Saturday, June 20, 2009

Review of Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography

Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species is an unusual Darwin biography in that it is as much about the the Origin of Species and its impact as it is about the author himself. Browne is out to convince the reader that the creation and publication of the Origin is the tale of the modern world coming into existence. A lofty goal, indeed, but Browne pulls it off wonderfully, crafting a thorough and concise account of the history of the ideas behind Darwin’s seminal work while maintaining a neutral yet impassioned voice.

Browne’s book is very much the story of Darwin’s world and the Origin’s role in leading it into modernization. 19th century English society was unabashedly Victorian and increasingly industrialized. This environment of transition was ripe for the introduction of Darwin’s ideas, as both shared the mantras of specialization, diversification, and improvement. Religion, while a crucial pillar of Darwin’s society at the time, was being chipped away by an emerging contingent of philosophers questioning the validity of the Old Testament and creationism. The Origin-centric approach to this particular Darwin biography gives the book a great amount of focus. Details in Darwin’s early life that seem cobbled together in other Darwin biographies come together in fascinating ways when discussed in context of the Origin, effectively showing how Darwin’s life influenced the creation of the Origin. The book begins by retracing Darwin’s upbringing as part of the financially secure intelligentsia of Britain before moving on to Darwin’s formative years at Cambridge. During that time he cultivated his love for geology and encountered the pervasive influence of theology, two influences that repeatedly show up in the Origin. Similarly, Browne elaborates on the voyage on the Beagle’s merits as a character-building experience, allowing Darwin to develop the independence and his observation skills as a naturalist later needed to flesh out the nuances of the Origin.

This focus extends to the middle chapters of the book, where Browne summarizes the literature regarding the development, publication, and argument of the Origin. She hits all of the main points of contention, exploring the influence of Paley and Malthus while offering commentary on Darwin’s delay and the controversy regarding Alfred Wallace Russell. Her systematic reduction of the argument within the Origin is nicely done as well, breaking it down into its core principles of excessive numbers of very different offspring, the mechanism of natural selection, and the principle of divergence as well as addressing many of the common controversies surrounding the book like the rejection of the church and the lack of man’s special status.

Browne’s book is also notable for its distillation of the legacy of the Origin, offering a nicely condensed version of the key events that led Darwinism out of obscurity in the 20th century. During the late 19th and early 20th century Darwin’s ideas were countered by many scientists who found the paleontological evidence wanting, his ideas of selection incomplete. But there were scientists in the early 20th century that worked hard to draw the connections between Mendelian inheritance and Darwinian thought. In this regard Browne does a much better job than her contemporaries like Quammen in exploring the resurgence of Darwinism, detailing the role of Sewell Wright’s population genetics and G.G. Simpson’s explanation for the gaps in the fossil record in achieving the modern synthesis that arguably reshaped the field of biology into evolutionary biology.

Yet it is Browne’s reverent and accessible writing style that elevates her content above other Darwin biographies. Throughout the book she manages to maintain brevity while sacrificing very little in terms of intellectual integrity or sufficient exploration of key issues. Browne’s description of Darwin’s writing in the Origin as “dazzling, persuasive, friendly” very well applies to the quality of writing at work in her book. I was genuinely surprised by how much her passion for Darwin’s work contributed to her book’s readability, as it is a legitimate page-turner. Admittedly, this affectionate writing style also means that the rough edges of Darwin’s personality are smoothened over more than they should be, drawing attention away from the less savory personality tics like the pride that emerged in controversies like the Wallace publishing fiasco. But the reverence never crosses the line into idolatry; at the end of the day, Browne is just genuinely passionate about discussing Darwin’s contribution to the modernization of society and science, and the biography as a whole benefits greatly from it.

While other biographies may be more comprehensive or controversial, Browne’s considerable abilities as a writer and her undeniable admiration for Darwin makes this work a truly enjoyable read, regardless of prior knowledge of Darwin. As far as introductions go, Darwin’s Origin of Species is definitely the work to beat for anyone new to the life and works of Charles Darwin.

-Andrew Plan

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