out by him alone, and what would pass for "Darwinism" was never a monolithic structure. The chronicle of Darwin's mature years was in fact to be the story of how he negotiated the reception of his Origin of Species, and this in turn would comprise a web of will-power, strategy, conflict, the loss of friends, disappointment, pleasure, ruthless determination, and great personal exertion set within larger currents of scientific and social transformation-a story at root about the making and validating of new scientific knowledge. The project was immeasurably enhanced by his producing a book at a time when the publishing industry was expanding and review journals were enjoying rapidly diversifying audiences. He benefitted from the public support of his friends, many of whose careers progressively interwove with his own. His book closely meshed with major transformations in nineteenth-century thought and came to symbolise the fresh perspective. What could it have been like to be Darwin during what would come to be called the Darwinian revolution?
Posted January 7, 2003
This is by far the best biography of a man of science that I have ever encountered. Browne's treatment is thorough, informed and extremely well-organized and -written - a virtual "can't put it down." Not only does it get into the mind of the man but presents an excellent view of the persons, events and ideas surrounding him, showing how they affected his thinking. I eagerly await the second volume. And by the way, if the BBC wants to do a long series on Darwin, here is the place to start.
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Posted April 18, 2010
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