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Charles Darwin: The Power of Place [Kindle Edition]

Janet Browne
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In 1858 Charles Darwin was forty-nine years old, a gentleman scientist living quietly at Down House in the Kent countryside, respected by fellow biologists and well liked among his wide and distinguished circle of acquaintances. He was not yet a focus of debate; his “big book on species” still lay on his study desk in the form of a huge pile of manuscript. For more than twenty years he had been accumulating material for it, puzzling over questions it raised, trying—it seemed endlessly—to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Publication appeared to be as far away as ever, delayed by his inherent cautiousness and wish to be certain that his startling theory of evolution was correct.

It is at this point that the concluding volume of Janet Browne’s biography opens. The much-praised first volume, Voyaging, carried Darwin’s story through his youth and scientific apprenticeship, the adventurous Beagle voyage, his marriage and the birth of his children, the genesis and development of his ideas. Now, beginning with the extraordinary events that finally forced the Origin of Species into print, we come to the years of fame and controversy.

For Charles Darwin, the intellectual upheaval touched off by his book had deep personal as well as public consequences. Always an intensely private man, he suddenly found himself and his ideas being discussed—and often attacked—in circles far beyond those of his familiar scientific community. Demonized by some, defended by others (including such brilliant supporters as Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker), he soon emerged as one of the leading thinkers of the Victorian era, a man whose theories played a major role in shaping the modern world. Yet, in spite of the enormous new pressures, he clung firmly, sometimes painfully, to the quiet things that had always meant the most to him—his family, his research, his network of correspondents, his peaceful life at Down House.

In her account of this second half of Darwin’s life, Janet Browne does dramatic justice to all aspects of the Darwinian revolution, from a fascinating examination of the Victorian publishing scene to a survey of the often furious debates between scientists and churchmen over evolutionary theory. At the same time, she presents a wonderfully sympathetic and authoritative picture of Darwin himself right through the heart of the Darwinian revolution, busily sending and receiving letters, pursuing research on subjects that fascinated him (climbing plants, earthworms, pigeons—and, of course, the nature of evolution), writing books, and contending with his mysterious, intractable ill health. Thanks to Browne’s unparalleled command of the scientific and scholarly sources, we ultimately see Darwin more clearly than we ever have before, a man confirmed in greatness but endearingly human.

Reviewing Voyaging, Geoffrey Moorhouse observed that “if Browne’s second volume is as comprehensively lucid as her first, there will be no need for anyone to write another word on Darwin.” The Power of Place triumphantly justifies that praise.


From the Hardcover edition.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When Browne published her first volume on the life of Darwin seven years ago (Charles Darwin: Voyaging), she secured her reputation as the last word on the Victorian naturalist. Now she has published the much-anticipated second half, and it is more spellbinding than the first, which ended on a cliffhanger of sorts. Darwin was back from his Beagle voyages, his famous evolutionary principles were distilled in his mind and the Bible-centered science of his day was about to be convulsed forever. Here, Browne picks up the story a year before the publication of On the Origin of Species, with the arrival of a package from Alfred Russel Wallace, whose own ideas on natural selection virtually mirrored Darwin's, forcing him to go public; as Browne shows, he proved himself a master tactician of institutional and media spin. Browne's subject is monumental, but her writing style is never overburdened by the weight. Rather, her prose is elegant in its clarity of thought, her craftsmanship impeccable in the way it weaves a coherent whole from the innumerable threads of thought, experience and persona that comprised this colossal life. Darwin's science, Browne contends, was characterized by his systematic use of correspondence, which the author puts to effective use in her narrative, again illustrating how the naturalist's thought was as much the collective product of his day as it was its single-most intellectual catalyst. Readers are left with the image of the sailor returned home to dig in his garden, stare into the past and, in dying, slip into legend.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This volume concludes a magisterial biography. The first volume, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, examined how the young Darwin formed his ideas. Now Browne, a zoologist and historian of science, offers a frank, comprehensive, and detailed account of the last half of Darwin's life (l858-82), focusing on both his major contributions to natural history and his pioneering researches into many biological subjects, ranging from orchids and insectivorous plants to the inheritance of characteristics and earthworms. She stresses the serious scientific and theological controversies that surrounded the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (l871) and emphasizes the great value Darwin found in his relationships with like-minded naturalists such as Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Wallace. Besides all the facts, ideas, and events, the reader also discovers the human side of the scientific father of organic evolution. Of special interest is Browne's attention to Darwin's quiet family life at Down House, including insights into his voluminous correspondence and debilitating ill health. In this very impressive volume, Darwin emerges as a modest and private genius consumed with the need to understand the complexities of life forms through critical observation and persistent experimentation. Highly recommended for all academic and public science collections. H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1455 KB
  • Print Length: 591 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (May 18, 2011)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004QZA1AY
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #683,123 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Life January 17, 2003
Format:Hardcover
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.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Biography of Darwin, part 2. August 13, 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gentleman, gardener, genius, human . . . March 2, 2003
Format:Hardcover
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book
I bought it for my husband, who after reading Vol. ! wished to finish the story of Mr. Darwin. He still thanks me for my choice and have enjoyed endless hours of pure joy reading... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Carmen S. dence
5.0 out of 5 stars Haven't read it yet, but there's no reason why I won't enjoy this...
People say that Charles Darwin was a fortunate man who had a lot of help -- but scientists always are aided by others' research, even if it's just to reject it finally. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Barbara
5.0 out of 5 stars "My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general...
It is a pleasure to have completed the second volume of Janet Browne's magnificent ~1200 page biography of Darwin, perhaps the only biography needed to review the life of a much... Read more
Published on October 12, 2010 by Misanthrope™
5.0 out of 5 stars Uniformly Excellent Biography of Darwin
This is the second volume of Janet Browne's superb biography of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Browne, who is now Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, wrote both volumes... Read more
Published on February 4, 2008 by Ronald H. Clark
5.0 out of 5 stars Sick and tired, but he carried on
This one is also great, get both of these wonderful books on Charles Darwin. The first one is slightly better than this one, as one expects from biographies. Read more
Published on January 29, 2007 by Calochortus
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but flawed
This the second volume of Browne's Darwin biography has evoked high praise from a number of Amazon reviewers. It's praise well deserved. Read more
Published on March 9, 2006 by Hiram Caton
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth Prevails
Darwin's tightly held theories on natural selection are let loose to a resistant public but a public that was also proud of their intellectuals. Read more
Published on September 23, 2005 by T. Kolczak
5.0 out of 5 stars An effortless and endlessly satisfying read
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... Read more
Published on September 12, 2005 by C. Kemp
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin the power of place by Janet Browne
This is one of the best biography books that I have ever read. It is factual and beautifully written
Published on May 26, 2005 by Artemis
5.0 out of 5 stars The Origins of 'My' Theory
As a Darwin critic, I had passed this book by nose in the air, a full scale boycott, but a new biography of Darwin proved too hard to resist and I broke down and read the book,... Read more
Published on July 17, 2003 by John C. Landon
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