Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Janet Browne

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
by Janet Browne
Hardcover, 624 pages
Knopf; (September 10, 2002)
ISBN: 0679429328

If the first volume of Janet Browne's impressive biography of Charles Darwin, the 1995 "Charles Darwin: Voyagings," uses the metaphor of the voyage to symbolize the dominant thread of Darwin's early years, her new volume," Charles Darwin: The Power of Place," which has just won the National Book Award, moors him securely to his home in the English countryside and the plenty he was able to find in his little piece of earth.

The picture of Darwin that emerges from her biography, the one of an addicted collector and an impassioned observer of tidbits of nature from his own English gardens and exotic voyage around the world as well as everything he could cajole out of his network of scientific friends, casual acquaintances and even absolute strangers, but most importantly with the gift to take these pieces of observed fact and put them together into a theory that was to transform the mind of the world in which he lived and cast a long shadow on the world that was to come.

Volume one takes Darwin from his birth to the 1850's as he begins to develop and fine tune his ideas of species adaptation and natural selection as a result of his readings of the work of Robert Malthus, his new understanding of some of the implications of the geological ideas of Sir Charles Lyell, and his intensive study of barnacles, pigeon breeding, and plant fertilization. Although focused primarily on Darwin's growth and development as a scientist, Browne does not neglect all the other elements of his life. Sometimes these are treated in summary fashion without the kind of detail given his accomplishments as a naturalist, still there always enough to paint a well rounded portrait of the man himself.

For example while making clear that he was a doting father by showing him in all his glory with his first child, William, there quite a bit less about the rest of the considerable brood--in some cases little more than the mention of a name in a lt. Indeed the same can be said for his personal relations with the rest of his family. There no question of his love for his wife, but there little attempt to fill in the minutiae of their daily lives together. Detail reserved for his five year voyage on the Beagle; his friendships with the great naturalist--the botanist, the zoologist, the entomologist, the ichthyologist, the geologist--of the day. The scientific minds of the nineteenth century, both foreign and domestic, great and small, friend and stranger, are the cast of thousands that parade through the pages of this biography.

While emphasizing Darwin's ability to think outside the nineteenth century box when it came to interpreting the data he had so painstakingly collected, Browne is also mindful to point out that there were others moving in similar directions, perhaps not as carefully nor as seriously, but still in some ways prefiguring what Darwin was going to do and in some sense cutting the beginnings of the path he was to bulldoze. "Vestiges of the Natural Hotly of Creation,"; published anonymously by the Ccottish popularizer, Robert Chambers, perhaps the one most extensively treated in the first volume. In the second volume, she discusses the essay of Alfred Russell Wallace which precipitated Darwin's eventual decision to finally write and publish his own work.

Browne, however, makes clear that in other than scientific respects, Darwin was a man of his time. She points out his paternalistic attitudes to the native populations he came across on the Beagle voyage, attitudes typical of the colonizing Englishman of the day absolutely certain of the superiority of his own culture to anything he might come across anywhere else. his attitudes towards woman were also typical of his day; he saw no reason to educate his daughters beyond the characteristic accomplishments in language and the arts offered by the ubiquitous governess. And even though he found his own abortive attempt at the traditional classical education unrewarding and worth little, he was unwilling to try something more radical for his first son, although he did come round for his later sons.

Her second volume reiterates this theme in her decision of some of his thinking in "The Descent of Man"; where she concludes that he subscribed "wholeheartedly"; to the presumed progressive movement of civilization so dear to the hearts of so many Victorian thinkers. "Darwin certainly believed that the moral and cultural principles of his own people, and of his own day, were by far the highest that had emerged in evolutionary history."; Even his tendency for personifying the force he called natural selection in the "Origin of Species"; suggested to many vestiges of that designing force which his more orthodox contemporaries equated with the deity. Radical thinking in one area is not radical thinking in all areas.

Further illustrating his ties to his age, Browne points to the rationalist scientist's seemingly contradictory passion for the sentimental novels so popular in the Victorian period, a passion Darwin himself acknowledges in his "Autobiography:"; ". . .novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelist. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily--against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.";

Surely a remarkable, but nonetheless welcome, confession from a gentleman of science.

Darwin, by the time the first volume leaves him has settled outside of London into a family enclave at Down House in Kent that the author compares to a ship of which he is the captain and where life arranged to revolve around his needs and the important work that he was doing.

Recipient of a large inheritance from his financially astute father, he was blessed with the leisure to pursue his scientific inclinations as something of a gentleman amateur, not unusual in his day. He had no need to meet the requirements of making a living for his family. He was free to indulge his interests wherever they might lead. Perhaps the only fly in his idyllic prospect was his health. Continually bothered by a bad stomach, vomiting, eczema, pain and gas, he often found it necessary to isolate himself from society. The cause of his problems was never really accurately diagnosed and he vainly subjected himself to a variety of popular treatments--including cold water baths and wraps. While there is no doubt of his suffering, Browne suggests that his sickness may well have also provided him with an effective excuse to avoid those duties that he found distressing like funerals--he did not attend those of his father or close friends like Lyell--or time consuming, like attending meetings. Moreover, he seems to have relished the attentions his illnesses won him from his wife and family.

Browne's second volume begins in 1858 with the circumstances surrounding the production and reception of what the great work of Darwin's life, the "Origin of Species."; Having spent twenty years collecting factual material, Darwin was only compelled into presenting his revolutionary work to the public by a co-incidence. One of his many scientific correspondents, Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay that he had written for his perusal and help in getting it to the right people. Darwin read the essay and was shocked to find that it was in fact his own theory in summary. Worried over the loss of his proprietorship of the idea and his ethical obligation to Wallace, he consulted his scientific friends and was persuaded to get his own theories out to the public in a joint presentation with the Wallace essay. Without this impetus he might well continued his collection of facts ad infinitum.

Browne points out that 1859, the year in which the book was published might well have been one of the most productive literary year in British history. 1859 saw the publication of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King,"; Mill's "On Liberty,"; Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities,"; Eliot's "Adam Bede,"; as well as one of the most popular books of the period, Samuel Smiles, "Self-Help."; Still none stirred the pot like Darwin's.

Even though Darwin had been careful to leave the question of the application of his ideas about natural selection to the human animal, critics like Richard Owen, whom he had thought a friend, were quick to accuse him of looking to the ape for man's ancestry. The "man from monkey"; was to become the icon for those who looked to attack Darwin and his ideas about evolution. Moreover it was also to become the essential theme of the man who was to become his most influential defender, Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley. Throughout most of the controversy surrounding his work, it was Huxley and his other scientific friends who fought the battle, as though it were unseemly for the great man to soil his dignity in the trenches of partisan warfare. So, with a little help from his friends, Darwin went on happily to pursue his more esoteric observations and experiments--with orchids, with insect eating plants, with climbing plants.

It wasn't until the 1871 that he felt it necessary because of the differences he perceived between his Darwinist disciples and himself on the evolutionary development of man to publish his own ideas on the subject. He had been collecting material on the subject even before the "Origin,"; but had carefully shied away from the added controversy the touchy subject was bound to raise, but by the seventies, Browne points out, he felt it necessary to speak out because he disagreed with the insistence of friends like Lyell and Wallace on a spiritual element in the evolution of man as opposed to that of other life forms. "The Descent of Man"; was his answer.

Steeled for a furor over the book, he was perhaps surprised at how mild the criticism was. Most reviewers took his ideas seriously even if expressing moderate disagreement. Browne concludes that his celebrity and his status as a cultural icon for the scientific spirit may well have blunted much of his audience to the consequences of his ideas. At any rate the book seems to have stirred nowhere near the controversy of the "Origin of Species.";

Indeed the last years of his life brought him official honors and recognition, culminating in his interment in Westminster Abbey, somewhat surprising for such a radical thinker. It was almost, as Browne suggests, as though the man had achieved a cultural importance beyond the controversy of his ideas. his honest and thoughtful exploration of new ideas seemed more important than the ideas themselves. The process he symbolized--even when that process was being challenged and superseded by more rigorous methods-- represented more than the product.

Browne's two volumes are invaluable, measured guides to one of the most controversial figures of the nineteenth century.

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