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Charles Darwin. Voyaging (Volume 1): Voyaging Vol 1 Paperback – 7 Aug 2003
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"Brilliantly penetrating...utterly riveting" (Daily Telegraph)
"Browne knows how to spellbind the reader... The definitive Darwin biography" (Ernst Mayr New York Newsday)
"An authoritative and highly readable biography which uncovers the complex process of scientific discovery" (Independent)
"It is wonderful and marvellous, even magisterial" (Stephen Jay Gould New York Review of Books)
"Splendid. Her qualifications as a trained biologist, historian of science and skilled editor of the correspondence out her in an ideal position... A wonderful read" (Nature)
'An astonishingly fresh picture of the great naturalist - Janet Browne's book is a triumph, the closest we can come to getting inside Darwin's mind' Sunday TelegraphSee all Product description
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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.
This first volume covers Darwin’s childhood and youth, his voyage on the Beagle, and then his life back in England up to 1856, when he finally decided to start writing up his theory in detail for publication.
There is 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 Alfred Russel 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...”
This book shows that 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.
For example, in a letter of 1844 Darwin tentatively let his friend Hooker in on his secret theorising and research: “...I am almost convinced...that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable...I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.” He also set out the theory in an 1857 letter to Asa Gray.
I also find the personal side of Darwin’s story interesting, including, for example, the tragic and moving story of the death of his daughter Anne, and the worries that Darwin’s theories caused for his religious wife, Emma.
There are only two things that I am not happy with Janet Browne about. Firstly, there is the fact that seven years passed between the publication of the two separate volumes of this biography. Even allowing for the enormous amount of research that went into these volumes, that is a long time! I remember that when the first volume was published 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.
My second quibble is that Browne speculates, without any real evidence, about the sexuality of Robert Grant, whom Darwin met in Edinburgh. Darwin ended up losing his respect for Grant because he felt that Grant had appropriated some of Darwin’s own researches. But Browne, uncharacteristically, rather wildly speculates that the rift might also have developed because Darwin might have “proved unresponsive to late-night suggestions of a different nature.” Evidence?
But these two points in no way prevent me from thoroughly recommending this wonderful biography.
The author handles a huge cast of characters - including Darwin's family and friends together with scientists, intellectuals and people of influence - and explains and elucidates the social conditions and conventions from Darwin's Regency roots to archetypical Victorian maturity. Simultaneously she traces the history of Darwin's scientific thought from his early days as a beetle collector through his time as naturalist on the Beagle to his last years observing earthworms. She follows the genesis of his doubts on the immutability of species through the development of his theory of their source (in variability and selection) and his hesitations to publish his work when its implications became clear.
While I can't for a moment fault this it was hard to digest so much detailed material. I found myself comparing it with Desmond & Moore's 1992 biography which - although it has been challenged on the accuracy of some conclusions - was an easier read. Janet Browne has unquestionably written the definitive Darwin biography but if at any time she saw fit to write a shortened or 'student's' version it could reach a wider audience and have a more popular appeal.
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