Why Darwin?

Charles Darwin: Voyaging

by Janet Browne
Knopf, 605 pp., $35.00


Most young men of the time could only fantasize, but Charles Darwin experienced the overt drama of his century’s archetypal episode in the personal story we now call “coming of age”: a five-year voyage of pure adventure (and much science) circumnavigating the globe on H.M.S. Beagle. Returning to England at age twenty-seven, Darwin became a homebody and never again left his native land, not even to cross the English Channel. Nonetheless, his subsequent life included two internal dramas for more intense, far more portentous, and (for anyone who can move beyond the equation of swashbuckling with excitement) far more interesting than anything he had experienced as a world traveler: first, the intellectual drama of discovering both the factuality and mechanism of evolution; and second, the emotional drama of recognizing (and relishing) the revolutionary implications of evolution, while fearing the pain that revelation would impose upon both his immediate family and the surrounding society.

The Beagle years occupy (as they must) the central section of the three-part organization that Janet Browne has chosen for her long biography, which covers just the first part of Darwin’s life (until his decision, in the mid-1850s, to resolve the emotional drama and finally prepare his evolutionary views for publication). The second volume, now in preparation, will cover the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, and Darwin’s amazingly productive life thereafter (he died in 1882). In this first volume, the first part covers birth to Beagle, the second the voyage itself, and the third Darwin’s rich English life in the twenty years between his return and his fateful decision.

Janet Browne is a leading historian of science and a central figure in what can only be called the “Darwin industry.” Her book deserves the adjectives of praise traditionally used by reviewers to describe masterpieces—all but one. It is wonderful and marvelous, even magisterial. But Browne’s book is not—because it cannot be—“definitive.” Too many Darwins dwelled within this enormously complex man—some up front but elusive in their superficiality, others elusive for reasons of concealment but inferable, thanks to Darwin’s obsessive habit of recording his thoughts and experiences. Still others may be truly hidden by Darwin’s selective internal editing according to Victorian standards. Moreover, scholars can evoke intellectual Darwins, psychological Darwins, sociological Darwins, family-minded, class-based, institutionally embedded, or ideologically framed Darwins—and each may be entirely satisfying. Any biography, to rank as a forceful and coherent statement, must choose one or only a few of these Darwins as a central subject—and all are both “true” and enlightening. No biography of Darwin, therefore, can possibly be definitive.

Browne’s two hundred pages on the Beagle voyage, chronicling the adventures of Charles Darwin as a vigorous and energetic young man (he exceeded six feet in height and could match anyone on board for physical endurance)—so different from our stereotypical image of Darwin in later life as a housebound invalid—are fascinating to read and provide the added bonus of documenting a brilliant man’s intellectual growth. But some twenty pages…

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