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Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

by Janet Browne

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In 1858 Charles Darwin was forty-nine years old, a gentleman scientist living quietly at Down House in the Kent countryside, respected by fellow biologists and well liked among his wide and distinguished circle of acquaintances. He was not yet a focus of debate; his “big book on species” still lay on his study desk in the form of a huge pile of manuscript.


In 1858 Charles Darwin was forty-nine years old, a gentleman scientist living quietly at Down House in the Kent countryside, respected by fellow biologists and well liked among his wide and distinguished circle of acquaintances. He was not yet a focus of debate; his “big book on species” still lay on his study desk in the form of a huge pile of manuscript. For more than twenty years he had been accumulating material for it, puzzling over questions it raised, trying—it seemed endlessly—to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Publication appeared to be as far away as ever, delayed by his inherent cautiousness and wish to be certain that his startling theory of evolution was correct.

It is at this point that the concluding volume of Janet Browne’s biography opens. The much-praised first volume, Voyaging, carried Darwin’s story through his youth and scientific apprenticeship, the adventurous Beagle voyage, his marriage and the birth of his children, the genesis and development of his ideas. Now, beginning with the extraordinary events that finally forced the Origin of Species into print, we come to the years of fame and controversy.

For Charles Darwin, the intellectual upheaval touched off by his book had deep personal as well as public consequences. Always an intensely private man, he suddenly found himself and his ideas being discussed—and often attacked—in circles far beyond those of his familiar scientific community. Demonized by some, defended by others (including such brilliant supporters as Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker), he soon emerged as one of the leading thinkers of the Victorian era, a man whosetheories played a major role in shaping the modern world. Yet, in spite of the enormous new pressures, he clung firmly, sometimes painfully, to the quiet things that had always meant the most to him—his family, his research, his network of correspondents, his peaceful life at Down House.

In her account of this second half of Darwin’s life, Janet Browne does dramatic justice to all aspects of the Darwinian revolution, from a fascinating examination of the Victorian publishing scene to a survey of the often furious debates between scientists and churchmen over evolutionary theory. At the same time, she presents a wonderfully sympathetic and authoritative picture of Darwin himself right through the heart of the Darwinian revolution, busily sending and receiving letters, pursuing research on subjects that fascinated him (climbing plants, earthworms, pigeons—and, of course, the nature of evolution), writing books, and contending with his mysterious, intractable ill health. Thanks to Browne’s unparalleled command of the scientific and scholarly sources, we ultimately see Darwin more clearly than we ever have before, a man confirmed in greatness but endearingly human.

Reviewing Voyaging, Geoffrey Moorhouse observed that “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.” The Power of Place triumphantly justifies that praise.

Author Biography: Janet Browne trained as a biologist, took her Ph.D. in the history of science, and has served as associate editor of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. She is the author of several books and many scholarly papers. She is professor in the history of biology at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London and is currently president of the British Society for the History of Science.

Editorial Reviews

Eric Wargo
This book follows Browne's acclaimed Charles Darwin: Voyaging, which covered the first half of the life of the great nineteenth-century naturalist, including his formation of the theory of natural selection. Darwin's transformation into a mature scholar culminates, in this second installment, with his first, tentative publications and then his monumental On the Origin of Species. Darwin's exotic travels are over, but his struggle to refine his ideas and publicize them are no less exciting. We see Darwin struggle to balance ambition and honor in a world where, Browne explains, evolutionary ideas were in the air, and where colleagues like Alfred Russel Wallace were independently hitting on notions similar to Darwin's own—causing Darwin at times to doubt his own originality. We also see Darwin the aging scholar and patriarch, doggedly pursuing his studies and his family life despite debilitating illness. Intellectual biographies can often be dull, but Browne's is a pleasure to read. It's also astonishing in its depth and scope—about not only Darwin but also his milieu, the necessary context to his achievement.
Publishers Weekly
When Browne published her first volume on the life of Darwin seven years ago (Charles Darwin: Voyaging), she secured her reputation as the last word on the Victorian naturalist. Now she has published the much-anticipated second half, and it is more spellbinding than the first, which ended on a cliffhanger of sorts. Darwin was back from his Beagle voyages, his famous evolutionary principles were distilled in his mind and the Bible-centered science of his day was about to be convulsed forever. Here, Browne picks up the story a year before the publication of On the Origin of Species, with the arrival of a package from Alfred Russel Wallace, whose own ideas on natural selection virtually mirrored Darwin's, forcing him to go public; as Browne shows, he proved himself a master tactician of institutional and media spin. Browne's subject is monumental, but her writing style is never overburdened by the weight. Rather, her prose is elegant in its clarity of thought, her craftsmanship impeccable in the way it weaves a coherent whole from the innumerable threads of thought, experience and persona that comprised this colossal life. Darwin's science, Browne contends, was characterized by his systematic use of correspondence, which the author puts to effective use in her narrative, again illustrating how the naturalist's thought was as much the collective product of his day as it was its single-most intellectual catalyst. Readers are left with the image of the sailor returned home to dig in his garden, stare into the past and, in dying, slip into legend. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This volume concludes a magisterial biography. The first volume, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, examined how the young Darwin formed his ideas. Now Browne, a zoologist and historian of science, offers a frank, comprehensive, and detailed account of the last half of Darwin's life (l858-82), focusing on both his major contributions to natural history and his pioneering researches into many biological subjects, ranging from orchids and insectivorous plants to the inheritance of characteristics and earthworms. She stresses the serious scientific and theological controversies that surrounded the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (l871) and emphasizes the great value Darwin found in his relationships with like-minded naturalists such as Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Wallace. Besides all the facts, ideas, and events, the reader also discovers the human side of the scientific father of organic evolution. Of special interest is Browne's attention to Darwin's quiet family life at Down House, including insights into his voluminous correspondence and debilitating ill health. In this very impressive volume, Darwin emerges as a modest and private genius consumed with the need to understand the complexities of life forms through critical observation and persistent experimentation. Highly recommended for all academic and public science collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/02.] H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Continuing where Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) left off, the British science historian completes her brilliant two-volume biography. The narrative opens in 1858, when Darwin received a letter posted by Alfred Russel Wallace from a faraway Indonesian island. Though it reinforced Darwin's long-held (but unpublished) evolutionary views, the letter destroyed any hope that he was the sole originator of those ideas. The shock prompted the writing and reluctant publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, but Darwin shouldn't have been surprised, writes Browne (History of Biology/Wellcome Inst., London). Anticipations of natural selection and speciation abounded in contemporary scientific literature; he had simply "closed his mind to the possibility that other thinkers might be moving along the same road as he and that any one of them might come up with the same answer." To his credit, Darwin accommodated the views of Wallace and others, which had the effect of unifying disparate parties in what amounted to a scientific revolution. At a time of unfettered empire, aggressively expanding markets, and "carboniferous capitalism," Darwin's exploration of the struggle for survival and the necessity of adaptation seemed very apt, even though it overturned Victorians' notions that nature "mirrored the social stability they thought they saw around them." On the contrary, Darwin quietly insisted, the world had no moral purpose or validity. He himself was not inclined to rely on fate, Brown demonstrates: for all his apparent desire to be left alone to lead the life of a country gentleman, Darwin was a shrewd self-promoter, vigorously publicizing his work even in the depths of a long illness that shesuggests may have been brought on in part by his tireless labors. An overlooked magazine questionnaire from 1874 reveals that he considered himself something of a failure except as a businessman. A richly detailed, vivid, and definitive portrait with not a word wasted: the best life of Charles Darwin in the modern literature.
New York Times
This biography is matchless in detail and compass, and one feels an abiding gratitude that Browne was willing to sacrifice so many years of her life to reconstruct Darwin's.
— John Tooby
Atlantic Monthly
A masterpiece. . . . Brown took on an enormously ambitious project, and only an astonishingly skillful writer and a masterly historian could have pulled it off. She has.
— Benjamin Schwarz
Scientific American
[A] sprawling, magnificent biography. Integrating the best of current scholarship with her own discoveries, Browne's account is state of the art.
— Richard Milner
American Scientist
Superb. . . . An intimate yet clinical study.
— Keith Stuart Thomas
Soothing, unhurried, and absorbing. . . . Browne has succeeded triumphantly in the biographer's most important task: she has made [Darwin] human.
— Jane Ridley
New York Times - John Tooby
This biography is matchless in detail and compass, and one feels an abiding gratitude that Browne was willing to sacrifice so many years of her life to reconstruct Darwin's.
Atlantic Monthly - Benjamin Schwarz
A masterpiece. . . . Brown took on an enormously ambitious project, and only an astonishingly skillful writer and a masterly historian could have pulled it off. She has.
Scientific American - Richard Milner
[A] sprawling, magnificent biography. Integrating the best of current scholarship with her own discoveries, Browne's account is state of the art.
American Scientist - Keith Stuart Thomas
Superb. . . . An intimate yet clinical study.
Spectator - Jane Ridley
Soothing, unhurried, and absorbing. . . . Browne has succeeded triumphantly in the biographer's most important task: she has made [Darwin] human.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

Winner of the 2004 Pfizer Prize, History of Science Society

"This biography is matchless in detail and compass, and one feels an abiding gratitude that Browne was willing to sacrifice so many years of her life to reconstruct Darwin's."—John Tooby, New York Times

"A masterpiece. . . . Brown took on an enormously ambitious project, and only an astonishingly skillful writer and a masterly historian could have pulled it off. She has."—Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly

"[A] sprawling, magnificent biography. Integrating the best of current scholarship with her own discoveries, Browne's account is state of the art."—Richard Milner,Scientific American

"Superb. . . . An intimate yet clinical study."—Keith Stuart Thomas,American Scientist

"Soothing, unhurried, and absorbing. . . . Browne has succeeded triumphantly in the biographer's most important task: she has made [Darwin] human."—Jane Ridley, Spectator

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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New Edition
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6.58(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.85(d)

Read an Excerpt


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 couldafford 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?

Copyright 2002 by Janet Browne

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