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Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2 - The Power of Place Paperback – October 5, 2003
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
Allow me to explain a little why Browne's biography is a stellar piece of work. Perhaps you are interested in reading a much shorter treatment of Darwin's life, and there is no shortage of works by competent authors, even writers that can make it all so much more exciting. You may notice a certain spin or a thesis around which all of these authors build their stories of the subject's life.
To an extent, perhaps even Browne does that, but after reading the whole, I cannot easily come away from her work believing she did it all for some political or ideological reason. What I am trying to convey is that she has presented an extremely thorough, wide-ranging, utterly exhaustive treatment which has been done in fairness, showing the great and minor events, even the virtues and vices of Charles Darwin and surrounding significant characters in his life. One can truly walk away from this reading feeling like one has known the great scientist.
So many other articles, books, or even forms of video seem to have gotten so much wrong. One major message I have received from this more authoritative source is that Charles and Emma did not seem to have had much problem because of the differences in regard to faith and belief in Christianity. Emma apparently did not have enormous issues with the things Charles wrote, and was even quite involved with helping him with editing and anything else he needed, as were his sons and daughters, especially Henrietta.
Another revelation (to me) is how late in life it was when he lost faith. "I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age." -- pg 484. That was part of an interview with some freethinkers that were asking about that particular subject. Earlier in this volume, on pg 391, it is recorded "he felt decisive -- these were the most godless years of his life." This is speaking of the last decade of his life, after the publication of "Descent of Man" and "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals."
One last example of a treasure mined from this book is a quote from writings of his son, Francis. Only part of this quote is in the book, as Browne was discussing the primitive methods used by Darwin when so many technologies were springing up to modernize his type of experimentation. I went to the source to widen the context a little:
"I have always felt it to be a curious fact, that he who had 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. In reading his books one is reminded of the older naturalists rather than of the modern school of writers. He was a Naturalist in the old sense of the word, that is, a man who works at many branches of the science, not merely a specialist in one."
The odd thing is that even though he shunned much of the technology available to him that may have standardized and increased the accuracy of his work, he still was more accurate in his assessments and predictions than the vast majority of other scientists working at the time in state of the art facilities, while Darwin was working in his home and the surrounding grounds.
There is indeed beauty and genius in simplicity.