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Review: Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
John C Greene
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
E. Janet Browne
New York: Knopf, 2002. 624 pages.
Readers who were enchanted with the first volume of Janet Browne's biography of Darwin will be equally pleased with this one. Here again Browne presents Darwin as the central figure in an expanding circle of contexts: the context of family, of upper-middle-class gentry, of Whig politics and religious outlook in a rapidly industrializing nation, of British naval domination and colonial empire around the globe. Darwin himself appears as a wealthy country gentleman settled comfortably in his house at Downe, surrounded by family and servants, in close touch with his scientific friends by letter and by occasional visits, protected from unwanted social engagements and professional responsibilities by chronic poor health, devouring scientific books and journals, observing and experimenting on the potted plants, pigeons, bees, and earthworms in his study, gardens, aviary, and the surrounding countryside, enlisting the aid of his children, servants, plant and animal breeders, and correspondents foreign and domestic in his search for facts, facts, facts — which would support his "subversive" theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection.

When Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay setting forth a similar theory and asked his help in getting it published, Darwin was forced into action. Darwin's friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker arranged to have Wallace's essay and some of Darwin's unpublished writings — including a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray predating Wallace's essay — read before the Linnaean Society and published in its journal. Relieved but shaken, Darwin went to work preparing an "Abstract" of the big species book entitled "Natural Selection" begun in May 1856. In November 1859, Darwin's "Abstract" appeared in print under the title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Janet Browne's account of Darwin's style of presenting his argument (p 53-7) is a masterpiece of interpretation and analysis linking that style to Darwin's gentlemanly personality, his use of well-known literary genres, his homely illustrations from the practical pursuits of gardeners and plant and animal breeders, his connections with leading men of science, and his implicit evocation of the competitive ethos and secularizing appeal to natural law in an industrializing British nation. "And what a book it was", writes Browne. "Few scientific texts have been so tightly woven, so packed with factual information and studded with richly inventive metaphor."

As to Darwin's mode of reasoning by analogy, Browne is certainly right that Darwin regarded the analogy between artificial and natural selection as "the best and safest clue" in unraveling the secrets of nature. In place of Aristotle's analogy of nature as a well-run household economy, Darwin proposed the metaphor of "natural selection" — evoking both progressive British scientific agriculture and the competitive market economy extolled by Adam Smith. But whether Darwin's metaphor was intended to suggest a godless probabilistic universe governed by "irregular, unpredictable contingencies", by "statistics and chance", as Browne seems to suggest (p 56, 283), seems doubtful. Although Darwin's theory can be seen in retrospect as requiring a revised philosophy of science, Darwin himself seems to have tried to be a good Newtonian scientist. In his big pre-Origin species book, he defined nature as "the laws established by God to govern the universe" — "his most magnificent laws" he had called them in his notebooks. In the Origin these became "the laws impressed on matter by the Creator", the succession of organic forms produced by them "ennobled" in the light of Darwin's theory.

Nor was Darwin's view of nature as "bleak" as Browne depicts it. He believed that natural selection brought about gradual organic "improvement", not simply adaptation. The more evolved forms tended to be "improved" forms. "If I have a second edition", he wrote to Lyell in 1860, "I will reiterate 'Natural Selection' and, as a general consequence, Natural Improvement." And he could sound like an evolutionized William Paley when, as in the closing paragraph of the chapter on "The Struggle for Existence", he reflected that "we may console ourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply."

Having led her readers through the Origin, Browne gives a stirring account of how Darwin from his study, largely by correspondence, orchestrated the campaign to ensure its favorable reception, sending copies to his foreign correspondents and superintending arrangements for translations, combing the reviews, cheering on Huxley, Lyell, Hooker, Gray, and others in their efforts to assist him, and paying for republication in pamphlet form of favorable reviews. "Darwin's opponents", Browne writes, "failed to achieve anything like the same command of the media or penetration of significant institutions. Within a year after publication, it was nearly impossible to break into Darwin's tightly integrated group without some express homage to evolution."

In Part II of Browne's second volume, devoted to the 1860s, we see Darwin alternately at work on the successive revised editions of the Origin, on his beloved sundews, orchids, and Venus fly traps, on two fat volumes on variation under domestication (containing his ill-fated theory of heredity called "pangenesis"), and on the growing anthropological and archaeological literature concerning cultural evolution, until overwork ruined his health and aged him noticeably. Janet Browne weaves the story of these years skillfully, empathizing with Darwin's love of observing and experimenting on plants, noting how all his research was directed toward vindicating his theory of evolution by natural selection, how that theory and Malthusian political economy were part of a common cultural context, how Darwin's Origin was received by philosophers, philologists, literary figures, American transcendentalists and Unitarians, and by scientists such as Alfred Russel Wallace and his erstwhile traveling companion in Brazil Henry Walter Bates, and, finally, how science had become Darwin's lifeline. "Without this, he had 'nothing' to make his life worth living."

As the post-Origin decade drew to a close, Browne explains, Darwin felt compelled to publish his views on human evolution — views he had feared to make known, hoping that Lyell or Wallace would step forward. Determined to defend his theories, Darwin began work on the book which, after considerable negotiation with his publisher, bore the title The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.

In her discussion of this, the most revolutionary of Darwin's books, Browne cannot muster the same enthusiasm she displays in her account of the Origin. Darwin, she says, was trying to do too many different things — the natural history and lineage of mankind, the mental faculties of animals and humans, the origin of language, morals, and music, sexual selection in animals and humans, and the human progress from savagery to civilization. Browne reports Darwin's views on these subjects mostly without comment, although she obviously has reservations about some of these views. We learn that Darwin thought that language had emerged gradually from the vocalizations of apes, that religious belief was nothing more than a primitive urge to bestow a cause on otherwise inexplicable natural events, that moral values were relative, that there had been a progressive advance in moral sentiment ("the 'higher' values were, for him, ... the values of his own class and nation"), that "although he rejected the outward trappings of the established Anglican religion, he subscribed wholeheartedly to its underlying values and presumed the onward march of civilization", that men possessed an innate intellectual superiority over women, and that his theory of sexual selection could explain not only the diverging physiques and behavior patterns of males and females but also the origin of human geographical diversity, perhaps even the foundations of human civilization itself.

The theory of sexual selection, Browne declares, lay at the center of his argument concerning human evolution. Why Darwin should have devoted more than half of his book on humans to sexual selection in non-human animals remains unexplained. Browne suggests that Darwin was making an analogy to artificial selection, in which "breeders chose traits for 'use or ornament," imposing their own taste or judgment on organisms".

But Darwin was not done with humans. No sooner was the Descent published than he resumed his studies on the expression of emotion in humans and nonhuman animals — the third and final link in the merging of human and animal evolution which Darwin had envisaged in his 1830s notebooks. Once again, through Browne's fluent prose, we see Darwin ransacking his old notes, studying the expressions of children and domestic pets, firing letters in every direction, contacting directors of lunatic asylums and medical and art photographers for photographs to illustrate his thesis. "The expressions that pass over human faces", writes Browne, "were, to him, a daily, living proof of animal ancestry." And it struck a responsive chord in his readers. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals sold very well.

In Browne's last 3 chapters, we see Darwin returning to his beloved botanical studies and his earthworms, enjoying Punch's ape-man cartoons, managing a stream of visitors with the aid of his family and friends, answering letters inquiring about his religious views without equivocation ("these were the most godless years of his life"), promoting his sons' careers, accepting the honors bestowed upon him with due modesty, promoting the cause of science in every way he could, and, in May l876, beginning work on an autobiography. In Browne's view, Darwin, for all his brilliance in analyzing scientific problems, was not good at self-analysis. "He was", she says, "constructing himself not as a person, living and growing, but as a series of publications, an author." Only on the subject of religion did he drop his self-protective guard. He seemed, says Browne, to accept loss of faith as an inevitable feature of the life of a scientist. "No other experiences, he implied, could match those he encountered in science." Inward conviction of God's existence could not be trusted, nor could he trust his own reason in the matter, knowing that his mental faculties were developed from "a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal."

Although Darwin could not know it, at the same time that he was writing his autobiography, Arthur James Balfour was hard at work on a book entitled A Defence of Philosophic Doubt. Being an Essay on the Foundations of Belief. This book, published in 1879, contained a searching critique of the positivistic, agnostic, empiricist philosophy of science and nature advocated by John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, John Tyndall, and others, and proposed instead that both science and theology were attempting to represent in human terms a reality transcending the power of human thought to imagine correctly or grasp fully. In 1895, in his next book Foundations of Belief, Balfour extended his critique to embrace Darwin's evolutionary naturalism, arguing that it deprived the Victorian values cherished by Darwin, Huxley, and Balfour himself of any rational foundation, thereby undercutting the foundations of Western civilization. Huxley, then struggling with his final illness, mustered enough strength to defend agnosticism and predict the eventual triumph of the scientific spirit over Judaeo-Christian obscurantism. The debate over evolutionary naturalism thus begun is still with us. One wonders what Darwin's position would be in the light of twentieth-century developments in science, warfare, and Western culture.

Janet Browne's biography does not raise these questions. But no one has described Darwin in his Victorian context better or more engagingly than she. Her prose is well-nigh perfect, her research exhaustive, her powers of empathy remarkable, her 24 pages of illustrations fascinating and illuminating, her judgments well balanced. Darwin could not have asked for a more sympathetic, discerning, and thorough biographer.

About the Author(s): 
John C Greene
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Connecticut
651 Sinex Avenue
Pacific Grove CA 93950