The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   51

Charles Darwin

Vol. I: Voyaging

by Janet Browne

Princeton University Press, 1996

An Adaptive Peak in Darwin Biographies

Modern biographies suffer from post-mortem bloat. In the space in which more selective ages gave us a Charles XII or an Akbar, a Luther or a Li Po, a Galileo or a Humboldt, we now get half, a third or a quarter of second-rate politicians, third-rate gangsters and fourth-rate movie actors. The present volume takes five hundred and fifty pages to take Darwin from conception to the summer of 1856, three years before the publication of the Origin; another volume of at least equal bulk is threatened to issue from the presses in the next few years, and carry him to the grave. It is natural to wonder --- darkly --- whether anyone, even the most important and second-most influential (after, alas, Marx) thinker of the last two hundred years deserves such fulsome attentions; whether the space is not wasted on trivialities, which comprise the vast bulk of even the most interesting, active and instructive life.

Rather to my surprise, I put down this book thinking that Browne really did need all that space to tell her story as well as she told it, which is to say, exceedingly well. The reason for this, I think, is that she fills the space, not with the quotidian details of Darwin's life, but with the lives of the people around him. Her great theme is that Darwin was, so to speak, a team project, the summed achievement of the efforts of a vast number of people (Darwin himself not least, of course):

Darwin's real life, in short, belies the common view of him as an isolated recluse. There was a sliver of ice inside enabling him to make the most of all the advantages he possessed and the circumstances in which he found himself. Though he was often alone with his theories, morbidly [sic] turning over the ideas of death and struggle on which the concept of natural selection was based, frequently unable to cope with the pressures of publication and fearful of the controversies that were bound to follow, deliberately avoiding the demands of social engagements, almost bored with fame towards the end, and only too keen to close the study door safely behind him or to retreat to his greenhouse, he was also, in another sense, propped up by British society. [p. xiii]

In this perspective the familiar outlines of Darwin's life takes on a new depth and solidity, becomes, indeed, far more comprehensible and interesting when set against his proper background of family connections, rural Whiggery, scientific institutions, appalling schools (if the Victorians had wanted schools to snuff every spark of intelligence in their ruling classes, they could hardly have done a better job), voluminous correspondence (of which Browne was an editor), the British empire, and the Cambridge crony network which, among other things, snagged him the place on the Beagle. So we learn about his family, back to his notorious evolutionist grandfather Erasmus Darwin (who wrote long poems on scientific subjects, but was, to put it kindly, no Lucretius), his shipmates on the Beagle (like Captain Fitzroy, otherwise rather a cipher, and Jemmy Button, a native of Tierra del Fuego who had been brought to England, Christianized, and whom Fitzroy was returning as the nucleus of a supposed Anglican mission), his teachers (in Edinburgh: various medical horrors, and Grant, who, just like a modern thesis adviser, appropriated Darwin's first discovery, so introducing him to the ``jealousy of scientific men''; at Cambridge, Henslow, who introduced him to the reform- and Church of England- minded scientific elite of the age); his correspondents and mentors (like Charles Lyell, nearly enough the inventor of scientific geology, and Louis Agassiz, who discovered the Ice Age in Switzerland, and trained up several generations of American scientists at Harvard). And of course we learn about Darwin: where he went, what he saw, what he thought (this is after all the biography of a scientist). Much of this is familiar; much of it is surprising. (For instance: during the voyage of the Beagle, he actually spent more time traveling through South America on land than he did on the ship; wisely, since sea-sickness reduced him to miserable quivering jelly.) On top of this, Browne seems to be familiar with every relevant scientific development and debate, from the astronomy-inspired methodology of John Herschel through the emergence of the notion of ``organization'' and the growth of experimental physiology in Parisian hospitals to the controversy about ``zoophytes,'' living things supposedly intermediate between animals and plants. More remarkably still, this is all related with a light touch: just enough information to see the difference it made, and no more. (One is reminded of Darwin's own omnivorous reading strategy.)

Sometimes the effort to fit Darwin into a larger picture goes too far. For example, Browne suggests that natural selection could only have been dreamt up by someone in steeped in the individualist, competitive, expansionist, self-help ethos of Victorian industrialism, capitalism and imperialism. This sounds more plausible than the suggestion that it could only have been discovered by someone whose last name contained the letters A and W, but really has no more support than the latter. Certainly Browne hasn't a well-supported general theory of the preconditions of scientific discovery to back up statements like this. --- But these lapses are mercifully few, and she respects (implicitly, though not by name) the old logical-empiricist distinction between the ``context of discovery'' and the ``context of justification''; those who want to see natural selection written off as mere ideology will have to look elsewhere.

This is probably the definitive Darwin biography. Baring some new trove of information about his life (unlikely to say the least), it won't be improved upon for factual scope or accuracy. It can't be compressed without losing valuable material and perspectives. It's even quite well-written (the fact that Darwin himself wrote well helps). If the second volume remains at the same high standard as the first, they should together drive all the other Darwin books to extinction, and sate almost everyone's curiosity about the man.

xv + 605 pp., genealogical chart of the Darwins and Wedgewoods, maps of Darwin's travels, black and white illustrations, bibliographic notes, bibliography, index
Biography / Evolution / History of Science
Currently in print as a paperback, US$18.95, ISBN 0-691-02606-8. First published in hardback, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. LoC QH 31.D2 B84.
16--17 August 1998