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Charles Darwin Volume 2: The Power at Place: The Power of Place: Power of Place v. 2 Paperback – 7 Aug 2003
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"One of the most distinguished of all modern biographies" (Guardian)
"A monumental and absorbing biography" (Scotsman)
"Her first book, Voyaging, was hailed as a magisterial introduction to Darwin's life, a work that vividly evoked period, character and ideas. The only question was: could she follow it up? It has taken seven years to get an answer: an emphatic yes" (Robin McKie Observer)
"Browne's first volume was warmly received when it appeared seven years ago, and the second triumphantly fulfils its promise...[a] remarkable book" (James Secord Daily Telegraph)
"A marvellous book... This second part of the life stands on its own. Soothing, unhurried and absorbing" (Jane Ridley Spectator)
The second half of Charles Darwin's life was inextricably interwoven with the story of "The Origin of the Species" and this concluding volume of his biography looks closely at the wider publishing world of Victorian England and the different audiences which responded to Darwin's ideas. Darwin relied heavily upon his friends and family, his publishing contacts, his correspondence network, and the expanding geographical and economic horizons of Victorian Britain to distribute his views to the furthest corners of Empire. This biography considers the Darwinian revolution from his point of view and what it was like to become a scientific celebrity.See all Product description
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This second volume takes up the story a year or so before the 1859 publication of “On the Origin of Species”. Darwin was dilly-dallying about publishing a book on his theory of natural selection, when, in June 1858, he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace in which Wallace enclosed a paper which showed that he had just come up with the same theory. Wallace did not know that Darwin had already had the same idea.
Darwin was torn: he didn’t want to lose the credit for having thought of the theory himself much earlier than Wallace; but on the other hand he didn’t want to treat Wallace badly. Two of Darwin’s scientific friends came up with a solution. They made a joint presentation of Wallace’s paper and some extracts from Darwin’s unpublished writings on the theory to the Linnean Society.
To make matters worse, all this commotion coincided with the illness and then death of the Darwins’ youngest child.
As in the first volume, there is certainly plenty of ammunition in this book to shoot down the ridiculous conspiracy theory which claims that Darwin stole the credit for the theory of natural selection from Wallace. Wallace certainly deserves credit for independently coming up with the same idea, but Wallace himself was always happy to play second fiddle to Darwin. For example, in 1908 Wallace made a speech to the Linnaean Society in which he explicitly defended Darwin’s priority, pointing out that “...the idea occurred to Darwin in October 1838, nearly twenty years earlier than to myself (in February 1858); and that during the whole of that twenty years he had been laboriously collecting evidence...”
Darwin probably started thinking seriously about “transmutation” on the last stretch of his Beagle voyage in 1836. He certainly opened his first notebook on the subject in 1837, and the idea of natural selection as the mechanism of evolutionary change came to him, after reading Malthus, in 1838. In 1842 he wrote what he called the “pencil sketch of my species theory”, and in 1844 he wrote a fuller and more polished version.
Darwin’s letters, notebooks and the two essays/sketches, show beyond question that all the key ideas that Darwin made public in 1859 in “On the Origin of Species” had already been developed by him much earlier.
Stephen Jay Gould once described Darwin as being “radical in his scientific ideas, liberal in his political and social views, and conservative in personal lifestyle...”
This book by Janet Browne shows us that Gould’s summary of Darwin is a perfectly accurate one. Browne describes Darwin’s personality, his personal life, his class position, the social context of nineteenth century England, and the influences which led him to develop his theory of natural selection, as well as Darwin’s researches and the theory itself.
The only thing that I was not happy about with this second volume was the fact that it was not published until seven years after the publication of the first volume. Even allowing for the enormous amount of research that went into these books, that is a long time! I remember that when the first volume came out in 1995 I decided not to get it until the second one was published, so that I could buy and read both together. I didn’t think that I would have to wait for seven years to be able to do that. Still, that’s water under the bridge now. Darwin fans can read, re-read and savour both volumes.
The first is excellent but the second volume is even better. The story carries on from the late 1850s, when Darwin is on the cusp of publishing his `Origin of the Species'. Having spent over twenty years collecting the evidence, a feat that has left him on the brink of exhaustion, he is shocked to discover that a little known explorer called Alfred Russel Wallace has hit upon the very same theory he has. Darwin till now has prevaricated in publishing the results of his researches, dreading the controversy and calumny that he is convinced will be heaped upon him to suggest nature develops according to natural laws needing no guidance from a creator. And he hasn't even talked about man's kinship with the apes yet.
But publish he does, and the book goes on to describe the impact of the idea of evolution as the shockwaves radiate outwards from Down House. As the first volume of this biography attests, Darwin was no natural revolutionary. Much of the subsequent fighting and advocacy for the theory was done for him by people like Thomas Henry Huxley, founder of the so-called X dining club, assiduous propagators of Darwin's work. Browne gives a fascinating account not just of the man but also of the spread and influence of the idea of evolution. The idea that Darwin tore asunder the ties of a pious society is far from the truth. These ties were already being frayed by the intellectual tumult of the time, this tumult reaching into the heart of the Church of England itself with some churchmen even going as far as to question the very foundations of the Christian faith such as the virgin birth and resurrection.
Browne is fascinating in describing the cultural and intellectual impact of Darwin's ideas. That a study based largely on zoological observations, including barnacles, pigeons and livestock, could have provoked such anguished debate about the place of mankind in nature is remarkable. After all, in the Origin of the Species, he did not touch upon mankind's origins. But he touched a nerve: a theory that showed that nature can develop needing no guiding divine hand has obvious implications for the place of human beings in it.
It was not until the 1870s that Darwin actually addressed the topic of human origins - the Descent of Man. Here some of his cultural assumptions shone through - he clearly and unselfconsciously believed in the distinction between savage and civilized peoples, and the superiority of the latter over the former, but this was a cultural, not biological conviction, for he also argued for the common origins and biological unity of mankind, and made the prediction, increasingly borne out by contemporary evidence, that mankind's origins were in Africa. And Darwin did not coin the term survival of the fittest. His preferred term was natural selection but Wallace persuaded Darwin that this term sounded too much like attributing deliberate intention to a natural process and enjoined him to use Herbert Spencer's term instead.
The challenge of a biography detailing the middle and later years of Darwin's life - domesticated and sequestered as he was at Down House - is to convey the firestorm his ideas provoked. Browne's book succeeds in doing this marvelously. We also get a correction to the picture presented by some biographers of a sickly, reclusive Darwin, exaggerated by some of his previous chroniclers. Sick he was much of the time but he had a good deal of support from his wife and family and though he was not a public intellectual in the modern sense of the term, he cultivated links with influential persons whom he could enlist as allies shrewdly, and was canny about taking advantage of new technological mediums like portrait photography to promote his own `brand', as we might put in modern parlance.
In all this, Browne does not neglect the man, the gentleman scholar, a devoted husband and father (like Huxley, their naturalism did not rob them of being able to form deep human attachments), an unlikely revolutionary whose arsenal of ideas was generated in his greenhouse and gardens. And, no, contrary to some rumours, there was no deathbed renunciation of his theory (his wife, Emma, a believer, and who fretted over Darwin's salvation in the hereafter, would surely have recorded such a recantation).
This truly is a monumental biography. Browne spent 14 years of her life writing it. One senses a degree of identification the author has with Darwin and his own colossal struggles to compose his ideas. George Orwell once said that the act of writing was like pulling a demon out of one's mouth. Browne has not pulled out a demon out of hers with this book - she has produced a diamond of a book. One can only award this book five stars.
A great letter writer, Browne show how Darwin reacted to the responses, most critical were his fellow scientists, and the strong links between him and his supporters, all from his home in Down House. Other reviewers have given considerable detail, any more would be superfluous.
"'So you see, Mary, baby is descended from a hairy quadruped with pointed ears and a tail. We all are!" said Jack, in 'Punch', having been reading his wife passages from 'The Descent of Man'
'Speak for yourself, Jack! I'm not descended from anything of the kind, I beg to say,' retorted Mary. 'And baby takes after me, so there!'" (P 375)
Browne has comprehensively researched this book to build a fascinating picture of this very eventful time in scientific, human and Charles Darwin's life.
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