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?"
Although it was never Darwin's intention to destroy "the presence of God in nature", "his appeal to natural law unmistakably contributed to the general push towards secularization". He "replaced Paley's vision of perfect adaptation with imperfection and chance" and repeatedly challenged the idea that species were separately and divinely created. But could his precious facts alone prove that species really did change? "Natural selection is not self-evident in nature... Darwin had no crucial experiment that conclusively demonstrated evolution in action... Everything in his book required the reader's imagination."
Browne deals briefly with the unsavoury ideas often linked - however loosely - with Darwin. "Eugenic doctrines around 1900 were invariably coupled with other ideological extensions of Darwinism." Browne points out that "racism and genocide predated Darwin" and nor were they solely confined to the West. "Nevertheless, evolutionary views, and then the new science of genetics, gave powerful biological backing to those who wished to partition society according to ethnic difference or promote white supremacy." Darwin's own insight was "that humans were all brothers under the skin", a view vindicated by modern evolutionary biology.
Of course, for many religious people the real difficulties are not with the scientific details nor with misapplications such as social Darwinism, but with their fear that Darwin's dangerous idea will "free the world from theological dogma" and that naturalism will ultimately drive out religion. For contemporaries like Huxley, that was certainly the hope: not for him the inane notion that evolution was perhaps "a purposeful process regulated by God". Others couldn't see what all the fuss was about: Tennyson, for example, wondered what difference it would make if man really had descended from apes.
In the Origin, Darwin himself deliberately avoided discussing human origins and he sidestepped the question of "a divine presence in the natural world" although he knew his theory would change forever the terms in which such debates were conducted. Once again, however reluctant Darwin was as a protagonist, religion had to shift its ground as a result of scientific progress. I personally follow Dawkins and Dennett in seeing evolution as irreconcilable with all but the most washed-out religious ideas, but I now have a better understanding of why Darwin kept his more radical thoughts out of the Origin and safe inside his private notebooks. Janet Browne's engaging and enjoyable book keeps Darwin the author and scientist centre stage but never loses sight of Charles Darwin the loving husband and parent.
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.