Saturday, June 20, 2009

Review of Janet Browne's Darwin's Origins of Species

Review of Darwin’s Origins of Species: Books that Changed the World
By Janet Browne

Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

As the foremost historian on scientist and evolutionary thinker Charles Darwin, Janet Browne successfully writes an accessible and vivid “biography”, or account of the past and continued development of the man’s most influential work On the Origin of Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, first published in 1859. Her book adequately fits the niche of a “popular science” type novel, great for an introduction to the topic or overview of general ideas.

In this straight-forward, elegantly written historical biography, Browne documents not only the history of Origin, but of Darwin as well. Structurally, the book is divided into five sections, beginning with Darwin’s childhood, then a discussion of the influential ideas, then the publication, then the controversy surrounding the publication, and most uniquely, a section on the legacy of the scientific treatise. Throughout these sections, Browne does a fine job balancing the narrative of Darwin, such as the anecdote involving chemistry labs and his brother, Erasmus, with an explanation of the scientific ideas, such as the explanation of Lyell, and then Darwin’s gradualism.

What is most noticeable and influential in the environment that Janet Browne paints Darwin growing up is the Victorian society, in which “apes or angels, Darwin or the Bible” and revolution were the questions of the day, and other great thinkers (the work of his contemporaries and predecessors significantly influence his thinking, often making it difficult to understand why Darwin was unique and not just an extension of previous thoughts), such as Lyell and Marx. Origin was received during a time when big questions were being asked, and it seemed to provide an answer that not everyone was ready for yet. In fact, on some questions, Darwin was noticeably silent, in particular he avoided the discussion of human origins and of divine presence in the natural world.

One of the Browne’s greatest strengths is to compare Darwin and Darwin’s work with other contemporary thinkers and their ideas. For example, Browne’s comparison of anonymous author Robert Chambers of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Darwin of Origins in the second section highlighted not only the need for Darwin to acknowledge the influences of other great thinkers of his time, but also his ability to also be highly critical of them in order to make his own work better, “obsessively, he began to build up his own edifice of dependable factual information that would be so much admired when he eventually published Origin of Species, and which life his book far above the ordinary”.

Browne made numerous observations that were especially interesting to me. For one, she discusses the difficulty of vocabulary that Darwin encountered in writing his work, “the language he had to hand was the language of Milton and Shakespeare, steeped in teleology and purpose, not the objective, value-free terminology sought by science”, certainly factors that could influence the reception and perceived validity of his work. I also enjoyed her critical analysis of the structure of the book, offering an explanation for the “Difficulties of the theory” chapter that Darwin includes, one that she believes makes the Origin an honest account. Having read from numerous other biographies that Emma, Darwin’s wife, was a great force in censoring some of his religious ideas, I was pleased to read that Emma helped with editing the book in a value-free way.

Overall, Browne paints an exceedingly positive picture of Darwin. Unlike the boy of childhood academic woes and troubles that we see in even his own autobiography, Browne describes Darwin’s studies at Edinburgh as such, “after a diligent start, sixteen-year-old Darwin found the realities of early nineteenth-century medicine upsetting. Two ‘very bad’ operations, one on a child, convinced him he would never make a doctor and he left in 1827”. In later chapters, she does not depict him as ambitious or competitive with other great thinkers, though other correspondences and works, have shown differently. While we may want to think of and worship Darwin as a heroic, all-good figure, this would be false adoration. More accurately, and perhaps more realistically, we should recognize Darwin as human, with faults and weaknesses just like the rest of us.

Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: Books That Changed the World is a well-written and well-rounded introductory book to the study of his life and major work, though suffers from an exceedingly positive picture and may leave readers thirsting for more about his scientific theory.

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