on January 4, 2008
I had expected much more from Janet Browne, famed Darwin biographer, from her book Darwin's "Origin of Species": A Biography. While the book itself is very readable (I read it in one sitting), it's too superficial a treatment of Charles Darwin's monumental tome On the Origin of Species. As part of the Books That Shook the World series, it doesn't give the reader enough background on the social and scientific situation in Victorian England when the book was developed, written and finally published. So how would we know that it really "shook" the world then?
Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin's ideas, as well as Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation were mentioned briefly, but their differences with Charles Darwin's theory of Natural Selection wasn't fleshed out. Neither was Darwin's development of his central arguments tackled in any appreciable degree. Browne mentioned Darwin's reliance on Malthus, but again, it was only discussed in brief.
I cannot recommend Browne's book except to those who are just beginning their study of Darwin. Instead, I recommend Nildes Eldredge's Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life. It also tackles the development of Darwin's book, but with more detail.
When it comes to Darwin and Darwin-related issues, I have found Janet Browne's works to be outstanding contributions. Her two volume biography of Darwin is commanding in its mastery of the pertinent materials; a legacy in part of her many years working on the Darwin Correspondence project. For those of us on this side of the Atlantic, the good news is that she was recently appointed Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, leaving her long-time perch at the Wellcome Institute in London. In addition to being definitive, her books and articles are just a pleasure to read--here is Darwin at the height of his powers doing significant work and leading a happy and productive upper-class Victorian scientific life.
This is one out of a series of short books entitled "Books That Changed the World." It is yet another example of the recent trend toward concise volumes (this one runs 174 pages including index) that, despite their brevity, cram in a tremendous amount of useful information. After a brief introduction, the first two chapters are mini-biographies of Darwin prior to publication of the "Origin." As always, Browne is interested on the books and ideas (Lyell, Malthus, etc.) that shaped Darwin's own perspective. Since Browne knows more about Darwin than anyone else, these brief chapters are rich indeed in insight and perception--small gems. Next, Browne moves on to the actual publication of the "Origin" and the Victorian intellectual framework into which it was released. The controversy the book unleashed is covered in the next chapter, perhaps the longest and surely the most concentrated in the book. If anything, too much information is included here, especially for readers new to Darwin and Victorian science, and it is covered rather quickly. The final chapter deals with developments occurring from Darwin's death up until virtually the present, particularly in genetics and other scientific developments ultimately upholding Darwin's thesis.
The book includes brief notes and a short bibliography, as well as a fine index. "Origin of Species" did indeed "change the world" and this fine introduction hopefully will facilitate greater and wider understanding of Darwin's enormous contribution to science and our understanding of the world we inhabit.
on September 9, 2007
Simple me, I enjoyed the book tremendously. I was impressed by the author's ability to cover so much territory in so little space (the book is, in the end, a biography of both Darwin and Darwinism). Even condensed, it reads well. The last chapter, on the fate of Darwinism after his death, did seem a little rushed, but it was all so new to me that I was happy to have it, rather than nothing at all. This is, after all, an introductory book, and after you have read it, you can look elsewhere for something more substantial. You should judge a book by what it sets out to do, not by what you would do if you were the author.
on June 20, 2009
Review of Darwin's Origins of Species: Books that Changed the World
By Janet Browne
As the foremost historian on scientist and evolutionary thinker Charles Darwin, Janet Browne successfully writes an accessible and vivid "biography", or account of the past and continued development of the man's most influential work On the Origin of Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, first published in 1859. Her book adequately fits the niche of a "popular science" type novel, great for an introduction to the topic or overview of general ideas,.
In this straight-forward, elegantly written historical biography, Browne documents not only the history of Origin, but of Darwin as well. Structurally, the book is divided into five sections, beginning with Darwin's childhood, then a discussion of the influential ideas, then the publication, then the controversy surrounding the publication, and most uniquely, a section on the legacy of the scientific treatise. Throughout these sections, Browne does a fine job balancing the narrative of Darwin, such as the anecdote involving chemistry labs and his brother, Erasmus, with an explanation of the scientific ideas, such as the explanation of Lyell, and then Darwin's gradualism.
What is most noticeable and influential in the environment that Janet Browne paints Darwin growing up is the Victorian society, in which "apes or angels, Darwin or the Bible" and revolution were the questions of the day, and other great thinkers (the work of his contemporaries and predecessors significantly influence his thinking, often making it difficult to understand why Darwin was unique and not just an extension of previous thoughts), such as Lyell and Marx. Origin was received during a time when big questions were being asked, and it seemed to provide an answer that not everyone was ready for yet. In fact, on some questions, Darwin was noticeably silent, in particular he avoided the discussion of human origins and of divine presence in the natural world.
One of the Browne's greatest strengths is to compare Darwin and Darwin's work with other contemporary thinkers and their ideas. For example, Browne's comparison of anonymous author Robert Chambers of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Darwin of Origins in the second section highlighted not only the need for Darwin to acknowledge the influences of other great thinkers of his time, but also his ability to also be highly critical of them in order to make his own work better, "obsessively, he began to build up his own edifice of dependable factual information that would be so much admired when he eventually published Origin of Species, and which life his book far above the ordinary".
Browne made numerous observations that were especially interesting to me. For one, she discusses the difficulty of vocabulary that Darwin encountered in writing his work, "the language he had to hand was the language of Milton and Shakespeare, steeped in teleology and purpose, not the objective, value-free terminology sought by science", certainly factors that could influence the reception and perceived validity of his work. I also enjoyed her critical analysis of the structure of the book, offering an explanation for the "Difficulties of the theory" chapter that Darwin includes, one that she believes makes the Origin an honest account. Having read from numerous other biographies that Emma, Darwin's wife, was a great force in censoring some of his religious ideas, I was pleased to read that Emma helped with editing the book in a value-free way.
Overall, Browne paints an exceedingly positive picture of Darwin. Unlike the boy of childhood academic woes and troubles that we see in even his own autobiography, Browne describes Darwin's studies at Edinburgh as such, "after a diligent start, sixteen-year-old Darwin found the realities of early nineteenth-century medicine upsetting. Two `very bad' operations, one on a child, convinced him he would never make a doctor and he left in 1827". In later chapters, she does not depict him as ambitious or competitive with other great thinkers, though other correspondences and works, have shown differently. While we may want to think of and worship Darwin as a heroic, all-good figure, this would be false adoration. More accurately, and perhaps more realistically, we should recognize Darwin as human, with faults and weaknesses just like the rest of us.
Janet Browne's Darwin's Origin of Species: Books That Changed the World is a well-written and well-rounded introductory book to the study of his life and major work, though suffers from an exceedingly positive picture and may leave readers thirsting for more about his scientific theory.
on September 14, 2013
The below is a review of the unabridged CD audiobook
This book is a blend of biography, history of the times in relationship to evolutionary theory and its competing theories, how Darwin's theory came about, a history of Darwin's writing and their development over time (not just Origin of Species), what the legacy of Darwin's theory has been and what recent developments have been impacting the theory of evolution (i.e., the impact of genetic theory of evolution). The book does a very good job at touching at all these topics in its relatively short length. Very good for the lay reader who is looking for a decent combination of all of the above. For a reader looking for an-depth discussion of any of the above however, this would not be the book to read. It is only intended as a survey of the above topics and in that it succeeds.
The CD is very beautifully read and quite eloquent. Unquestionably one of the best audiobooks this reviewer has had the pleasure to listen to (and this reviewer listens to many). The reader is always enthusiastic, never monotone and the accent captures well both the times and the author. Very good for long trips as well as listening to on one's daily commute to and from work (when one is most tired). The audio portion of the book is a five star while the content itself is a four star.
on April 17, 2016
It's funny to read the comments of those who were disappointed in this book. Some (clearly those with more books on Darwin and science under their belts that I) found it too superficial. All I can say is that it fell into my hands at the right time. I've read very little, but some, on the subject generally (Loren Eiseley's almost-spiritual "The Firmament of Time" got me on this kick), but I certainly haven't tackled the original source material. This is supposed to be a brief biography of a book. That's all. It's supposed to give you a quick study of the circumstances under which the book was written, the ideas that influenced the person who wrote it, and the books's own influence since publication. Browne does an excellent job at (as at least one reviewer put it) putting so much into so small a space. Her prose has the serenity of someone who knows a heck of a lot about her subject and is trying to cover a lot of ground fast but fairly. I'm adding Browne's biographies of Darwin to my Wish List right now, and checking out some of the works in the "Further Reading" section at the end of this little book. It's about 150 pages and it's never dull or complicated. Everyone should know at least this much about "The Origin of Species." I highly recommend it.
on February 28, 2016
In five chapters Janet Browne has given us an intellectual biography of Charles Darwin. We are not subjected to his carousing-although it is mentioned, nor are we inundated by his father's protestations about how Charles is a good-for-nothing-and that is mentioned, too. What is mentioned-and this is the strength of the book-is his intellectual influences and development before and after his voyage of the Beagle. The last chapter is a good summation of his influence in the twentieth century by laying the foundation of paradigms to be tested and researched that is still continuing. The bibliography is interspersed with primary sources and secondary sources. My only complaint is there could be a few more of the secondary sources (like Darwin, Appleton). But this is a better than average start if you want to cut through some red tape.
on February 27, 2016
I had to read it for school. The information is good if you need to know the historical/social context of Darwin's publication of the Origin of Species. I would not recommend this to anybody looking for a fun, enjoyable read. The language is simple but the context can be dense at times.
on April 21, 2011
Very high-level overview of Darwin's life, with The Book as the centerpiece. I've read the "Origin," and I've read my Stephen Jay Gould, so there wasn't anything here I didn't know already--but as a high-level overview of the topic for a college course covering the whole 19th century, it's plenty good enough. Oh, every now and then I catch Browne getting a small detail wrong, but not enough to compromise the big picture (the Piltdown jaw and skull were found associated but not actually attached, that kind of thing).
If you already know your history of Darwin, this is not for you: just a couple of stars' worth--SJG is more interesting to read, and there are those small errors of detail. But for a college sophomore in my daughter's situation, it's a pretty good book for learning Darwin's biography and his theory quickly and well within a course covering a much larger subject.
Favourite quote: "Privately, he [Charles Lyell] felt unable to go as far as Darwin in believing that human beings were entirely natural organisms.... Once he told Huxley that he 'could not go the whole orang.'"
on August 25, 2010
Fifty five per cent of Americans believe that God created people in their present form. It is as if Darwin, and his Origin of Species published in 1859, had never existed. In this context, Janet Browne's `biography' of Darwin's book is a necessary, and skilful, examination of the man and the science which is still at the centre of a heated political struggle.
Darwin, says Browne, was no godless radical out to subvert the system. He was a highly respectable gentleman in Victorian England, ensconced in inherited private wealth and aiming at indulging his hobby of natural history through a comfortable niche as an Anglican clergyman.
The British Navy surveying ship, the Beagle, soon changed that ambition and the young naturalist on board firmed up the idea that an entirely natural process of small changes over much time could create new species, without the supernatural agency of God.
Darwin also borrowed the Malthusian social theory that society operated as a `struggle for existence', applying it to a struggle in nature which results in `natural selection' through the survival of more offspring better adapted to their environment.
Darwin, however, delayed going public with his theory for twenty years, a hesitation, says Browne, influenced by the political context in which a vigorous working class movement for political and economic rights in the 1830s and 1840s had filled England's rulers with an intense fear of revolution, including any challenge to an ideological status quo which rested heavily on the `natural theology' of the Anglican Church which asserted that God had designed every bit of the natural, and social, world to run on pre-ordained lines.
Evolution, however, was a subversive, materialist theory whose scientific logic inferred that God had nothing to do with nature - far from God making Man in his own image, we owed our origins to hairy apes and, even further back, bacteria. If evolution was in the air, could revolution be far behind, fretted those of wealth and power.
Darwin, a principled scientist but no atheist or revolutionary, handled his dilemma by public procrastination which was only partly from a proper concern for scientific caution (he dallied for over a decade with more observational experiments with pigeons, and busied himself with an eight year study of barnacles) but fear of evolution's political implications also kept him silent.
Darwin's hand was forced by Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist (and socialist) from the opposite end of the social scale, who independently arrived at the same theory as Darwin resulting in a joint announcement of the theory of evolution in 1858. Darwin's Origin of Species followed in 1859.
The cat was now out of the bag. Rather than God the master designer, it was change, chance, imperfection and a deadly competition for survival which ruled through natural processes. Darwin, however, was a reluctant revolutionary so he still spoke guardedly of a Creator who set the whole show running (although playing no active role in subsequent biological proceedings) and he said nothing about the highly charged issue of the animal origins of human beings.
Darwin left it to others to aggressively confront the social and religious status quo and to apply evolutionary theory to human pre-history - only in 1871 did Darwin venture to show our ape ancestry with the publication of Descent of Man, when some of the heat had gone out of the controversy.
The main scientific deficiency of the book is that Darwin could not explain the biological mechanism behind his theoretical breakthrough of an explanatory cause (natural selection) for evolution. The science of genetics was a long way off and this resulted in "factual overkill" in the book, relying heavily on the towering weight of observational example.
There was a political deficiency, too. Darwin's subsequent application of biology to culture, says Browne, opened a door for political conservatives to reconcile themselves with Darwin. Darwin reinforced beliefs in the innate, biological origins of racial differences (despite his abhorrence of slavery) and male superiority (allegedly honed by aeons of hunting and fighting).
This melded with the vogue for `survival of the fittest' rhetoric, a phrase publicly adopted by Darwin in 1869, and the catchcry of manufacturers, financiers and colonisers. To these victors in the competitive class struggle went the spoils. Browne lists the long roll-call of `Social Darwinists' to the present day - the imperialists, genocidists, anti-welfare state ideologues, segregationists, eugenicists, sociobiologists, `race' scientists - who all had it in for those they saw as the socially `unfit', condemned to discrimination (or extermination) by modern scientific `law'.
Although Browne could have more thoroughly explored post-Darwin scientific developments in evolution (such as those of Stephen Jay Gould who has credibly challenged Darwin's belief in evolutionary `gradualism' and `progress' as well as Darwin's ideological, Malthusian underpinnings), Browne rightly shares with other socially responsible scientists a celebration of the spectacular and truly revolutionary transformation of science and society that Darwin's book represented.