Much like David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006) and Edward J. Larson’s Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (2004), Harvard historian of science Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography (2007, ‘Books That Changed the World’ series, which also includes the Bible, the Qur’an, Smith’s Wealth of Nations , Plato’s Republic, Paine’s Rights of Man, and Marx’s Das Kapital) serves, I think, as a great introductory book on the topic of Darwin and evolution (for either lay persons wishing to become familiar with the topic or for undergraduate level courses in the history of science or biology). I wrote of Larson’s book before for a history of modern science course:
Edward J. Larson’s Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory is a wonderful compact book that does well to relate the social, cultural and political forces at work through the past two centuries of evolutionary thought. It is simple and broad, and Larson’s non-scientific prose adds to it being a great book for an introduction to Darwin, evolutionary theories, and the conflicts and successes the idea of evolution has endured.
Browne’s book better fits this description, for it adds more readable prose and unlike Larson’s book, does not contain a wealth of grammatical errors. Of course, at only 153 pages, Browne’s book hits some topics well (Darwin’s life and work) while passing over others quickly (creationism in the late 20th century). Unlike Quammen, Browne does discuss the Beagle voyage, then moves on to the period of Darwin’s work from 1836 to 1859, when On the Origin of Species was published. The remainder of the book tells of the influence (or lack thereof) that Darwin’s evolutionary theory has had on both the sciences and society. Now I will mention particular points in her book that I liked. Browne brings up the debate about whether or not Darwin delayed in publishing On the Origin of Species for fear of ridicule and criticism (from the religious folk). This debate in the history of science has been most recently discussed by Cambridge historian of science John van Wyhe ( “Mind the gap: did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years?” Notes & Records of the Royal Society 61 (2007): 177-205). Browne reiterates van Wyhe’s claim that “Darwin’s Delay” is a historical myth, and that instead of a delay Darwin was using the time for research (especially on barnacles) and experimentation – in essence, Darwin wanted to know that he had it right before he published his theory. Browne writes:
Nowadays, in the light of all that is known about his personality and correspondence, it seems feasible to suggest that a strong commitment to scientific accuracy and a proper sense of scientific caution were at least as high in his mind as any fear of the consequences of publication. (p. 50).
Historians tend to smile at so much time spent on ingignificant organisms [8 years on barnacles] and call it a sideline, a delaying tactic in order that Darwin might avoid confronting the furore that would arise out of publishing his other more wide-ranging evolutionary views… What he found in barnacles, however, brought important shifts in his biological understanding, strengthened his belief in evolution and provided an essential backdrop to Origin of Species. (p. 54).
Browne also explains in several instances how Darwin did not single-handedly rid God from society or how he cannot be attributed to racism, eugenics, or genocide, as is often the case that creationists attempt to make. If Darwin and his work are responsible for these atrocities to humanity, they argue, then we must dismiss the theories. However, we never hear of anyone attempting to dismantle chemistry because of the consequences of the atomic bomb droppings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That humanity can apply science to its wishes for how they think the world ought to be should bear no claim on the validity of that science. As much as science changes based on new observations, evidence, etc., science is how we understand our world, a way of knowing. How we take that understanding and use it to change the world is different. Jared Diamond used geographical factors to explain how human races came to be where they are today (politically, economically, etc.) in Guns, Germs, and Steel. What Diamond misses, however, is that although whites historically have had scientific and technological advantages over the rest of the world because of the geography of where they lived, there was still a conscience human decision behind the acts of colonialism, slavery, genocide, etc., and this decision was based on a constructed division of savage versus civilized man. Many miss a similar point when it comes to Darwin – although people used his theories to support their racist, eugenic, and colonial actions, Darwin cannot be attributed to starting these lines of thinking.
Browne writes that “racism and genocide predated Darwin” (p. 128) and that “Darwin’s Origin of Species can hardly account for all the racial sterotyping, nationalist fervour and harshly expressed prejudice tot be found in the years to come” (p. 108). She notes, however, that On the Origin of Species became a tool to support this thinking: “there can be no denying the impact of providing a biological backing for human warfare and notions of racial superiority”(p. 108), or “evolutionary views, and then the new science of genetics, gave powerful biological backing to those who wished to partition society according to ethnic difference or promote white supremacy” (p. 128). In regards to the impact Darwin had on religion, Browne reminds us that “[a]nxious doubts, secular inclinations and dissatisfaction with conventional doctrines were launched among intellectuals long before Darwin came on to the scene” (p. 63). Also, Darwin’s theories hardly cast doubt on a literal belief in Genesis:
Learned biblical study since the Enlightenment had encouraged Christians increasingly to regard the early stories as potent metaphors rather than literal accounts. Biblical fundamentalism is mostly a modern concern, not a Victorian one. 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 purpose or design. (p. 86)
As a history of science student, I have learned to see how social, cultural, political, and religious factors contribute to science, and how science in turn can affect these institutions. A “rather modern combination of manufacturing affluence, gentlemenly social standing, religious scepticism and cultivated background,” Browne writes, “ensured that Darwin always had a place in upper middle-class society and the prospect of a comfortable inheritance, both of which served as very material factors in his later achievements” (p. 10). If factors about his life enabled Darwin to be the meticulous, detailed scientist (amateur or not) he was, then his science was influenced by the society in which he lived, for no one could “fail to notice the way that Darwin’s biology mirrored the British nation in all its competitive, entrepreneurial, factory spirit” (p. 67). Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels in 1862:
It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and the plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’É in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.
Browne also touches on smaller aspects about Darwin’s life and work that I find interesting. It is too often said that the first printing of On the Origin of Species sold out it’s first day (see Larson, p. 88). A reader would assume, then, that the public went out and snatched up copies of the book like they do now with the Harry Potter books. Browne corrects this assumption (as does Quammen (p. 174)) by stating on the very first page that it “sold out to the book trade on publication day” (p. 10). The importance of writing letters was crucial for Darwin in his gathering of information and facts for his developing theories:
Without this extraordinary correspondence… Darwin’s theory would have sunk. In this he was materially helped by the rapid development of the Victorian postal system, brought to a peak of efficiency by Rowland Hill from the 1840s and 1850s, and the expanding infrastructure of empire. (p. 88)
Browne would know, of course, of the importance of correspondence to Darwin, a sedentary naturalist. She worked on the early volumes of Darwin’s correspondence. She also gives a brief account of the work of Darwin’s colleague and friend, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who also made use of international correspondence. Hooker was a naturalist and administrator (of Kew Gardens) who was “aimed at the empire of botany” (p. 91). Hooker’s career attests to the connection between science and society, with Kew Gardens playing an important role in British colonial expansion ( economic botany or colonial botany). Forthcoming (2008) is historian of science Jim Endersby’s book, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the practices of Victorian science . Finally, I enjoyed the reference to the distinction between field and laboratory biology, which I read a little about when I did my paper on Darwin and his seed germination experiments. Browne has a way with words so that in a sentence or two she can sum up a concept for the reader:
By the last decade of the nineteenth century their aim was not to catalogue dead animals and plants but to understand the inner workings of living, breathing bodies – a self-conscious conceptual break from the past. This new attitude to biology reflected a major move away from observational natural history towards a more experimental, laboratory-based form of investigation, a move that can be seen taking place in almost all of the sciences at the time. Traditional natural history, of course, did not stop; it became sidelined, sometimes regarded as the province of amateur naturalists, or otherwise reconstituted as new sciences of animal behaviour, ecology and environmentalism. Like physics and chemistry, biology was becoming something that was primarily practised indoors, in a lab, under controlled conditions, and increasingly with the financial aid of government agencies. (p. 132)
Overall, I liked Browne’s book, better than Larson’s but not quite as much as Quammen’s. I would have preferred some consistency in the title of Darwin’s “one long argument.” Browne goes back and forth between Origin of Species, On the Origin of Species, or just plainly Origin. This is merely a minor detail, but I like consistency. Browne tells us that an illustration from Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature is the “first pictorial representation of evolution” and “has since become as iconic as the double helix of DNA” (p. 97). Probably more iconic is Darwin’s illustration of a branching tree from one of his transmutation notebooks (notebook B, 1837), which predates Huxley’s image. Maybe Huxley’s is a picture whereas Darwin’s is a diagram, I don’t know. But even Darwin was not the first to draw a tree of life, for Lamarck had such a sketch in his Philosophie Zoologique (1809). (See Mark Wheelis, “Darwin: Not the First to Sketch a Tree,” Science 315 (February 2, 2007): 597. Unfortunately, Wheelis attributes Darwin’s tree to an 1868 notebook).