A review of Charles Darwin: The Power of Place by Janet Browne

Janet Browne's impressive biography of Charles Darwin is the final installment of a two-volume study, and follows Darwin from the threshold of The Origin of Species to his death in 1882. A historian of science, Browne is at her best exploring the complex web of interlocking relationships that dominated Darwin's professional and personal lives. She is less successful in probing the implications of his ideas, but even here she provides clues as to why certain debates continue to be so central to Darwinian theory.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Browne's book is the way it demythologizes the so-called "Darwinian revolution." Most of us were taught to see Darwin as an exalted scientific lawgiver who descended from Mt. Sinai—or in this case, the Galapagos Islands—and rescued the masses from the bonds of superstition with his new scientific revelation of evolution by natural selection. This new revelation was then quickly embraced by all thinking people because of its overwhelming evidence. What Browne shows in detail is that the eventual success of Darwinism was due as much to aggressive public relations on the part of Darwin and his friends as it was to any scientific evidence they presented. She notes that "Darwin would emerge as a remarkable tactician" and "a canny and dedicated publicist…. The strategic effort that he put into disseminating his views was intense."

An example of Darwin's shrewd calculations was his somewhat mercenary distribution of firstedition copies of The Origin of Species. Ignoring many of the people whose research helped him to write Origin, he focused instead on sending complimentary copies to those he regarded as the most influential men of his day. It was an astute effort to cultivate the support of the movers and shakers in 19th-century British society as well as to disarm potential critics. As Browne notes, "a man who is given a copy of a book by its author, accompanied by a charming letter, finds it that much harder to attack or denigrate."

Far from being a disinterested scientist puttering about his garden, Darwin comes across in Browne's narrative as a tireless self-promoter who launched what even she calls a "propaganda campaign" on behalf of his theory. "He became skilled at marshalling his friends into an effective army," she writes, and he thought of the resulting intellectual debates in terms of "military metaphors."

In this battle of ideas, Darwin and his followers fully understood the critical role played by the media, and they did all they could to enlist the press on their behalf. Darwin's followers purchased a science journal, Natural History Review, and refashioned it as a mouthpiece for their scientific ideas. They also developed relationships with a select group of British publishers in order to produce a steady stream of books promoting evolutionary theory among the general public as well as the scientific elite. Darwin himself meticulously tracked, organized, and indexed other people's articles about his work (eventually collecting more than 2,000 articles and reviews), and he wasn't above circulating positive reviews written by others, even sometimes paying out of his own pocket to bring them into print as separate pamphlets.

By the end of Darwin's life his supporters had coalesced into a powerful clique within the scientific community that adopted an all-or-nothing approach toward those with whom they disagreed. "Together, these men would…control the scientific media of the day," writes Browne, adding that members of Darwin's network of supporters eventually "were everywhere," from the parliament to the church to the universities to the civil service. "As a group that worked as a group, they were impressive. Darwin's opponents failed to achieve anything like the same command of the media or penetration of significant institutions."

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Darwinism's origins as a public crusade lend a certain irony to contemporary debates over evolutionary theory. During the past decade, a group of scientists and philosophers have mounted a challenge to neo-Darwinism, arguing that certain features of the natural world are best explained as the products of an intelligent cause rather than undirected natural selection acting on random variations. In addition to making their arguments in scholarly journals and monographs, these proponents of what is known as "intelligent design theory" have taken their case to the broader culture, publishing trade books, writing popular articles, and even creating video documentaries to promote their views. Today's Darwinists typically complain that such tactics are "unscientific," that genuine scientists should make their case only to fellow scientists, not to the public—as if one can't do both. It is a curious argument to make given the historical origins of Darwinism as described by Browne. 

As superb as Browne is in delineating Darwin's tactics, she falters when she turns to explain his ideas. This is especially apparent when she discusses The Descent of Man, arguably Darwin's most important book for those interested in the political and moral implications of his theory. Far too little read, it's where Darwin finally explained how his theory applies to the development of all things human, including man's mental powers, his moral ideas, and even his religious beliefs. 

The Descent of Man is a much more daring book than The Origin of Species, yet Browne downplays its radicalism, presenting it largely as an endorsement of the Victorian status quo. And so for Browne, Darwin "believed that biology supported the marriage bond," and "although he rejected the outward trappings of the established Anglican religion, he subscribed wholeheartedly to its underlying values and the presumed onward march of civilization." Again, "the 'higher' values were, for him, self-evidently the values of his own class and nation." Although Browne doesn't praise Darwin's purported use of biology to reinforce conventional mores and gender roles, today many on the Right do. Browne's reading explains (albeit unintentionally) why these modern conservatives find Darwin so attractive. Longing for a way to defend traditional mores, they are entranced to learn that Darwinism may supply a biological basis for them. 

Unfortunately, Browne's reading doesn't do justice to Darwin's full argument. While it's perfectly true that in The Descent of Man Darwin claims that some traditional virtues are sanctioned by nature, he also shows that a great many traditional vices are grounded there as well. Kindness may be natural according to Darwin, but so is cruelty and lust. Maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide. Monogamy is natural, but much more so is polygamy. Courage is natural, but so is cowardice. Care toward family members is natural, but so is euthanasia of the feeble, even if they happen to be one's parents (here Darwin mentions the practice some primitives have of burying their sick parents alive). If Darwin provides some examples of virtue in nature, he also presents nature's shocking immoralities. 

What eventually becomes clear in The Descent of Man is that Darwin's view of nature points not to Aristotle or Aquinas, but to Thomas Hobbes. Nature may on occasion sanction certain traditional virtues, not because these virtues are intrinsically good, but only because at the moment they happen to promote biological survival. If circumstances should change, and these virtues no longer promoted survival, then for Darwin they would cease to be virtues. In the end, the only permanent and unchanging moral imperative is the drive for self-preservation.

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Nevertheless, Browne is correct to point out that Darwin often wrote as if conventional virtues such as self-sacrifice and marital love are objectively preferable to conventional vices such as cruelty and lust. Darwin also cheerily predicted that "looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance…and virtue will be triumphant." But Browne takes this truckling to Victorian sensibilities too seriously, while treating the core tenets of Darwin's theory not seriously enough. It is clear that Darwin often engaged in rhetorical bobbing and weaving in order to spare himself ostracism by Victorian society. He certainly employed this approach when downplaying the anti-religious implications of his theory, which Browne herself recognizes. Commenting on writers who drew out the atheistic implications of Darwinism, the old prophet of evolution told one correspondent that he could not stop such writers from pressing his views "to a greater length than seems to me safe." Darwin objected to the writers' prudence, not their logic. 

Yet in one uncharacteristically frank passage, Darwin wrote: "If, for instance…men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering." Interestingly, Browne herself briefly cites this passage, but then dismisses its relevance, saying "of course, Darwin proposed this for effect rather than logical necessity." 

In fact, Browne gets things exactly backward. The hive-bee passage presents the logical conclusion of Darwin's effort to ground morality in biological survival. What is really proposed for "effect" in Darwin's account are his obligatory asides that biology somehow supports traditional morality. Such asides were completely incompatible with the main thrust of his argument. Almost by definition in Darwin's system whatever exists must somehow be good in a biological sense. So, of course, biology supports traditional morality—just as it supports traditional immorality. Every trait that survives, after all, is somehow a product of natural selection, and therefore it is "natural" in the Darwinian sense. When modern boosters of evolutionary psychology such as Steven Pinker, Craig Palmer, and Robert Wright argue that rape, infanticide, and adultery are fundamentally the products of natural selection, they are simply following in Darwin's footsteps. Far from helping to resuscitate the idea of an unchanging moral law grounded in nature, Darwin's theory makes it even harder to argue for natural distinctions between virtue and vice.

Although Browne's book obscures this point, if its discussion of The Descent of Man leads inquiring readers back to the original source for further exploration, it will have performed a salutary service.