Excerpted from Charles Darwin by Janet Browne. Copyright © 2002 by Janet Browne. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
Q: Why did you choose to write about Charles Darwin?
A: I first decided to write about Darwin back in the 1970s when I moved from zoology into history and thought that I could combine the two areas by studying him as a great hero figure in biology. Since then I have found lots of reasons to think carefully about what being a hero might actually mean, but I am still certain that he was one of the most important figures to help make our modern world. He changed the way we think about ourselves and yet was one of the most accessible, modest and friendly of men.
The idea of a biography came when I first encountered Darwin's letters in the archives at Cambridge--and not just Darwin's letters but also those of his friends and relatives, and particularly a wonderful series of funny, warm, and endearing letters from his wife Emma and the children that stretched across the entire Victorian period. These were still in the original envelopes and bundled up in the old wicker picnic basket where they had been put by Darwin's daughter after her parents' deaths. The letters opened up an unexplored world to me. Emma Darwin lived with science just like Darwin did. His children participated in his researches. And Darwin himself was revealed as a domestic man, fond of his family, who liked to spend time in his greenhouse or listening to novels read aloud by his womenfolk. Of course he was an incisive and brilliant thinker, and the letters showed these traits with force. The letters also documented his painstaking analysis of the natural world and the care with which he brought his theory of evolution by natural selection to completion.
But what the collection really suggested to me was the possibility of writing about Darwin in the round, of integrating his science and his achievements together with his disappointments and pleasures in life. I wanted to paint him in full social context, as a living thinking person, with friends and family and passions, who used this social context to help create and establish an extraordinary theory. As I worked, it became increasingly important to me to show that science is done by people. Scientists do not work in isolation. Their results sometimes occur by happenstance. They often have trouble getting into print. They complain about prejudice and 'the establishment.' Their friends tease them. Enemies emerge from the shadows. In Darwin's case an indefinable illness came to haunt him. Three of his ten children died. As the controversy over The Origin of Species raged, he retreated into his garden to study orchids. In the end, he became a scientific celebrity, wickedly caricatured in the popular press. So my biography is ultimately about how science got made and accepted in Victorian times--and what it might have been like to be Darwin.
Q: When you were doing your research, did you come across anything about Darwin--his character, his interests, his work habits--that truly surprised or amused you?
A: The thing that most amused me doing my research was finding letters with forged signatures. It turned out that they were dictated by Darwin to his wife or daughters when he was too ill to write them himself. The women learned to forge his signature but that did not stop Darwin sometimes adding at the bottom in his own handwriting that it was a 'miserable forgery'.
Another amusing moment came with one of Emma Darwin's letters when she describes Darwin's visit to a Royal Society soiree in London in 1866. He had been ill for a long time, seen no one for ages, and had grown a beard because he was bored with shaving. At the soiree no one recognized him. She said Darwin had to introduce himself, even to his oldest friends.
One anecdote is very revealing of his character. Late in life he went to hear John Burdon Sanderson give a talk on insectivorous plants, a project that had emerged out of some of Darwin's own work. Darwin went behind the scenes to have a word with Sanderson before the talk and then emerged to take his seat in the audience. He heard a huge burst of clapping and looked round to see who had come in. It was only then that he realized that it was him.
Q: As you recount in The Power of Place, Darwin was moved to finish and publish his "big book on species," as he called it, when he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace outlining a theory of natural selection that was in many respects identical to his own. Do you think that Darwin's reaction to the crisis precipitated by Wallace's letter reveals something crucial about Darwin's character? What role did Wallace (or other scientists) play in the shaping of The Origin of Species?
A: The manner in which both Darwin and Wallace dealt with their sudden, unexpected relationship reflects well on both men's characters. The evidence suggests that each man was at first shocked, possessive, and reluctant to give up his individual credit. So it was impressive that they behaved so honorably towards each other. Darwin certainly behaved badly in not telling Wallace about a joint publication in a journal until after it took place. But Wallace also saw that joint publication would give his work a kudos that he had previously never dared hope for. They both realized that cooperation served them best in the end. The episode reveals Darwin's ability to overcome his own emotions for the sake of maintaining the contemporary gentlemanly ethos of science. His relationship with Wallace after this was always warm, touched with admiration at his achievement and the originality of his untrained mind. Wallace was, after all, the only other man to create evolutionary theory, Darwin's alter ego, as it were. Darwin said that he never liked to differ from Wallace. It made him anxious. But they did, especially over the origin of mankind's mental abilities.
Q: Darwin was vigorously attacked, both by churchmen and by other scientists, and often ridiculed in the popular press. But he also had his champions. Who were Darwin's biggest supporters? enemies? Whose work did Darwin admire?
A: Darwin's biggest supporters were like the four musketeers in Dumas' novel--young and old, English and American. Thomas Henry Huxley vigorously defended Darwin on the question of ape ancestry. Charles Lyell explored the geological history of early mankind. Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, supported Darwin in the botanical world, while Asa Gray at Harvard took on the American defense, in particular opposing the great Louis Agassiz who hated Darwin's theory. Darwin said that he was lucky to have friends like these.
Q: Darwin was a very private man, but his theory thrust him into the public eye. How did he (and his family) react to all of the attention?
A: Darwin's children had to share their Sunday lunch with a succession of famous and infamous visitors who came to see their father. There are lots of stories in the archive about the family working as a team to keep these visitors satisfied and Darwin's reputation secure. Edward Aveling, the communist, came to ask whether Darwin was an atheist. Others were amusingly keen, as the children said, to pay devotions at Darwin's shrine. One young German did not utter a word, only to burst into tears when he left.
Soon after The Origin of Species was published, Darwin came across his son Leonard, then a schoolboy, trying to read it. Father bet son that he would never finish it . . . and to his regret won.
This book pays more attention than any other to the female members of Darwin's family. It shows how his wife Emma, and his daughter Henrietta, participated in his scientific work, supported him with editorial and proofreading tasks, and joined his growing group of scientific friends and supporters. The book shows that science is far from a solitary achievement. Instead there are hidden circles of participation that do not usually get recognized in the final printed record. And it also shows that Darwin's womenfolk were not the theological policemen of popular legend, constantly on the alert to expunge any atheistical tendencies. Emma Darwin read the proofs of The Origin of Species, for example, and argued with her husband, not about God, but about commas.
Q: You discuss the seemingly interminable illness that plagued Darwin for pretty much his entire adult life. What effect did his illness or, for that matter, other "personal matters," like the deaths of his children, have on his work?
A: Darwin's illness will never be definitively diagnosed, and this perhaps is the point that all historians would like to make. I certainly think that his illness was a 'real' thing, but that it was so closely tied up with his own view of himself and the controversies raging about his work that even he could not have distinguished physical disorders from psychosomatic symptoms. It certainly dominated his life. He found it increasingly important to escape to health cures and water-cure establishments where he could find the relaxation he never allowed himself at home. And to a large extent, being ill helped him avoid responsibilities and unwelcome calls on his time. Like one of Anthony Trollope's characters, he found that it was sometimes very convenient to be sick.
Q: You've devoted many years to researching and writing the two volumes of Charles Darwin's life. What's next for you?
A: It's a little bit like losing a close personal friend. No more human biographies for me. I thought, like Darwin, I would turn to plants and write about their histories.
From the Hardcover edition.