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Darwin's Origin of Species: Books That Changed the World Paperback – February 18, 2008
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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.
Browne's book is very much the story of Darwin's world and the Origin's role in leading it into modernization. 19th century English society was unabashedly Victorian and increasingly industrialized. This environment of transition was ripe for the introduction of Darwin's ideas, as both shared the mantras of specialization, diversification, and improvement. Religion, while a crucial pillar of Darwin's society at the time, was being chipped away by an emerging contingent of philosophers questioning the validity of the Old Testament and creationism. The Origin-centric approach to this particular Darwin biography gives the book a great amount of focus. Details in Darwin's early life that seem cobbled together in other Darwin biographies come together in fascinating ways when discussed in context of the Origin, effectively showing how Darwin's life influenced the creation of the Origin. The book begins by retracing Darwin's upbringing as part of the financially secure intelligentsia of Britain before moving on to Darwin's formative years at Cambridge. During that time he cultivated his love for geology and encountered the pervasive influence of theology, two influences that repeatedly show up in the Origin. Similarly, Browne elaborates on the voyage on the Beagle's merits as a character-building experience, allowing Darwin to develop the independence and his observation skills as a naturalist later needed to flesh out the nuances of the Origin.
This focus extends to the middle chapters of the book, where Browne summarizes the literature regarding the development, publication, and argument of the Origin. She hits all of the main points of contention, exploring the influence of Paley and Malthus while offering commentary on Darwin's delay and the controversy regarding Alfred Wallace Russell. Her systematic reduction of the argument within the Origin is nicely done as well, breaking it down into its core principles of excessive numbers of very different offspring, the mechanism of natural selection, and the principle of divergence as well as addressing many of the common controversies surrounding the book like the rejection of the church and the lack of man's special status.
Browne's book is also notable for its distillation of the legacy of the Origin, offering a nicely condensed version of the key events that led Darwinism out of obscurity in the 20th century. During the late 19th and early 20th century Darwin's ideas were countered by many scientists who found the paleontological evidence wanting, his ideas of selection incomplete. But there were scientists in the early 20th century that worked hard to draw the connections between Mendelian inheritance and Darwinian thought. In this regard Browne does a much better job than her contemporaries like Quammen in exploring the resurgence of Darwinism, detailing the role of Sewell Wright's population genetics and G.G. Simpson's explanation for the gaps in the fossil record in achieving the modern synthesis that arguably reshaped the field of biology into evolutionary biology.
Yet it is Browne's reverent and accessible writing style that elevates her content above other Darwin biographies. Throughout the book she manages to maintain brevity while sacrificing very little in terms of intellectual integrity or sufficient exploration of key issues. Browne's description of Darwin's writing in the Origin as "dazzling, persuasive, friendly" very well applies to the quality of writing at work in her book. I was genuinely surprised by how much her passion for Darwin's work contributed to her book's readability, as it is a legitimate page-turner. Admittedly, this affectionate writing style also means that the rough edges of Darwin's personality are smoothened over more than they should be, drawing attention away from the less savory personality tics like the pride that emerged in controversies like the Wallace publishing fiasco. But the reverence never crosses the line into idolatry; at the end of the day, Browne is just genuinely passionate about discussing Darwin's contribution to the modernization of society and science, and the biography as a whole benefits greatly from it.
While other biographies may be more comprehensive or controversial, Browne's considerable abilities as a writer and her undeniable admiration for Darwin makes this work a truly enjoyable read, regardless of prior knowledge of Darwin. As far as introductions go, Darwin's Origin of Species is definitely the work to beat for anyone new to the life and works of Charles Darwin.
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