Richard Seltzer's home page  Publishing home

Charles Darwin: the Power of Place by Janet Browne

Biography, Alfred A. Knopf (hardcover), 2002, 591 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

In 1995, Janet Browne published the first volume of her Darwin biography, CHARLES DARWIN: VOYAGING.  That book covered Darwin's early years and his three-year voyage on the Beagle which opened up for him the incredible diversity of natural history found around the globe.  It also records the slow accumulation of detail that Darwin fastidiously insisted upon before he would venture out on any theoretical limbs.  For some twenty years after Darwin returned to England, he puttered away, filling notebook after notebook of close observation of almost everything living, plant or animal.

The concluding volume in her definitive biography begins in 1858, when Darwin is almost fifty years old.  He received a manuscript sent to him from the Malay Archipelago by a self-educated Englishman, Alfred Russel Wallace.  Wallace had articulated in a few short pages the same essential theory that Darwin had been working towards for over two decades.  This theory was, of course, evolution, and Wallace had described in outline the same mechanism by which evolution progresses that Darwin had been laboriously documenting through his meticulous detailing.  The mechanism was known as natural selection, and later came to be known in the popular press by a more catchy phrase - survival of the fittest.

Darwin was never the most rugged of men.  He was bothered by some ailment or another almost all of his adult life, and Wallace's  inspired summary sent him into a deep swoon.  Was it fair that his life's work be trumped by a rank amateur, by a man who was hardly known in the newly emerging scientific circles that were coalescing in Victorian England?  Although Darwin had never published his more detailed theory of evolution, it was well known by the British scientific establishment that he had been working on articulating such a vision for a long time.  Wallace's essay spurred Darwin to the writing desk, and he began to formally compose On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races
in the Struggle for Life.  It would have been easy for Darwin to burn Wallace's work and claim he had never received it, and thereby claim credit for evolution alone, but he was a fundamentally honest Victorian gentleman.  After consulting luminaries in the Royal Society, Darwin decided to publish his book and Wallace's at the same time, and let posterity know that he was
co-discoverer of this important philosophical breakthrough.

When Darwin's book came out, it was apparent that he had thought much more deeply and systematically about evolution as the motive force for life than Wallace had.  Where Wallace would cite one example, perhaps a species from the Far East that was unknown in England, Darwin would cite ten examples, almost all of which could be found in a rural Englishman's garden or field.  Although Darwin put forth no speculation on the origins of life, he did tie the entire range of living things into one vital theory, and did not hesitate to include man within this "great chain of being."  He was a comparative anatomist, a botanist, an amateur geologist, a breeder of plants, and a paleontologist, all  before these categories had been firmly established.  He wrote an average of five or six letters a day over forty years, to specialists all over the world, testing his hypotheses, confirming the minutest details, building as airtight an evidentiary case as could be assembled before the birth of genetics and the discovery of DNA.

Darwin knew that evolution would be scorned and dismissed by theologians who were aghast that man might have emerged from apes or other primates.  Christianity had put limits on the age of the Earth, and had declared that species were fixed entities, formed in their perfection by the Creator.  One man could not be allowed to tear asunder what 2000 years of moral and spiritual teachings had established.  This is one of the keys to understanding Darwin's greatness.  If Wallace's slender volume had been the sole clarion announcing evolution as a dominant life force, it would have been easy to dismiss it and marginalize the author.  But hundreds of pages of annoying details, many that were well known facts in rural England, were
more difficult to condemn.

This volume follows Darwin's intellectual life from 1858 until his death in 1882.  He rarely left his country estate in Kent during these years, and allowed surrogates to fight his intellectual battles in the drawing rooms and men's clubs of London.  Though not much happens on the outside, Darwin's mental world during this period is fascinating.  He constantly improved his Origin, issuing six subsequent editions after the first was issued.  He wrote books on orchids and earthworms, on the domestication of plants and animals and on the expression of emotions in animals and humans.  He raised six children, four of whom followed him into some realm of science or mathematics.  He participated in the political debates of the day, railing against slavery, cautiously condemning vivisection (for he was aware that experimentation on animals led to breakthroughs in understanding), opposing birth control (which he thought would weaken family bonds and thereby hurt the gene pool), and supporting Liberal candidates like Gladstone.  He had become an atheist by the age of forty, but downplayed this because he feared it would hurt his wife, and more importantly, would cause the Anglican Church to attack his precious theories.

With a novelist's eye for detail, Browne makes the sedentary life of an extraordinary country squire fascinating, and depicts a revolutionary milieu, the beginning of modern science in the pastimes of Victorian gentlemen.  In the mid-1800s, science was not really a profession where one could expect to get paid for original research.  It was an avocation of the well-to-do curious.  Darwin kick-started the life sciences with a unifying set of principles, as important to human understanding as Newton or Kepler were to establishing the physical laws of the universe.  Had Darwin possessed a different temperament, the facts of evolution might still be theories.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

Book reviews by Richard Seltzer  privacy statement