Saturday, June 6, 2009

Book Review: Browne's "Origin" Biography

Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography by Janet Browne is a fantastic introduction not just to the Origin but to Darwin’s entire life. Through descriptions of the influences, encounters, setbacks, and controversies leading to the Origin's publication, Browne succeeds in painting a complete picture of both Darwin and his most famous book.

Incredibly well-written, clearly organized, and fast-moving, Browne’s book is a pleasure to read—a rare find (for me, at least) in a historical biography. She’s successful largely because she approaches the story of the Origin from a reader’s perspective, connecting present-day understandings of the book to the Victorian context in which it was originally received. She connects Darwin’s societal impact to that of other well-known thinkers like Marx and Malthus, and ultimately, through those connections, makes a good case for the book’s ongoing significance as a story of the “modern world.”

Like we’ve done in class, Browne takes a “paradigm” approach to her discussion of the Origin, examining the book through the lenses of Darwin’s childhood, intellectual influences, and writing process; as well as the historical times, and the structure of the Origin, itself.

The first section of Browne’s book explores Darwin’s childhood up through his time on the Beagle—his surprisingly average life, as well as his unique influences, particularly his interactions with some of the great geologists, botanists, and biologists of the era.

Browne sets the Origin in its Victorian context, where “apes or angels, Darwin or the Bible” were “burning topics.” As Darwin was writing the Origin, England was entrenched in social conflicts—there was tension between workers and masters; England’s rural past and its burgeoning industrial cities. Fear of revolution and unease about threats to the status quo made evolution a risky topic. Other figures like Marx and Malthus were developing new social theories that overlapped with Darwin’s biological ideas.

She describes the evolution of Darwin’s own ideas as he constructs the Origin; his progression of insights; the series of notebooks he used; his debate over how controversial to be—for example, whether to include a discussion of human evolution in the book.

Because of her attention to detail, Browne is able to debunk a lot of common Darwin-myths, providing readers with a more nuanced understanding of the man and his book. This was the first book I read on Darwin, so I was surprised to learn (for example) how influenced he was by creationists like William Paley and Asa Gray.

One of the most interesting myths I think Browne debunks is the myth of opposition to the Origin because of its challenge to the literal story in Genesis. On the contrary, explains Browne, people during Victorian times were mainly OK with a metaphorical interpretation of Genesis. “The real challenge of Darwinism for Victorians was that it turned life into an amoral chaos displaying no evidence of a divine authority or any sense of a purpose or design.” It is only today that the literal interpretation of Genesis has become important to proponents of creationism.

I was also interested to learn about the initial controversy between molecular genetics and Darwin’s theories, which were seen to be at odds for some time until they were eventually synthesized. The fact that people could see the two as incompatible—something kind of unthinkable to us today—gives great insight into the perspective people had during Darwin’s times, and makes us wonder about the similar “mental blocks” we may have in our own scientific outlooks.

Despite the book’s many merits, I think it is important to take it as an interpretation of Darwin’s work, of which there are many. Browne, for example, seems to suggest that Darwin delayed publishing the Origin due to a critical intellectual climate; we know that John van Wyhe thinks otherwise. We also know that Browne took Darwin’s assertions in his autobiography to heart, which seems a dubious decision, considering how long after the fact he wrote them.

Overall, Browne’s book was a fantastic introduction to Darwin’s life and most famous work. It was a fast read that gave me a baseline understanding, and helped me generate more detailed and informed questions for further research.


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