A review of Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place by Janet Browne

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Charles Darwin Voyaging
Princeton University Press 
1995, ISBN 0-691-02606-8, $25.95, 605 pages

Charles Darwin The Power of Place
Knopf 2002, ISBN 0-679-42932-8, $37.50, 589 pages

Janet Browne is professor of the history of biology at London University and has written or co-edited several books.

Her work on Darwin is a biography that compares with the greatest among biographies. The generous proportion of her work allows a nuanced picture of Darwin that is largely invisible in the short notices to be found in other works.

Darwin’s involvement with evolution is well known. Evolution, a term developed in the discussions of his On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, was in 1859 as it is today a hotly debated concept. A noisy minority of fundamentalist Christians opposes it. Other backward circles also reject it such as, for example, the Arab world. There are those that find humanity diminished by an order that operates from the bottom up – instead of the more traditional order which supposedly operated from the top down. Whatever the cause or position, these men and women find themselves on one side of the question. On the other are those who have found evolution to be an unassailable explanation of life. No fact contradicts it and every relevant branch of science confirms its truth. It is disheartening that many of today’s fundamentalist objections were fully answered by Darwin himself in Origins. In terms of the number of lives touched by Darwin’s work, it is easy to see him as the greatest scientist of all time.

Voyaging covers the years from Darwin’s birth to his purchase and occupation of Down House in Kent. Between these two events he pursued an education for which he had little feeling or aptitude, developed a consuming passion for biological study, abandoned a medical career for the Anglican priesthood, and broke away from home with his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. He was taken on as companion by the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, who feared the solitude of what promised to be a voyage of some years. Darwin became de facto the science officer when the man designated for that position resigned. Later Darwin claimed this position, never official, and provoked the objection of FitzRoy who, once more in England, began to show signs of severe mental distress. For Darwin the voyage, which had lasted five years, decided his career and his travel book, written in his distinctively charming style, gave him along with his labors in editing other material regarding the Beagle voyage, entry to the scientific world of London.

Browne has analyzed the Beagle voyage carefully. She shows that much of the time Darwin spent away from the company of the mercurial Captain FitzRoy and that, when they were together, they did not get along at all badly. Almost the sole serious disagreement between them was on the subject of slavery. Darwin hated slavery and some scholars have advanced that this may have been a major factor in his study of what came to be known as evolution. In any event he was convinced of the unity of the human species, a position that should have spared us from the frequent and silly accusation that the holocaust and other foolish racial myths were a product of Darwinism.

As son of Dr Robert Darwin, he would have no concern about earning a living for, in addition to his doctoring and even of greater importance, Robert Darwin was a shrewd investor and moneylender. The full extent of Charles’s wealth did not become known until after his father’s death, but Robert supported him with enough generosity to free his son of most material apprehensions.

Charles married Emma Wedgwood, granddaughter of the great Josiah Wedgwood. They lived in London while Charles reveled in the heady atmosphere of scientific conversation and study, but Charles and Emma found London dirty and nasty after the birth of their child and sought a country home. They found this near the village of Downe in Kent, not too far from London. Charles lived at Down House for the rest of his life.

It was almost a family tradition for Darwins to marry Wedgwoods. Emma proved a good choice although she was a religious woman. Charles had vague convictions which grew wispier as he became older. This was the only possible source for dissension between them and Emma showed herself in sensitive situations able to look beyond differences. Concern for her religious feelings was a major factor in Charles’s relations with her, but together they had six sons and four daughters. As was usual in this period, not all of them lived. Charles was especially crushed by the death of Annie, his favorite. The death of Charles, their youngest son, was also a tragedy for them. There was a daughter too who died shortly after birth. Charles and Emma mourned these losses with the same intensity that any parent would experience. It is necessary to stress this since it is sometimes offered that parents who part with their children to attendants or place them in boarding schools feel their loss less than we would.

At Down House, so shipshape and isolated that Browne sees it as a land equivalent of the Beagle, Charles worked on transmutation (the name that Browne uses for evolution, a term not yet in use) and he spent eight years preparing a comprehensive work on barnacles. He may have feared that Emma would find his theories on transmutation offensive to her religious convictions. He certainly anticipated that publication would unleash a storm of protest. He found procrastination easy, but “the errors of genius are volitional and the portals of discovery.” His study of barnacles fed into his work on transmutation, anchored it to reality and shaped the direction that it would take.

Emma in these years provided for his need to work, protected him from intrusions, and cared for him during his frequent illnesses, mysterious and debilitating stomach complaints. As a last resort he sought doctors who provided water cures instead of conventional medical care.

At the beginning of The Power of Place Browne reintroduces much of the material of Voyaging in order to provide brief explanations where necessary. It would thus be possible to read Power without reading Voyaging, possible but not desirable.

Others had approached the idea of evolution, the French scientist Lamarck and most notably Charles’s own grandfather Erasmus Darwin who wrote about it in the poetic form of heroic couplets. Closer to Darwin’s own day, an anonymous writer – a publisher of some note, Robert Chambers, as it later became known – wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. This was very popular and not too far off from Darwin’s ideas, but it lacked the substance that Darwin would give to it. Despite this anticipation of his work, Darwin, unworried by losing priority over his concept, did nothing to bring his work to its conclusion. The arrival of a paper from one of Darwin’s many correspondents shattered this calm. The paper, written with responsible scientific sobriety, although short, was a competent description of evolution.

Alfred Russell Wallace – described by one wit as the man who was remembered because he was forgotten – comes alive in Browne’s account. He was of working class origin and made a precarious living hunting specimens in out of the way parts of the world for collectors. He had no way of attracting the notice of the English scientific world, a closed world sealed off by class and education. Wallace sent his paper to Darwin so that he could introduce the paper for him. He had no idea that Darwin had been working on the same idea for years.

It would have been easy for Darwin to have ignored Wallace’s request. It was not in him to do this. As he wrote to his friend Charles Lyell, “I would far rather burn my whole book than he or any man shd [should] think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.” Lyell and another of Darwin’s friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker, took over the problem and provided that Darwin and Wallace would present their evolutionary idea jointly. Since Wallace was half the world away, it was impossible to gain his permission and Darwin awaited his response with trepidation. Wallace proved that Darwin was not the only one capable of taking a noble stand. He was surprised that Darwin too was exploring evolution, but he accepted gracefully the joint presentation. Perhaps he was happy to gain Darwin’s support to his paper.

Darwin did not appear at the presentation. Lyell and Hooker made it for him while he watched by the bed of his son Charles who died of a fever.

The impact of the announcement was muted. It was more on an already full program than the audience could absorb. It was different when The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection appeared as a book in 1859. It rode a wave of great changes in book production and in the reading habits of the new and more leisured middle class. Its circulation exceeded expectations and edition followed edition to keep up with the demand. Darwin sought to enhance the acceptance of the book by softer language in each subsequent edition, a course that he later regretted.

Browne describes the book glowingly, but for the modern reader it has many difficulties and most of these arise from the technical terms of an earlier time. It can (and should) be read, but a recent informal inquiry showed that it is seldom read completely even by biologists. For the persistent reader it has rewards. Darwin does have the grand touch and his eloquence is inimitable.

Its literary quality and reading ease were not uppermost considerations for its contemporaries. Many hailed it as a work of genius. The attacks, however, were virulent. Since much of the scientific establishment rested on university dons, men frequently subservient to the religious university atmosphere, the religious basis (or bias) of the attacks was obvious. The worst attack came from one who was not a cleric – Richard Owen, a man of uncertain temper and vexed by disappointments. These latter, unfortunately for Darwin, were largely the results of opposition to Owen’s schemes by Darwin’s friends. Darwin, originally restrained in his approbation of T.H. Huxley’s pugnacious defense of evolution, was human enough to see it as not so bad after all.

In 1860 the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual, weeklong meeting at Oxford. Everyone was there – except Darwin, who was ill. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce was there. He was known to his enemies as Soapy Sam and, it was rumored, was the original of Dr Grantly in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. He had already attacked Origins in a review. Huxley – Darwin’s Bulldog as he named himself – was there, but weary of the many conflicts planned to absent himself from a crucial meeting. Of all people, the undisclosed author of Vestiges, Robert Chambers, dissuaded him. Robert FitzRoy, now an admiral and already on the slope that would lead to his suicide, was there. Soapy Sam delivered a long lay sermon that ended with an insulting jest. Darwin’s Bulldog took the floor and answered capably and ended with a similar retort. In the ensuing pandemonium, FitzRoy shouted, was heard by scarcely anyone, and managed to wave his Bible. It was a Victorian version of Boston Legal.

But there were no winners, least of all the scientists. The church still controlled society and it would be long before it would be pushed aside from its control of science. Darwin observed to Huxley with great good humor, “How durst you attack a live bishop?”

Darwin, weary of controversy, began his study of orchids. He found in these many of the same characteristics as he had found in barnacles. It eased his mind from family cares as well as those that would continue to attend his book, and he announced that such experiments were more fun than his more comprehensive studies. When the orchid book appeared, it was published by John Murray, a commercial printer, and had a characteristically long-winded title. About titles Darwin seldom made choices that could be described as snappy.

The Origin lived its own vigorous life and led an even more exciting existence at the hands of Herbert Spencer. It cannot be said that Spencer caused it to flourish. He grafted his own ideas to Darwinism and the result made a great impression. In less informed circles it still does, but Darwin, except for his borrowing the phrase “survival of the fittest,” neither understood nor cared for Spencer.

His orchid book received professional plaudits but the public regarded it coldly. He published The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication (another snappy title) in 1868. Darwin was pursuing a definite program related to species with these books, but the connection was neither obvious nor glamorous and his sales reflected this.

While the giants battled, it was an unknown and retiring naturalist, another who had spent – like Wallace – years in the jungle hunting specimens for collectors, Henry Walter Bates who supplied the first real evidence for natural selection at work. He had noticed the role of mimicry in insects and how this mimicry of other, unpalatable species or of natural objects protected the mimics from predators. Darwin was delighted with this discovery and did everything he could to promote Bates’s career, even presenting his findings in 1863 to the scientific world.

But such public appearances or indeed almost any kind of exceptional activity became impossible as his health, never good, began in 1864 a serious deterioration. His nausea and stomach pains became more frequent and were especially pronounced after the excitement of visitors or any unusual exertion. His determination to continue his studies may have contributed to his illness. His struggle was valiant but the source of his illness being unknown, it was impossible to diagnose or treat. Unable to turn off his mind and compose himself for bed, he suffered in addition to his other complaints from a lack of sleep. The cause of his illness may have been hereditary. It does not seem to have been related to the years he spent on his voyage with Captain FitzRoy.

In 1868 his health improved although he continued to suffer relapses. A great concern to him was the possibility that inbreeding had caused not only his health problems but also those of his children, most of whom suffered from vague nervous disorders. He was glum about the reception of his book Variations, a daunting two-volume collection of facts and some considerable problems. The chief problem was Darwin’s attempt to explain the mechanics of descent with modification. His theory of pangenesis – which stumbled about genetics without ever finding a convincing answer – was not successful and was ignored more completely than Darwin found comfortable.

Gregor Mendel had the answer. He published his work on genetics a few years after the publication of Origins, but the work never came to Darwin’s attention and was lost to any kind of perceptive attention until early in the twentieth century.

Sir Charles Lyle, although a loyal friend, was an older man who had never fully accepted evolution. Darwin had come to terms with this, but the defection of Wallace troubled him. Their relationship had been outstanding since their joint announcement of evolution in 1858, but now Wallace – under the influence of his newfound faith in spiritualism – exempted man’s intellectual development from the evolutionary process. It was obviously important that Darwin should write another book, this one a more pertinent companion volume to the Origin than Variations. The new book was The Descent of Man.

It’s a cozy book, full of bits of information drawn from country life and the many books that Darwin had read. The details tend to swamp the outline although the main thrust, that human perfection is to be found in the nineteenth century English gentleman, is amusingly clear. He developed fully the theme of sexual selection as it applied to man and deliberately set out to undo the damage that Wallace’s defection had wrought. Murray – despite his misgivings that the book would offend the delicacy of his readers – published The Descent of Man in 1871. It was a success.

Browne is rightly appreciative of Darwin’s next book, Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). The Beagle is absorbing, the Origin is breathtaking, the Descent is intriguing, but Expression is simply great fun, as much for the almost surrealistic illustrations as for the text.

In 1875 Murray published Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants. The material gave Darwin the thrill of the chase, proof that he was still not only alive but lively, but the subject was too rarified to have wide appeal and was not reprinted during his lifetime. In these years his son Francis assisted him. His book on climbing plants was also published in this year. It had the lowest sales of all his books.

In discussing the autobiographical sketch that Darwin wrote for his family and friends, Browne notes that it was reticent and provided with odd gaps. It borders on misrepresentation in peculiar ways, but Browne shrewdly sums it up in these words, “Darwin was incapable of seeing himself as others saw him. In an oddly engaging manner, he remained a stranger to himself.”

In 1877 he and Francis wrote The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species. This was another technical work of small popular appeal.

In connection with Darwin’s biography of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, Browne instances the interposition of Samuel Butler’s related book. She sees Butler – along with Wallace and Spencer – as a writer anxious to make something different, something more personal, of evolution. This is not a tendency that has died. It proved healthy in the mystic and confused musings of Teilhard de Chardin and Stephen Jay Gould. Darwin’s next book (1881) was The Power of Movement in Plants. His last book (1881) was The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, a book that (amazingly) sold rather well.

But it was closing time and he slowed down to that final door of death insensibly and with little fuss. He died in 1882 of a heart problem and without suffering his great fear, a loss of his mental acuity. With his customary modesty, he expected to be buried near his brother and other members of his family, quietly, privately. Instead he was buried as was right in Westminster Abbey.

Janet Browne shows him to be not only great but huggable. She also as a side benefit gives us an extraordinarily vivid picture of England in the nineteenth century. This is a book of wide appeal and reaches easily across boundaries to celebrate a man of genius who made a major change in our lives and was modest and unassuming in ways that are touching and memorable.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places