There were hagiographers at work in the heyday of whiggish history of science, but for decades that breed has been nearly extinct. Nevertheless at least one of their saints remains exalted. Only the most flamboyant postmodernists and feminist epistemologists still try to topple Charles Darwin from his eminence. Those efforts are aimed, moreover, not so much at Darwin himself or his scientific results as at the social context of his achievements: Victorian society, capitalism, empire, the idea that there is something biological (rather than purely social) about differences between the sexes. Yet the tide of trendy iconoclasm, too, is receding. Historians of science are again engaging with the science.

To be sure, denunciation of Darwin by creationists continues unabated, no less today than in the 1860s. But it is of far less intellectual consequence now, evolutionary biology having in the meantime grown enormously—far beyond what even Darwin could have imagined. He is one of the most written-about scientists, and now there is the triumphant publication of The Power of Place, the second and final volume of Janet Browne’s biography. Browne has had access, heretofore unavailable, to Darwin research and documents, especially the Darwin correspondence. She is uniquely qualified to write this story, by her background in biology and history, by virtue of her manifest literary gifts, and by her long and fruitful absorption in it. The result, as Ernst Mayr said of Voyaging (1996)—the first of her two volumes—is a “masterpiece.” Darwin’s intellectual progress and the formation of his character are here explored to unprecedented depth. It is no surprise that surprises emerge, not all of them pleasant.

The kindly Charles Darwin, this most unassuming, most self-abnegating, most grateful of scientific heroes, had among his many benefactors two who were truly indispensable to his career. The first was his Cambridge university teacher and friend, the cleric and professor of botany John Stevens Henslow, a lifelong promoter of his former pupil in the power centers of science. It was Henslow who proposed young Darwin, a rank novice, for the position of gentleman-naturalist on the epochal five-year (1831–1836) globe-girdling voyage of HMS Beagle. That voyage yielded priceless geographic and hydrologic data; but Darwin’s findings eventually changed forever the way educated people view themselves.

The other influential mentor was the celebrated geologist Charles Lyell. His ideas about earth-history and mechanisms of geologic change, along with Thomas Malthus’s contention that populations tend to grow to the limit of their food supply, were crucial to Darwin’s mature theory of evolution. Henslow and Lyell, Darwin’s seniors, predeceased him. Because he was himself already an eminence, and because of his debts to these two, he should have been their visible public mourner, a celebrant, a pallbearer at their funerals. He was physically able to be that. But Darwin excused himself, and, characteristically, sent substitutes.

Browne’s two volumes present many such deflationary examples. When it came to his work, Charles Darwin was a shameless exploiter. He manipulated family, friends, and supporters. They in turn influenced scientific—and ultimately public—opinion on his behalf. Nevertheless, the wonder of this work, 1,200 pages in total, is that the Darwin who emerges, in the round, remains the saint of science portrayed in less critical, less richly documented accounts. He was, to be sure, flawed, but the quality of his work, the adamantine honesty of his methods and his writing, and the clarity of his insights into the living world, hugely outweighed his shortcomings. He was lucky in family—especially in his wife, Emma Wedgwood, in his children, in friends, in opportunities made possible by his position in society. He was lucky because his foibles were seen, by everyone who knew him and his work, as insignificant.

Browne’s second volume is subtitled The Power of Place. This has a double meaning. “Place” means position; it means birth, economic standing, social status, opportunities for what is now called “networking.” In all those, Darwin’s endowments were more than adequate. He lived during the inexorable ascent of the middle class. The success of Darwin’s father, Robert Waring Darwin, as a physician and investor put the Shrewsbury Darwins near the top of social life. They were cousins and marital partners of the Staffordshire Wedgwoods. The Wedgwoods were manufacturing champions and cultured people. Their superb chinaware was sold and coveted worldwide. In due course Charles Darwin had available to him, then, by class and social ties, a significant subset of Britain’s intellectual elite. Janet Browne untangles the threads of those reticulated connections, showing how they helped, why they were indeed essential to, the genesis and success of Darwin’s eventually subversive discoveries. Someone in a lesser place might not have succeeded at all.

But “place” has also a literal meaning. It means home, Charles and Emma Darwin’s home, the house they bought (with money advanced by Darwin’s father) and made their own. This was Down House, near Downe village, in Kent. After Charles had returned from his voyage on the Beagle, he set himself promptly to hard work. He wrote up his assiduously maintained journals and produced from them an excellent and, surprisingly, a best-selling book, Journal of Researches (1839). He wrote and published impeccable geology and natural history based on his notes, fossils, and specimen collections from the voyage. But after his marriage to Emma, he and Emma found London dirty and distracting. Their quarters were cramped: they became a family with small children. Despite Emma’s initial misgivings, they moved to a house deep in the country. Down House became the well-found vessel of a Victorian family life, on a rural deep with which Charles and all the children were thereafter in daily and intimate contact.

Only the marvelous Victorian postal service could make of this remote place a node in the expanding network of nineteenth-century ideas—on nature, including the history of the earth and its living creatures, on progress, on man in a changing world. But it was a refuge, too. Here an increasingly reclusive Darwin, who suffered from lengthening bouts of sickness,[1] could attend to his private devil while Emma and the others (servants, children) managed all details of daily life except finance. To money management Darwin did attend: with his gift for recording and absorbing detail, he did the job as well as his father had. But the private devil was an insistent, undeniable, irksome need to find an explanation for the diversity of life, for the origin of species. It had to be an honest explanation; it could give no quarter to myth, folk tale, parable, ecstasy, prophetic hyperbole, cultic terrors. An explanation, therefore, that could be verified or falsified by the ordinary means of natural science.

The power of this place at Downe was that it made possible both Darwin’s unimpeded internal struggle with ideas and a remarkable output of finished work in descriptive and experimental biology. Even his enemies, the angry denouncers of his ideas about the origin of species, had to concede its technical merit. A great strength of Janet Browne’s biography is to dramatize, via correspondence and other historical material, the Darwins at home. She makes the power of the place come alive for us in our servant-free, anti-Victorian world. Darwin would surely not have succeeded in any really different place. It was residence, sickroom, and dispensary (with Emma’s compassionate nursing always on call), greenhouse, zoo, research laboratory. It was the fully-equipped incubator, during his most challenging years, of the people he loved most, and who loved him. In Down House, the maturing Darwin, a dutiful, cheerful, conventionally complaisant personality, reconstructed himself over decades, reluctantly, as a scientific revolutionist.

Reluctant he was, of course, because although the ideas were his (and, for a time, those of his co-proponent Alfred Russel Wallace), the actual skirmishes with traditionalists and obscurantists had to be fought by others on Darwin’s behalf. He shrank from any combat viva voce. Most visibly, they were fought by the brilliant Thomas Henry Huxley, who earned for his proselytizing efforts the sobriquet “Darwin’s bulldog.” Less visibly but quite as effectively, the battles, polite as they may have been, were fought by scientific friends and a host of correspondents—by Lyell, for example, and Joseph Hooker, the leading British botanist, by the intelligent and upright Asa Gray at Harvard, defending Darwin against the derogations of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, and by philosophers such as Herbert Spencer. Even such reverend friends as Henslow and his cousin William Darwin Fox disputed, decorously of course, for him and against orthodoxy on the species question.

It was no ordinary work of natural history that Darwin had undertaken. He had become convinced soon after the return of the Beagle that the standard account of species could not be sustained. It made no sense. There were too many species now, too many species that had flourished in the past and were now extinct, differences between adjacent species were minute; the original idea of “species,” a crudely typological notion, was flawed. Nature, once something of its real extent was recognized, was a protean continuum whose shape and content had changed again and again over an unimaginably long history. This had happened on a planet whose rocky and watery faces too were forever changing. The only plausible explanation of diversity, past and present, was what Darwin and others referred to (guardedly!) as “transmutation” or “transformation” descent from predecessors and proliferation of new species. This implied a branching history, a tree of life. It implied that the species had not been made as such by God, but that they came into existence—and expired—by natural processes.

Was this a new idea? No. As is often noted, it was in the air. Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin had written a long, lyrical exposition of it. The French comparative anatomist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, was notorious for having proposed an inclusive theory of transformisme —of organic evolution. The idea was discussed, albeit reservedly, by others, including Darwin’s teachers in Edinburgh, where the youth had tried to study medicine before moving to Cambridge to study theology. Darwin’s own fear of announcing his ideas was augmented by the sneering scientific responses to a popular tract on evolution published (anonymously) by Robert Chambers. Evolution was an idea that sensible people, like Carlyle, thought best left unexamined. It was, as he said, “humiliating.” Not only did it contradict Genesis, it was also a proposal for which there was then no plausible mechanism. And it was insulting to some great men of natural history.

Those eminences saw themselves as exploring the works of Deity, as opening to public view and to prayerful gratitude glimpses of the breadth of divine intelligence. This “natural theology,” the disclosure and appreciation of the Designer’s works, was understood as the overarching purpose of astronomy, geology, the life sciences. To prate of “transformation,” to treat species as perishable, transient, or worse—as mere constructs of classification—was insulting. And Darwin was keenly aware of this, not least because he was at first a geologist, and knew what censure transformationist geology had suffered from orthodoxy. Later, he was painfully aware, and wept over the awareness, that denial of scripture must wound his beloved Emma. She had early made this clear to him. After the death of loved ones, especially of their adored child Anne, Emma’s conviction that she would meet them again in Heaven helped to sustain her. If Genesis were wrong, then hopes of future reunion in eternity, too, might expire. So it seemed to her and to most everyone else. It was a denial not to be undertaken lightly. And there was still no plausible mechanism for the postulated transformations. Lamarck’s notions were inadequate.

The solution grew slowly in Darwin’s mind, but the search was catalyzed by his reading of Malthus. He was already convinced of descent with modification, i.e., that organic evolution was the cause of biological diversity. But Malthus showed that the potential (“geometrical”) growth of human populations was constrained by the failure of resources—especially of food—to grow similarly. Hence there was necessarily an incessant struggle for resources and survival. Malthus’s principle of population provided the motor for natural selection.

Darwin applied these insights to the whole of nature. Aware of the continuum of life forms, and of their profuse variation in time and space, he realized that the struggle to survive must mean a struggle to reproduce, and that the more successful variants would forever replace less successful reproducers. Given variation, and a changing environment, it must follow that old species would change and eventually be replaced by descendants differing significantly from them. This was an inevitable, natural process of selection. Evolution occurs, Darwin decided, via natural selection. The task before him was to test every observable consequence of the hypothesis; to examine and eliminate, if eliminable, its flaws; otherwise to abandon it; to establish that the essential variation does occur, and to explain how it occurs—in short, to understand the origin and evolution of species.

That is what he did between the time of the move to Downe and the time of his death at age seventy-three—the most reviled and most honored of all biologists. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, near Isaac Newton. (An irony of greatness, that: Newton, deeply if idiosyncratically religious, and Darwin, an atheist who would have insisted on using Huxley’s coinage to describe himself: agnostic.) The only clear failure of his program was the mechanism of heredity. He never got it right. Nor was he (or anyone else then) aware that the key had already been found by an obscure Austrian botanist, the monk Gregor Johann Mendel.

Janet Browne maps the course of Darwin’s achievements and shows how his disparate investigations—on animal husbandry, pigeon fancying, the sexuality of orchids, the taxonomy, morphology, and sex of barnacles, the photo- and geotropisms of plant roots and shoots, the digestive capabilities and mental processes (including responses to piano music!) of earthworms—all fit the monumental workplan he had set for himself. She expands our understanding of the relationship between Darwin and Wallace, not only of their joint announcement of natural selection, but of their later disagreements about humanity (Wallace became a spiritualist), and of Darwin’s continued respect and benefactions to Wallace, nevertheless. Copious citation of correspondence enlarges our understanding of the causes and consequences of Darwin’s twenty-year delay in publication, and of the astonishing eventual reception, worldwide, of his Origin of Species.

“Darwinism” is today something of a misattribution. Calling modern evolutionary biology Darwinism is like calling physics “Newtonism.” Nevertheless it is true that Darwin’s main arguments (except those on heredity) lie at the heart of all the life sciences. To understand science in our culture and in the world we must understand Darwin’s storm-tossed odyssey, the literal part in the Beagle, the metaphoric part at Downe. There is no better account of it than this dazzling new biography.


Go to the top of the document.

  1. The disease remains undiagnosed. Opinions vary about its identity. Chagas’s disease, possibly contracted during one of his expeditions in the Brazilian jungle, has been proposed, as has a psychosomatic digestive syndrome. Go back to the text.