Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography

by Janet Browne
Atlantic Books, 2006; 153 pages.

Rating: L A U D

L = Layperson - This book will appeal to those with no specific knowledge of philosophy (this does not mean that it is 'easy', or 'for dummies', but merely that you don't need to have studied philosophy to find it interesting or enjoyable). A = A-level student (UK)/Freshman (US) - This book will be useful for those studying philosophy. It assumes that you will want a certain level of detail and coverage of the subject, and that you are not just reading it for pleasure. However, it is still an introductory text. U = Undergraduate - Generally, a book of this type will provide more detail and be more challenging than a beginner's guide. So, it will either assume some previous knowledge, or else treat the subject in a way that will be useful for more in-depth study. As such, it will be most suitable for those who have aleady read an introductory text, are fairly familiar with the general nature of the subject, and are looking to develop their understanding further. D = Detailed study at degree level. Books of this type are generally quite hard, and - because of their level of detail and depth of argument - are not suitable for beginners or as introductions to the subject. However, they may still be useful for those who have become familiar with the topic in question, and wish to delve deeper (perhaps in search of advanced criticism or clarification of difficult points).

Janet Browne’s book is one of a series (“Books that Shook the World”), each by a prominent or popular author in his or her field, that focuses on providing an introduction to classic works (for instance, other titles in the series include Simon Blackburn on Plato’s Republic, and P. J. O’Rourke on Adams Smith’s On the Wealth of Nations). The primary purpose of each book is to outline the main ideas of the text, whilst providing enough biographical and historical information for an understanding of the forces that influenced its creation. So, in this instance we get information on the intellectual climate of the nineteenth century, formative social events, Darwin’s life, the history of the text, the effects of its publication and the subsequent development of the theory.

The book itself is quite short (153 pages of relatively large type) and is easy reading. Browne’s style is quite unfussy and engaging, and she conveys the main ideas simply and concisely. As the author of a number of books on Darwin (including a two-volume biography), and a professor of the history of medicine at University College London, she obviously knows her stuff, but she wears her learning very lightly, and chooses her points purely for their interest and relevance. As such, the book is a very enjoyable read, and those who like their philosophy or science in biographical or historical form will sail through it.

As regards Darwin’s theory itself, the book does a good job of summarising and explaining it, whilst also putting it in context. So, due place is given to Charles Lyell’s friendship, whose views on geology and the age of the Earth helped Darwin to realise the importance of gradual change over great stretches of time. Similarly, it shows how the economic theories of Thomas Malthus provided Darwin with the ideal model to explain natural selection (that there were limited natural resources, and in competition for these some creatures proved more ‘fit’ than others for survival). Browne also emphasises the often ignored fact that Darwin’s ideas did not spring out of nowhere, but developed in relation to contemporary discussions of alternatives to the biblical creation account of the origin of life, and in response to similar ‘transformist’ theories – such as those of Jean Baptiste Lamarck, and Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. In this context, what is and isn’t original in Darwin’s theory is made clear, and the extent of his original contribution can be more easily assessed.

A strength of the book is therefore the way in which it encourages a more critical and subtle reading of Darwinism. This is achieved through the presentation of a range of detail which fills out a more comprehensive portrayal of the author and his ideas than is commonly presented to the general reader. So, for instance, we learn a number of facts that challenge many modern preconceptions: Darwin did not consider himself to be an atheist, and there are some suggestions that he wished to leave room for a creator; later in his career, he seemed to develop slight tendencies toward Lamarckism (the idea that acquired characteristics can be passed on); The Origin of Species does not itself actually discuss the descent of humans from apes, but more generally the role natural selection plays in the evolution of species.

In the final two chapters, Browne details the reception and subsequent history of the book. For instance, evolution did not really come into its own as a theory until the discovery of the means by which biological traits were passed on (DNA), and how variation in traits was possible (genetic mutation) – aspects which were specifically lacking from Darwin’s theory. What we now have, therefore, is a so-called ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’, combining Darwin’s original ideas with the findings of modern genetics. These chapters also provide a useful account of the many byways that evolutionary theory has travelled, detailing variant theories and controversies – points of especial interest to anyone looking to explore alternative views or establish an informed critique of Darwinism itself.

In summary, I can heartily recommend Browne’s book. It is well written and readable, and does a sterling job of explaining the central ideas of Darwin’s hugely important text. For those who want an interesting introductory account with a historical bias, this is ideal, but it also contains enough signposts to act as a guide to more detailed study.

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