Customer Reviews: Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2 - The Power of Place
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on January 17, 2003
Well, this is volume II of a magnificent two-volume biography. In its patient, sympathetic and intelligent rendering it exemplifies those qualities in Darwin himself. Moreover, this is truly the second volume. One could read this without having read "Voyaging" and make sense of it, but Darwin and his world would be less fleshed-out, he and his friends would not be old friends of yours, and the story, which is nothing less than a whole life well-lived (but not, be it noted, perfectly-lived), the less thereby. And what is more, the Darwin-Wedgewood genealogy is not reproduced here - you need volume I for that.
Darwin, for someone of such stature socially and scientifically, was a rooted, private man. He rarely left his spacious, gated home at Down except to visit one of his few good friends or relatives. His public appearances were nearly as noted as the Pope's. In spite of this seeming exclusiveness, he maintained an immense and warm correspondence all over the world. Alfred Russell Wallace, for example, was one of his good friends, but almost entirely by means of letters. Moreover, he received a constant stream of visitors at Down, many of whom were hardly known to him, and some of whom barely spoke English.
However, these visits were rarely extended beyond a courteous lunch. Darwin would often plead weakness or illness (or let one of the womenfolk do it for him) in order to get away to his study and his studies after being dutifully social. Of course, if it was Huxley, or Lyell, or Hooker visiting, then Darwin had considerably more strength for conversation. These old friends formed the core of his scientific network, and, along with Asa Gray in America, were his representatives in the larger scientific world.
The story of Charles Darwin is the story of a homebody: he did most of his experiments with jury-rigged apparatus in his house, garden, or greenhouse, using his children as assistants, and begging and borrowing plant and animal material from his friends and correspondents all around the world, without himself going anywhere. It is the story of a man who loved his wife, and needed her, for he was always "poorly", and he was always busy. It is the story of a man who was warm and affectionate, and constantly a-tingle with some absorbing project in natural history. Yet it is the story of a supremely absorbed man, who was as totally selfish in his dedication to his obsessions as any artist, ruthlessly (but charmingly) using the people around him and around the world to further his investigations, and shield him from those social duties that soak up so much of the lives of most of us.
Janet Browne gently disapproves of Darwin's selfishness, which was consistent and on at least two occasions (when he refused to go to the funerals of old friends who had helped him tremendously) nearly unforgiveable. Yet she clearly liked the man, as did almost everyone who knew him (including some of his ideological opponents). He preserved himself for his work, it is true, but he still understood the obligations of a Victorian gentleman of means. He was active in the village life at Down, using his money and time to promote worthy causes of benefit to the poorer residents. He also had a soft spot for animals, and spent much energy opposing unthinking cruelty to beasts whenever he encountered it. He also was the prime mover behind getting a government pension for Alfred Russel Wallace, who had fallen on hard times, as well as many other quiet gifts to science, and to individuals.
On balance, Darwin was a tremendously appealing man, and his life, personal and scientific (which were totally intertwined, both domestically and socially) a model of Victorian striving. Prudent and successful in investing his money, an obsessive list-maker and careful household manager, and a famously hard worker in his science, he came by his success, as he felt, honestly. But to me the appeal of this book lies in its location in Darwin's domestic and social milieu. This also happened to be his scientific milieu, for most of his friends, and some of his relatives, were scientists whose interests overlapped with his own.
This book picks up the story in 1858, when Darwin got a letter from a man known to him only as a collector, Alfred Russel Wallace. He was stunned to see that his pet theory of speciation by natural selection had occurred to Wallace during his sojourn in the jungles of the East. The cat was out of the bag, so Darwin thought he might as well write down what he knew, including his researches during the previous twenty years into the topic. This book just grew and grew, and finally became "The Origin of Species"; the main narrative thread of Darwin's later life is, of course, the fate of this "child". After 1859 he was suddenly a household name, and a fit subject for political cartoons and pulpitical denunciations. Within a few years "Darwinism" was a noun in general use. He himself spent tremendous energy in surreptitious efforts to get his theory accepted, and did not scruple to let his friends, like Huxley, savage his enemies, like Owen.
Janet Browne gives this story its due. As always, her mastery of the material is complete, and she tells a complicated story gracefully. But more than this, she is attuned to the sociology of the situation. She understands how scientific ideas gain acceptance, as well as how the nascent industry of popular publishing contributed to the success of Darwin's ideas among the larger public. One of the recurring pleasures of this book is to enjoy her observations on the social issues that impinge on this life story.
Further, it is a measure of her almost novelistic skill that our attitude toward Darwin's life changes almost insensibly: though we may have come to his story because we were curious about an idea, we are sad to see it end because we have come to care about the man himself.
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on August 13, 2003
As several reviewers (including at least one critic of Darwin) have said, this volume is part of the best biography of Darwin yet published. It is hard to criticize this work as Janet Browne has included more detail and hit the nail on the head more times than in any other treatment of Darwin and his ideas. I have read five biographies, several specialized biographies and Darwin's autobiography and can easily say that this by far the best! Browne is simply superb in capturing the spirit of Victorian England and weaving it into a cogent story of the background and inspiration for "The Origin of Species," as well as Darwin's latter work. This volume covers the period from the receipt of Wallace's manuscript on natural selection through Darwin's death. It finally puts paid to the popular notion that Darwin stole his ideas from Wallace, without slighting the originality of the younger man. Darwin was a great thinker, not because he was unusually brilliant, but because he concentrated his thinking on a problem until he came up with a plausible explanation backed up by numerous bits of circumstantial evidence. While many changes have occurred in evolutionary thought because of the genetic and molecular revolutions, Darwin produced the most complete arguments for the common descent of organisms available to science at the time. He thus laid the foundation of our understanding of modern biology. This is true despite opinions to the contrary and, indeed, without evolutionary theory we would have to say goodbye to rigor in not only biology, but geology and astronomy as well!
It is my hope that anybody interested in the historical background of evolutionary theory will read both of Browne's books. They are well worth it!
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Charles Darwin's "place" in history is secure. The concept of evolution by natural selection was "the single best idea anyone has ever had," as Daniel C. Dennett so aptly put it. Although the idea seems simple, Browne establishes that the man who conceived it was anything but that. In taking two substantial volumes to depict Darwin's life, Browne reveals the complexity and control hidden beneath his serene outward demeanor. For many years, Darwin's seclusion at Down House left the impression of the retired, retiring scientific thinker. On the contrary, Browne shows "a remarkable tactician" manipulating friends,
colleagues and, in the final analysis, society at large. This compelling study is the outstanding work on Darwin. Her focus on his motivations, activities and other aspects of what made him such a towering figure makes this a remarkable work. This magnificent study and its companion "Voyaging" will maintain their value as Darwin's pre-eminent account for many years.
The pivotal point, of course, is Darwin's 1859 book, The Origin of Species. Browne recounts the "Wallace letter" which nearly toppled Darwin from the place of priority in developing the idea of natural selection. Darwin's friends and colleagues rallied to sustain him while maintaining fairness to both him and Wallace. The many years of study Darwin had given to the concept resulted in the volume that changed our view of life, but it remains an open question whether he would have published without the "thunderbolt from Ternate." Browne's view isn't narrow, however, as she places Origin within the broader schema of Victorian writing, whether fiction, social commentary, poetry or science.
Browne leads us through the years of turmoil following publication of Origin. Strangely, she notes, the chief objectors were fellow scientists, not the religious establishment. Even the British Association debate, often considered the pivot point for making the public aware of the book's meaning, brought out a churchman who had been prompted by one of Darwin's scientific peers. Although Darwin remained at Down throughout the ensuing years, he maintained constant control of those who spoke for him. He reached Continental readers quickly, although troubled by freely editing translators.
This account portrays Darwin's "place" by almost every definition of the term. Browne shows Darwin's status among his colleagues, depicts him as a teacher, a father, a member of his community, both locally and in the grander Victorian Era setting. Darwin was a man of his class, most of which endorsed thinking and speculation. Most importantly, she shows his stature as a human, at times fearful, courageous, withdrawing, helpful to his friends and scornful of his enemies. He counseled his children, or used them for help, as the moment demanded. He sought to protect his wife, but Browne makes clear Emma was under few illusions of the meaning of natural selection. Darwin was no hypocrite, but was long in reaching his final dismissal of deities. Whatever the enduring nature of his idea, the man, Browne asserts, still remained a mortal figure.
Beyond Origin, Browne relates Darwin's conflicting feelings leading to later works - Descent of Man, plant domestication, orchids, emotional expression and the obscure world of earthworms. Many of these publications would later prove fundamentally supportive of natural selection. All required immense amounts of study, communication and writing. He tended his own plants, studied earthworms at night and used the new technology of phototgraphy. The variation in topics and methods reflects once again Darwin's genius, but even more his strengths as a naturalist. Little escaped his scrutiny and he was able to impart his findings with flowing prose reaching a wide public. All these accomplishments were achieved in spite of frequent illnesses, none of which were successfully treated.
We owe much to Darwin, and Browne has discharged a significant portion of the debt with this book. The labour of many years, it's an elegant portrayal, worthy of the effort so evident in its making. Whatever your interests, sit down with this book and meet the man Browne has re-introduced to us. It will be a rewarding experience. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on November 26, 2002
>...One morning in 1858 Charles Darwin picked up his mail and discovered a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin had spent 20 years working out evidence to support his theory of natural selection, secure in the knowledge that the theory was too radical and the details too arcane for anyone else to have thought out. He could have published all or part of his work at almost any point; his closest scientific friends often urged him to do so. But he kept silent because he dreaded the consequences: Publication would invite public condemnation likely to make Rome's reception of Galileo look friendly. He didn't think that he could bear the notoriety.
Then came the paper from Wallace, laying out the theory of natural selection in words that could very nearly have been Darwin's own.
Janet Browne could not have chosen a more dramatic incident to begin the second book of her riveting two-volume biography of Darwin. In the entire range of intellectual history, there is not a moment that tops the Darwin-Wallace collision for sheer human drama. With Wallace somewhere in the remote rain forest of southeast Asia - weeks away by the fastest steamers - no one would ever have known if Darwin had "lost" that manuscript. It is unlikely that he even considered such a course.
Over the course of these two volumes, we come to understand the man's character intimately. Partly because Browne has waded through endless bundles of family letters that have sat unread since the original recipients tied them with silk ribbons. Partly because Browne, a British professor of the history of biology, understands Darwin's world. But mostly because she is a master of the art of biography.
Darwin was bound to publish Wallace's paper. The great question was, would he publish his own? His agonized decision came down to deciding which he dreaded more: facing the public scorn that evolution aroused in Victorian England, or allowing credit for the theory that had been his life's work to go to someone else. At this point the story becomes weirdly modern.
Darwin inhabited an old-fashioned world that is very foreign to us. He got the chance to explore not because he was a qualified scientist, but because he was a conversable gentleman from the right sort of family. He never held a paying job. Some English gentlemen did work, but it was more respectable to settle in a big country house and live on inherited money. Charles married his first cousin, and each of them inherited part of grandpapa Wedgewood's china fortune.
But the most startlingly unmodern thing about Darwin was, in the words of his son Francis, "the curious fact that he who has altered the face of Biological Science, and is in this respect the chief of the moderns, should have written and worked in so essentially a non-modern spirit and manner."
During the course of Darwin's career, scientific instrument makers began to produce equipment that improved, for example, the control of moisture or light available to growing plants. Yet Darwin continued to potter about the kitchen, rigging equipment with material borrowed from his wife's sewing basket. His hopelessly old-fashioned methods produced cutting-edge science right up to the year he died.
When it came to handling the publicity for "The Origin of Species," by contrast, the slickest Madison Avenue PR firm could not have been more cutting edge than Darwin and his tailcoated friends. With finesse a modern publisher must envy, Darwin softened up potential reviewers by sending signed copies with admiring, personal notes to nearly every eminent scientist in Europe and America. (Full disclosure: I have never received a personal letter from either Janet Browne or Charles Darwin.)
As often as possible, however, Darwin's scientific friends avoided any risk of getting a bad review by writing the reviews themselves, an easier trick in the days when reviews ran anonymously. They also set about making certain that reviews would run in all the right places.
In the cozy Victorian world of British science, becoming a scientist in the first place indicated that one had come from a financially comfortable background. The eminent men of science and of letters had gone to the same schools and belonged to the same clubs, clubs whose more tedious members could tell you precisely which scientist was the cousin of which editor on precisely which side of the family.
This look inside the workings of Victorian science is among the great fascinations of Browne's book. Darwin's friends needed a compelling explication of evolution to move science forward. The minute Wallace's paper arrived, they pushed hard for Darwin to publish. No sooner had the "Origin" gone to the typesetter, than Darwin and his friends set about ensuring that not only the book but the theory itself would succeed. Every stop was pulled in the battle against creationism.
Finally, in a carefully orchestrated publicity maneuver on behalf of evolutionary theory, two dukes, one earl, the American ambassador, the president of the Royal Society, and four eminent scientists - Wallace, Hooker, Lubbock, and Huxley - carried the old atheist's coffin to a grave in Westminster Abbey. But not even death could free Darwin from controversy...
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 20, 2002
This is the second volume of Janet Browne's outstanding biography of Darwin. The first volume, Voyaging, covered Darwin's family, childhood, early adulthood, the voyage of the Beagle, and the formation of his ideas of evolution and natural selection. This book begins with Darwin established firmly as a major figure in British (and international) scientific life and settled happily with his large family at Down House in Sussex. Working on several projects and slowly on what he intends to be a major series of volumes on the 'species question', which he has essentially solved years earlier, Darwin's tranquility is disturbed when he receives a proposed article from the itinerent naturalist and collector, Alfred Russell Wallace. Seeking Darwin's patronage for his ideas, Wallace has also developed independently a theory of evolution and natural selection. This event precipitates Darwin's publication of his ideas and the publication of the first of his many books on evolution. The result is modern biology and Darwin's ascent from esteemed scientist known to a small circle of colleagues to Victorian celebrity.
Browne presents Darwin as a man who was in many important respects a deeply conventional Victorian. A benevolent patriarch who governed his family carefully but firmly, he had conventional moral views. His politics were Liberal but not Radical in nature, reflecting his middle class and Dissenting family background. Strongly attached to his home, he shunned publicity and preferred family and a close circle of friends to a more open social life. He had a retiring personality but a strong sense of responsibility and served as local magistrate and as a vestryman for his local parish. Browne emphasizes his strong sense of connection with his home, his rural neighborhood (if that is the correct term), and his country.
Beneath this surface of conventionality and parochialism, Darwin was a decidedly unconventional thinker and a man with an unmatched perspective on the natural world. Darwin spent hours every day engaged in correspondence on biologically related subjects. His accumulated correspondence (of which Browne is co-editor)comprises thousands and thousands of letters. He had an international network of correspondents and pursued information on a dizzying array of topics related to biology and natural history. Darwin was undoubtedly the best informed biologist of his time and possibly in human history. Once he developed his basic insights into evolution and natural selection, Darwin pursued his ideas to their logical conclusions. This led him to deeply unconventional ideas, notably the abandonement of any notions that a higher power guided life on earth. Most of his closest collaborators and friends could not follow him along this path. Wallace, for example, could not accept that natural variation and variation seen in domesticated animals was due to the same underlying phenomenon. Wallace could not also accept that human evolution was without divine guidance. The American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin's friend and American publicist, and his mentor the geologist Charles Lyell, continued to feel that evolution was guided in some manner. Darwin's friend and vociferous defender, TH Huxley, accepted evolution without divine guidance but not that natural selection was its driving force. The inability of most Victorians to accept all of Darwin's ideas illustrates how difficult it was to abandon conventional religous ideas and the dominant Victorian notion of Progress. This fact illustrates also Darwin's intellectual radicalism in his own time.
Given Darwin's mixture of parochialism and internationalis, what is The Power of Place which Browne features in the title of this volume? Browne does not explicitly tell readers but her outstanding exposition makes clear that Darwin's place was the whole natural world. His remarkable ability to observe and experiment with local phenomena, his incredible knowledge of biology, and his conviction that a small number of basic forces underly all biological phenomena, relfected his conviction that what he observed in his backyard was universally applicable. Darwin devoted thousands of writing to demonstrating that power of his insights. As he pointed out, the power of his ideas is that they explain not just a few phenomena but virtually the whole span of biology, a fact confirmed triumphantly in the course of the 20th century. This is not to say that all his ideas were correct. His pangenesis hypothesis of hereditary was deeply wrong, but his core ideas remain indisputable.
Browne shows beautifully that Darwin's dedication to preserving his quiet life was necessary for his career. Independently wealthy because of his father's shrewd investments and his own astute financial management, Darwin didn't have to be a professional scientist. This freed him from the administrative and educational obligations of professional scientists like his friends Huxley or Hooker. It also gave him the freedom not to specialize. Though he remained dedicated to botany, he pursued a remarkable number of other topics, and essentially had an intellectual freedom that was probably unparalleled in this time. Browne shows well how Darwin's chronic illness fits into this pattern. Rather than speculating about the causes of his chronic illness, she shows how it fit into the pattern of his life.
As with Voyaging, this book also casts valuable light on other important aspects of Victorian life. This book contains extremely useful information on the function of the Victorian postal system, the organization of Victorian science, Victorian publishing, and family life.
Browne is that rare combination of superb scholar with an outstanding and unobtrusive writing style. A terrific book.
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on October 22, 2002
...and about time too! When Janet Browne left us nearly seven years ago after her brilliant Volume 1 of Darwin's life, she left us more or less literally on edge. Darwin was back from his Voyage, settled outside of London, ruminating on everything from pigeons to barnacles, and just about to be forced by the timely arrival of Wallace's manuscript to blow the doors off Victorian science. And then... and then... we waited & waited. Now Volume 2 is here & I am happy to report that it is just as good if not better than Vol. 1. Browne may have left her readers, but she didn't leave Darwin -she has been an associate editor for the complete Darwin correspondance- and this undoubtably is part of the reason that she has been so successful in capturing both Darwin the Legend & Darwin the Person. Browne's scholarship and enthusiasm allows one to get a real sense of both time and place, and what a Time & what a Place! Here we have heroes and villains, a galaxy of scientific stars & ordinary people swirling around this remarkable man walking in his garden & engaged in his lifelong quest for what he aptly called the Mystery of Mysteries: the Origin of Species. What I also enjoy is that this isn't a simple hagiography, one sees Darwin warts and all, but without any of the "psychohistorical" second guessing that has spoiled a number of other biographies for me. Picking up this book was like resuming a wonderful conversation right where one left off years ago. If you read just one biography of Darwin (or if you have read lots!) this is it, you are in for a treat!
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on January 9, 2003
Two things vault Ms. Browne's work far above the average biography. First, she brilliantly reveals how Darwin's life arose out of and was an integral part of 19th England. Ms. Browne, of course, thoroughly explains evolution and the debate Darwin's work generated. But she goes far beyond this and exposes how Darwin's work would have been impossible without everything from the expanding British empire, the incredible British postal system, the growing number of periodical readers, the British class system and much more. Ms. Browne seems able to penetrate the very mind of the 19th century and expose how a scientific theory was developed, promulgated, debated and slowly accepted. The reader learns not only about Darwin, but about science and life in general in Victorian England.
The second factor that sets Ms. Browne's work apart is, fortunately, that she can write. All of the above, particularly when spread over more than 1,000 pages, could still be dreadfully dull, but Ms. Brown's pen generates life on every page (even though Darwin rejected spontaneous generation theories!).
This review is based on the full two-volume biography. One could surely read the second volume alone, but why?
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Of the dozens of books I have read of the life and works Of Charles Darwin, this, by far, is the best and most comprehensive.
The book covers the later portion of Darwins life, the time of his fame. I particularly enjoyed and was enlighted by the author's coverage of Victorian life and how it affected Darwin, his contemporaries, and influenced their thoughts and beliefs. I appreciated the way the author not only covered Darwin, the scientist, but Darwin the person and how the author examined the role of Darwin's wife and their relationship. This is a very detailed book, not one that can be read in a couple of settings. It gives us much to ponder. The style is excellent, much better than most English academics produce, i.e. it is readable. I highly recommend it as a read and an addition to your library.
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on September 12, 2005
Along with the rest of the well-deserved high praise that comes to Janet Browne's biography of Charles Darwin I would add, with others, that its most extraordinary aspect is its readability. Biographies are almost always irritating in some way or another--Browne's volumes are effortless in any genre, miraculous in the difficult work of biography. It's quite true that both _Voyaging_ and _Power of Place_ are books you can't put down; they are so absorbing that you instantly forget you are reading. I find myself recommending them to people with no interest whatsoever in the subject simply for the reading pleasure. For scholars of the historical subject, the volumes provide a unified and inspiring reference. Browne's is a tremendous gift to Darwin's legacy and to the reception of his work.
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on March 31, 2015
Just like in the first volume of her Darwin biography, Janet Browne’s The Power of Place is clearly written, loaded with interesting anecdotes, and a joy to read. Browne’s deep familiarity with Darwin’s letters and scientific work comes out on every page. The book begins with the publication of Origin of Species and, unlike many other biographies, covers the subject’s later work in great detail. The book reads like it was written by a close friend of Darwin, a friend that is not afraid to point out both his strengths and weaknesses. Darwin’s intense love of detailed work in nature, from orchids to worms, leaves the reader with a real sense of how the power of evolution lies in the details. His explanations, such as many of those in The Descent of Man, were often inadequate, given the lack of information that we have today, but his intuitive leaps were superb. Besides his revolutionary insight into natural selection and the development of life on earth, Darwin’s “gemmules” were clear forerunners of genetic theory and his understanding of facial expressions was a major breakthrough in what has become an important part of psychology.

The later Darwin, plagued constantly by illness, comes across as a gentle and kind person but very subject to the English class system. His close friendship with Alfred Wallace is spelled out in detail. Overall, Browne estimates Darwin wrote 1500 letters a year to both the famous and the not so famous. He was remarkably conscientious; generosity comes across as a major character trait even in the face of tremendous physical pain at times. Yet this same man refused to attend the funerals of the two people most influential in his life – Henslowe and Lyell. Browne, who could have given many excuses for her subject, knows Darwin’s letters and personal circumstances so well that she bluntly calls him “selfish” for not being able to overcome his fears for the sake of his friends’ families. You get a full picture of the man by an author who knows him as well as anyone can. This is a great book. Combined with the first volume, Browne’s Darwin biography stands out in first rank among biographies of scientists, no matter what the field.
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