Book Review: Janet Browne, “Charles Darwin: Voyaging” (1995)

I just recommended this book for a student who was interested in comparing another Darwin biography with Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1994). I then remembered writing a review of Browne’s book for a class on ‘Historiography in History and Philosophy of Science’ a few years ago and how much I liked her writing; I then thought I’d share my review with you, Dear Reader!

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), xiii + 547pp.

Janet Browne is currently the Aramont Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and editor of the British Journal for the History of Science. After receiving her PhD in the history of science from Imperial College London, much of her research has been focused on Charles Darwin and his work. For eight years, she was formerly the associate editor of the multi-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin, which allowed her to study more than 14,000 letters from Darwin and his networks. This project builds the foundation for Browne’s biography of Darwin.

Voyaging is the first volume of Browne’s two-part biography on Darwin, following him from his birth to the 1850s, as he develops and tunes his scientific ideas on species adaptation and natural selection. The second volume, The Power of Place, traces Darwin’s struggle to finish the Origin of Species, the resulting revolution and controversy that followed its publication, and Darwin’s eventual status as a celebrity scientist.

Like other biographies that followed the centenary of Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, Browne combines biography and cultural history to weave a profile of Darwin within the ethos of Victorian England; she even states that her book might as well been called Darwin: Another Biography. Drawing upon her work with the Darwin correspondence, including rare archival material, Browne constructs a collective biography that merges the social, intellectual, and political networks of the Victorian scientific community, and Darwin’s place in it. This biography does more than just outline the development of Darwin’s scientific ideas and the resulting fame. In order to provide a full assessment of Darwin’s profile, Browne declares that Darwin’s story is the story of the era: “of the different ways in which a man could emerge as a profound thinker in Victorian Britain, of the way that someone could take up and turn around the assumptions of the age and become a hero for doing so. It is the story of the transformation, in a particular time and place, of an amiable but rather aimless young man into a scientific giant whose intellectual heights have scarcely ever been rivaled” (xiii)” In short, Browne wants to argue that the science known as Darwinism—that is, evolution by means of natural selection—was made by Darwin and Victorian society.

The book is divided into three main parts:

(1)   Collector, which chronicles Darwin’s early years as a student, his relationship with his family and their influence, and his budding love for collecting and natural science. We also get a full picture of Darwin’s relationship with his professors at Edinburgh and Cambridge—especially Robert Grant, John Henslow, and Adam Sedgwick—and how these relationships contributed to his understanding of natural science.

(2)   Traveller, the largest section which follows Darwin on his five-year voyage on Captain FitzRoy’s H.M.S. Beagle. Much of Browne’s detail and research is reserved for this section, and she shows how Darwin grows from a passionate collector to a meticulous observer of the natural world.

(3)   Naturalist, recaptures Darwin’s return to England and his growing fame as a scientist as his observations and ideas spread through scientific circles. We are able to see how Darwin applied the knowledge gained from his voyage into constructing a theory that could explain some of the variances he observed in species population and geographical distribution. In addition, we see how Darwin became a family man and struggled with an intellectual isolation as he developed his theory.

In my opinion, nearly all 547 pages of this book are well justified as Browne beautifully matches the intellectual setting of Victorian England with her voluminous sources on Darwin and his social circle. She makes use of an abundance of primary source material, everything from manuscripts, correspondence and private letters, journals, scientific papers—not only from Darwin, but also from his family, his scientific circle, those alongside the Beagle voyage, and even from other students during Darwin’s days in Cambridge. I was incredibly impressed with not only the richness of the sources, but also the way she supported them in the text and made use of minor protagonists. For instance, she narrates how John Maurice Herbert, a lame acquaintance of Darwin in Cambridge, once gave Darwin a microscope as a gift; yet their friendship—if we can call it that—didn’t appear to be mutual, since Darwin was more amused by Herbert’s attention and appeared to treat him shabbily: he occasionally forgot Herbert’s first name and his lameness despite the fact Herbert followed Darwin on 10-mile walks across the hills. This minor story is well-used by Browne to humanize Darwin’s character.

The notes in the book have been kept as brief as possible to supply only the material she integrates with in the text; Browne also provides a few pages of secondary sources, but she makes it clear that it was impossible to mention all the detailed studies provided by Darwin scholars, and limits her listing only those recent and relevant to her work. In addition, she provides a family tree of the Darwin and Wedgwood clans, a few maps of the Beagle voyage, and several pages of rich images which support the text and provide a visualization of the history Browne narrates.

As Voyaging generally focuses on Darwin’s growth as an individual and his development as a scientist, several major themes arise throughout the work:

Family Influences

Browne argues family support was immensely important throughout Darwin’s life and influenced the development of his ideas just as much as his fellow scientists did. As Darwin’s family liberal sentiment influenced his politics—for instance, his stance on slavery—he also relied on their support and encouragement into social and scientific circles: his Uncle Jos granted permission to board the Beagle, his brother Erasmus introduced him to a wide variety of social networks, and his wife Emma provided him with moral and emotional support when he struggled with his work.

An interesting relationship that emerges is that of Darwin and his father, Robert Waring Darwin. While other biographies on Darwin have explored Robert’s overwhelming influence on Darwin’s studies and career choices, Browne explains that there was nothing to suggest that Robert Darwin was an oppressive father. Rather, Browne ties his patient (and often frustrating) attitude with Charles’ idleness with Robert’s own experience with a pushing and disappointing father who eventually abandoned him. I found that Browne brilliantly explores this psychological angle by giving minute details of Robert’s financial support for, and during, Darwin’s voyage: 1200 pounds, a colossal sum at the time, and nearly twice the cost of Darwin’s studies at Christ College Cambridge.

Darwin’s Geological Lens

A biography on Darwin surely must explore the scientific foundations of Darwin’s theories, and Browne brilliantly does so by giving a thorough examination of his five-year expedition on the Beagle, from 1831 to 1836. In doing so, Browne shows how Darwin transformed from a sea-sick, Cambridge-educated scientist, who was overwhelmed with the opportunity, into a keen observer of nature. By following Darwin’s explorations within South America’s coastal lines, Browne shows how Darwin’s mind was dominated more so by geology and anthropology than biology; in fact, she states that Darwin initially approached the species question as a way for explaining geological discrepancies. As Darwin’s explorations taught him to think big and think differently from those who had taught him, Browne also cautiously points out that it would be wrong “to suggest that Darwin came to his conclusions unaided or that his future progress was always so briskly positive” (186). Darwin’s understanding of natural history, in particular, the formation of geological rocks, was drawn from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and Browne explicitly states that it was Lyell’s book that taught Darwin how to think about nature. “Without Lyell, there would have been no Darwin: no intellectual journey, no voyage of the Beagle as commonly understood.” Armed with Lyell’s principles, Darwin viewed his natural surroundings through geologically-tinted goggles, a point Browne readily emphasizes even influenced Darwin’s experiences on the Galapagos: ‘it is often forgotten just how intently he looked forward to investigating the geology of the island” (298). Geography and geology thus became an integral part on Darwin’s ideas of transmutation.

Networking

In one review of this biography, the writer states that Browne’s book might as well have been called Darwin: Networking. Browne explicitly states: “Darwin’s greatest gift [during the time at Cambridge] was not so much the ability to understand nature’s secrets, if he had it to any degree as an undergraduate, but a capacity to identify the people capable of giving and inspiring him in the loyal affection he desired. On such affections his ultimate success as a naturalist depended” (124). Clearly, Browne discredits the picture of Darwin as a lonely figure working within an intellectual vacuum, arguing instead that his social and scientific networks were necessary for establishing his reputation as a man of science. The “Cambridge Network” which included Henslow, Sedgwick, and Francis Beaufort, was essential in getting Darwin on board the Beagle. The same network was also responsible for publishing and advertising Darwin’s writing even before he returned to England.

Browne also constructs Darwin as a man who forged relationships and relied on them, though at times took them for granted. She hints, for instance, that Darwin’s experience of betrayal and scientific jealously at the hands of Robert Grant, might have influenced Darwin’s lifelong habit of guarding his scientific discoveries from others. It also made him wary of who to trust. When Darwin felt ready to reveal his “secret” to others, he deliberated carefully who to include, smartly going for younger men …who he know were skeptical or detached from the relationship between science and religion, including Lyell, Hugh Strickland and Joseph Dalton Hooker. In addition, Browne also provides several occasions when Darwin’s relationship with his networks border upon ingratitude; nowhere is this more evident than in FitzRoy’s anger over Darwin’s failure to acknowledge the support of the Beagle’s crew in Darwin’s preface to his account of the voyage.

Other minor themes that occur: Victorian Class Arrangements, Scientific Culture and Correspondence, Science and Morality, Process of Scientific Discovery

Our readings this week raise the question whether biographies are books about the scientist or books about the science. In my opinion, Browne nicely weaves in the science without distracting or overwhelming the reader; she provides enough scientific explanation for the reader to understand the context of Darwin’s ideas, and in construction Darwin’s thinking, she shows the reader how Darwin came to the conclusion he did. I found this to be one of the finest biographies of Darwin, meticulous in scope and research. I admire the depth of Browne’s scholarly analysis, her interpretation of the significant events in Darwin’s life and his relationships with others and his society, and her use of a massive amount of primary sources.

I feel like she masterfully creates not only the cultural and intellectual matrix surrounding Darwin, but she personalizes him, in a sense grounding him from his scientific legend and presenting to us a complex, and multidimensional individual who was more than just a scientist or a family man: he was an individual with a fierce personality, a child who lied and created stories and games for attention, an idle student, a fantastic hunter, a drinker, and a man who was enthusiastic about life. As Browne explains, the robust side to Darwin’s character during the voyage was an important feature of his day-to-day mode of living, and facilitated his integration into the Beagle’s company: “With my pistols in my belt & geological hammer in hand, shall I not look like a grand barbarian?” (222)

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Latest Comments

  1. darwinsbulldog says:

    Great review, Jai! When I read this a year ago, I characterized Darwin as a scientific puppet master, whereas my professor thought it was less Darwin’s influence and more that he was simply riding on the imperial wave. Should agency be given to Darwin himself or to the Royal Navy?

    What I like about the book is that Browne stays clear of presentism.

    Like

  2. R says:

    Janet Browne appears to have a blind spot for someone in the history of evolution science who is as important and contemporaneous with Darwin, namely Alfred Russel Wallace. They published together at the famous Linnaean Society presentation, and are due credit to a similarly if not equally high degree.

    Whether Darwin actually plagiarised Russel Wallace is an important question (in terms of getting the history right) although a difficult one that may never be satisfactorily resolved. That it is a serious and worthy question raises questions about the behaviour of Darwin himself, his friends and family during his lifetime and after his death and of his “supporters” since. Janet Browne should acknowledge.

    Her own “history” is discredited to the extent that she does not.

    Academics such as JB should not be so partisan, even if you feel that you can be, Mr “darwinsbulldog”!

    Like

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