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Darwin's "Origin of Species": A Biography (Books That Shook the World) [Hardcover]

Janet Browne
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

13 July 2006 Books That Shook the World
On first publication in 1859, "Origin of Species" became a controversial bestseller. Darwin's idea that organisms gradually evolve through natural selection overturned the belief that all animals were born out of nothing. Janet Browne's examination of "Origin of Species" is an indispensable guide to the theory that changed the way we see the world and our place in it.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; First Edition edition (13 July 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1843543931
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843543930
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 13.4 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 897,988 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Janet Browne is a professor at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL. Her major work has been a landmark two-volume biography of Charles Darwin, Voyaging (1995) and The Power of Place (2002).

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Introduction 31 Aug 2008
I bought ths book and couldn't put it down. It was easy to read and it is a great introduction to Darwin and his theory.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars God's harmony an illusion 27 Feb 2009
By Sphex TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In 1831, when Darwin set off on his voyage round the world, he could not have known that his ideas would still be in circulation in his bicentenary year. Twenty-five years later, finally working on the Origin, he said, "I am like Croesus overwhelmed with my riches of facts". That he didn't give up, that he persevered despite the intellectual challenge, the likely social censure and his own ill-health, and that he distilled out of complexity one of the most important universal laws ever discovered, are all reasons why we continue to hold him in such high esteem. Janet Browne tells the remarkable story - spanning two centuries - of the book and its impact in this compelling and compact account.

For Darwin, facts were not Gradgrindian blows to the soul but living creatures (though often soon to be extinguished by his habit for either collecting or shooting them). His childhood love of nature and sense of wonder at the diversity of life found an early expression in William Paley's theology of a designer-god, which suited his intended career as one those naturalist-parsons who enjoyed "a comfortable niche in a country parish". Like Paley, "Darwin saw organisms that were excellently adapted to their way of life". Unlike Paley and almost everyone else, Darwin saw that sometimes organisms were very poorly designed and very often came off worse in the struggle for survival. He "shattered all previous images of pastoral harmony". He saw that "the urge to succeed was brutal" and "it seemed unlikely that a divine architect would deliberately create such wasteful, purposeless features." As he watched his own daughter die, he asked, "How could a caring, beneficent creator extinguish such an innocent child?
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Worthy but dull 29 Feb 2008
By amm1u
Format:MP3 CD
Despite being familiar with this subject, I found the audiobook hard going. It's one of the most important and exciting stories in human history, but this reading makes it dull and unengaging. The narrator has a flat voice which sounds like computer generated airport announcements and fails to bring any passion or interest to the story. The continued listing of dates does nothing to relieve the monotone and breaks up the argument time and time again. A great disappointment.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Major Letdown 5 Jan 2008
By Danny Boy - Published on Amazon.com
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Treasure from Janet Browne 6 Aug 2008
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You can ask for little more in so little space 9 Sep 2007
By Shiki - Published on Amazon.com
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Browne Paints Favorable Picture of Darwin and Origin 20 Jun 2009
By C. Paula de los Angeles - Published on Amazon.com
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good for an undergraduate survey course 21 April 2011
By Caleb Hanson - Published on Amazon.com
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.'"
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