Charles Darwin

The Power of Place

Janet Browne

Pimlico 1996, 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
This is a long but rewarding two-volume biography, covering the details of Darwin's life but emphasizing broader ideas and themes in his contribution to science and his embedding in the world of 19th century England.

Browne's presentation of Darwin's scientific work and writing is chronological, but she treats the more domestic aspects of his life thematically. Descriptions of his illness and use of water cures, for example, are concentrated in a couple of places, while his relationships with his servants, his position in the village as a patron and organiser, and his choice and management of investments are among many topics left to a long final chapter. This approach avoids cluttering up the central themes and ideas, and allows core themes and ideas to be seen more clearly.

Darwin's Beagle voyage of 1831 to 1836 was dominated by geology and anthropology as much as or even more than by biology. Lyell was a major inspiration and he investigated volcanism, the uplift of the Andes, and the formation of coral reefs, as well observing an attempt to start a mission on Tierra del Fuego and missionaries in Tahiti and New Zealand. Darwin's account of his voyage had "Geology and Natural History" in its title and it was the Geological Society which he served as secretary.

Darwin was fairly conventionally religious in his early life, with no major disagreements with Beagle captain FitzRoy, and he abandoned the idea of becoming a parson for other reasons. His loss of faith and later movement towards outright atheism proceeded slowly, and his willingness to openly reveal this even more slowly, with concerns about his relationships with his wife, family, friends, and broader society.

The support of Darwin's father and family was immensely important throughout his life. His decision to go on the Beagle was (eventually) endorsed and he was financially supported — Darwin drew 1200 pounds on his father's account while travelling, a colossal sum. His father was a capital broker as well as a doctor and Darwin inherited enough to live a life of luxury, not subject to the constraints he would have faced as a Cambridge professor. And his broader extended family provided emotional and social support — and a suitable wife in cousin Emma Wedgwood.

The idea of natural selection came out of early work on the Beagle collections and inspiration from reading Malthus, but was the result of hard work and long thought. By 1844 Darwin had finished an outline of his species theory, which he put aside with instructions for his wife to follow on his death, including a list of candidates for publishing it — which offers insights into his opinions of his peers and which Browne analyses in detail. The anonymous publication in late 1844 of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a popular argument for transmutation, brought a response which warned Darwin about the backlash he himself might face.

In order to be able to answer some of the questions he had raised, he decided he needed a better understanding of taxonomy and anatomy, and in 1846 started a study of barnacles which was to last eight years. Here and in other endeavours, Darwin drew on a wide-ranging correspondence, building up an international network of informants. These provided further evidence about the movement of animals and plants, especially to islands. And barnacles and pigeon breeding taught him that variation was normal.

Browne's narrative also covers Darwin's marriage and move to the country, his illness, his children and the death of his favourite daughter, Annie. She also gives some feel for the sweeping changes that England experienced during these years, and their affects on Darwin's life.

The second volume, The Power of Place, begins with a recapitulation, but commences in earnest with the letter from Wallace, in Ternate, presenting his theory of natural selection and asking Darwin to present it to Lyell. This led to the famous presentation by Lyell and Hooker at the Linnean Society, and pushed Darwin to write The Origin of Species.

Half of The Power of Place is devoted to the decade or so following publication of The Origin of Species. Browne doesn't offer a general account of the reception of Darwin's ideas, but focuses on his own ongoing involvement. Four figures — Lyell, Hooker, Huxley and Gray — were Darwin's friends and most prominent supporters, but his personal and scientific links were everywhere intertwined. Darwin ran a sophisticated "public relations" campaign by correspondence, using review copies and networking to good effect; Browne places this within the broader Victorian explosions in letter-writing and publishing.

In further work and publications Darwin addressed variation (proposing a concept of gemmules that was in some ways prescient of genetics), the origins of man, sexual selection, and facial expressions, and used his gardens and hothouses to study carnivorous plants, orchids, and earthworms.

Darwin had concerns about his own illness being hereditary, and about having married a cousin. He largely avoided outside engagements, whether political or scientific, but he did get into one feud following attacks on his son; another exception was his involvement with regulation of experimentation on animals. Browne describes key photographs of Darwin, his representations in satire and caricature, and his status as celebrity and reception of visitors.

Browne's is more expansive than the other biographies of Darwin I have read, uses a broader range of sources, and often emphasizes different events or ideas. She uses the natural biographical structure to provide continuity and narrative drive, but balances that with substantial exploration of the scientific and historical context. The thousand pages of text in the two volumes don't seem long at all.

February 2009

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%T Voyaging
%Y Charles Darwin
%A Browne, Janet
%I Pimlico
%D 1996 [1995]
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9781844133147
%P 605pp

%T The Power of Place
%Y Charles Darwin
%A Browne, Janet
%I Pimlico
%D 2003
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780712668378
%P 591pp