Liveblogging Janet Browne

I’m attending a lecture by Janet Browne at the University of Pennsylvania, and the organizers asked me if I’d be willing to do something a little bit unusual — if I’d be willing to blog the talk. Obliging as always, I said yes, so here I am in the front row with a borrowed laptop typing away.

I’m practicing my art in public…should I ask for an honorarium? Tips from the crowd afterwards? At least I expect to be so boring that I won’t detract from the Janet Browne show.

The introductions are going on. As many of you know, Dr Browne is a distinguished historian of biology who wrote what is probably the best biography of Darwin ever. Tonight, she’s talking about “The Many Lives of Charles Darwin”.

She makes the point that Darwin is a part of modern popular culture — university, computer programs, rock bands, beers, the Darwin awards, bumper stickers, tattoos, cartoons, bank notes. What are we to make of this unusual visibility of a particular scientist? This is a media phenomenon rather than an intellectual one. He’s the brand name of evolution. What messages are being transmitted by this image, since it isn’t purely a scientific story?

The face of Darwin represents wisdom, kindliness, sagacity, etc. — many of the associations we’d like to make about science. Whatever we choose to believe about evolution, Darwin has become tied to a set of concepts about science in popular culture.

The Origin was a landmark in biology and culture, and rightly so.Darwin has become an icon, but what about the real Darwin? Darwin had many overlapping lives.

Darwin was an author. He admitted that his book dominated his life as well as the world. Browne suggests that a good biography of the man could be centered entirely on the influence of that book on him and the world. Browne intends to focus on the sedentary Darwin, the mature man who focused his mind in long years of writing.

How much did the voyage of the Beagle cost Darwin’s father? Browne had access to letters and account books. One of the factors that almost killed the trip was Darwin’s father’s doubts about the expense.

Letters between Darwin and Fitzroy reveal similarities in thinking and friendship. Fitzroy was a biblical literalist, but he and Darwin shared very similar views about geology. A rift between them only developed after the voyage — correspondence between them suggests a non-argumentative relationship during.

Darwin made a list of his father’s objections to the voyage. This is a reflection of a technique Darwin often used, of writing to focus his ideas. As we all know, he successfully persuaded his father and committed himself to the voyage, where he could dedicate himself to his passion for natural history.

Browne shows a geological map of South America drawn by Darwin — he wasn’t just galloping around collecting weird animals, he was disciplined and organized and was putting together a coherent body of information. His correspondence at this time shows him to be an engaging writer, as well, and he used letters to try out new ideas with his friends. He developed a friendly style of writing.

Devoted husband and father who documented his feelings in his writings, but also kept scientific notebooks on the behavior of his children, comparing them to the behavior of orangutans.

His study at Down House shared many similarities with his cabin on the Beagle: confined, tightly organized, his needs met in his home, maintaining a network of correspondence with colleagues. His letters were his research tool. He wrote to about 2000 people over his lifetime, about 14-15,000 letters survive (3 or 4 thousand may have been lost).

The Origin is “one long argument” written in the first person in the style of a friendly, persuasive argument — in the same style as his correspondence. While his theories may have appalled some of his contemporaries, his genial style won many over, and was going to be very useful in the years of controversy that followed. Browne suggest that the power of the book may have derived from the personality of its writer.

We should celebrate Darwin as both an icon — the kindly, generous face of science — and as a founding father of modern biology. She hopes that we see him as a man and a scientist, and that we can also see the humor of the ideas.

Questions: Did Darwin receive correspondence as well as send it while he was on the Beagle, and how? Yes. The network of ships in the British navy meant he got mail regularly. It turns out that all of his Beagle correspondence still exists, except, unfortunately for one letter: the one he wrote from the Galapagos.

Darwin was such a friendly sort, while Huxley was fierce. Was that accurate? What was their relationship? She says that yes, that was accurate, and Darwin and Huxley were close, although there were some disagreements. Darwin said he was glad Huxley was a friend and not an enemy.

What is it that makes Darwin’s style stand above that of his contemporaries? She says that his theory itself was very important, but thinks that if Wallace, for instance, were the sole promoter of evolutionary theory, it would not have been as effective.

How would Darwin have regarded Dawkins? She thinks Dawkins would be more of a Huxley, although he goes farther than did Huxley.

To what extent was the loss of his daughter significant in his drift towards humanism? He was a very loving father and the losses of 3 of his children was devastating. It marked his formal separation from the church — he never went to church after that, not even for his other daughters’ weddings.

Darwin remarked of his theory that he “felt like a murderer” — did that feeling stay with him? He felt it acutely before he published, but later in life he reconciled to it. He was surprised at the intensity of the response, but he knew what he was doing.

It was a very good talk! My transcription of the major points did not do justice to the arguments, so do not attribute my herky-jerky copy to the style of her talk.


  1. says

    Do you have a hat or guitar case to lay on the floor in front of you so that people can toss in tips? Don’t forget to salt it with a couple of bills so folks get the idea. (If you use a guitar case, I’d recommend removing the guitar first.)

  2. Brownian, OM says

    So, Darwin is like a Buddha? If so, which incarnation wrote On the Origin of Species? And should we start referring to him as ‘Most Radiant Subduer of Beetles’?

  3. John Mark says

    One of my term papers this year is to analyze the reception of “Origin” in the United States following its publication in the 1860s. I’m using one of Dr. Browne’s books in my list of sources.

  4. Holbach says

    I can only sit here and type with envy at not being there in Philadelphia listening with rapt attention as Janet Browne pays deference and homage to a man we owe so much to in securing that we are not all victimized by crazed religion. I sure hope a video is forthcoming!

  5. Qwerty says

    “The Many Lives of Charles Darwin” Why does that title remind me of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis?” Anyhow, happy blogging.

  6. Travis says

    Everything has gotten all slanted and weird…I think some code might need a bracket or a closing tag or something.

  7. Arnosium Upinarum says

    “He wrote to 2000 people over his lifetime, about 14-15,000 letters survive (3 or 4 thousand may have been lost).”

    That is truly amazing. The eyes blink in wonderment at such figures for a conventional man of letters. CD would have adored email or (shiver) blogs…his output might well have been even more staggering than that other well-connected guy.

  8. says

    Remember that Darwin’s account of his voyage was part of the Royal Navy’s official documentation of the trip. He had to be organized.

    Captain Fitzroy dealt with a larger, less organized mass of difficult material to do with the cartography of all those little islands at the tip of South America and it finally drove him to despair. Before he died, though, he started the British Meteorological Service.

  9. Helioprogenus says

    It’s fascinating how both Darwin and Einstein are revered to the point where the celebration of their lives and ideas seem almost cult-like to the uninitiated (read ignorant saps). We look here staring with awe at the allegorical walls that our scientific fathers built. The debt of gratitude that we owe them is incalculable. It reminds me of the Epic of Gilgamesh, when Gilgamesh stares at the walls his ancestors and forefather helped build at Uruk and comes to terms with his mortality. Those of us trying to help contribute bricks to this wall have the same idea of progress that Darwin and Einstein had, though we’re much less successful at it. Still, this growing body which we call science is no different than the legendary walls of Uruk. We may not know most of the contributors, but the value of their collective work is ultimately what matters.

  10. says

    I’m very familiar with Darwin at this point, and obviously I’m not complaining that he’s the subject of a talk. I’m just suddenly reminded I know nothing about Alfred Russell Wallace.

    An aside: Yay! Italics!

  11. Sastra says

    Now I’ve got another book to put on my Christmas list. Sounds like a wonderful talk.

    If I was a forger, I would so want to “find” Darwin’s lost letter from the Galapagos. It would be fun to think of putting in something shocking enough to drive the price up, but not so shocking that people would smell a rat.

  12. Your Mighty Overload says

    It sounds like it was a fascinating talk. Of course, while many of us know a reasonable amount about Darwin the man, there remains a lot to be understood about him.

    I wish I was there, instead of working through parasitic plant genetics for this bloody book chapter I’m writing…..

  13. Crudely Wrott says

    Charles Darwin was a regular guy,

    He was curious, intent and interested in how things work. Sounds like me when I was twelve or so. I do envy those who can make of the insights of a questing young mind a framework on which to hang so many things. This is, of course, the chief selling point of being fully human and doing science. Neat stuff happens.

    We all start out with the same qualities of curiosity, concentration and bedazzlement. Some manage not to lose them. Darwin is a worthy symbol of this talent, one that could be well emulated.

  14. Crudely Wrott says

    Darwin is a worthy symbol of this talent, one that could be well emulated.

    Awkward sentence. better written as, “Darwin is a worthy symbol of this talent, one who could well be emulated.

  15. Crudely Wrott says

    Oh, the power of distraction. I’m watching the Celtics vs Pistons game.

    I meant to say, really, “Darwin is a worthy symbol of this talent, who could well be emulated.

    I gotta stop multi-tasking . . .

  16. says

    “I gotta stop multi-tasking . . .”
    He says while typing on pharyngula and blinking and breathing and swallowing saliva and and and… :P

  17. Daniel R says

    The italic comes from the word “Origin” in « The Origin is “one long argument”… » in PZ’s text enclosed by .. instead of ...

  18. Daniel R says

    The italic comes from the word “Origin” in « The Origin is “one long argument”… » in PZ’s text enclosed by <i>..<i> instead of <i>..</i>.

  19. JoeB says

    Earlier this year, after inter-library shuttles and and a couple renewals for each volume, I got through both volumes of Browne’s great book. Some of the comments here may give a false impression of the bio. Browne may be paying Darwin “deference and homage” at the PA event, but her book also discusses his shortcomings and even, dare I say, character defects.
    Darwin skipped weddings and funerals of his closest family members and professional colleagues; such emotionally charged events caused repeated bouts of vomiting. Darwin sought out various medical quacks, and spent much time undergoing water cures. His loyal valet, Parslow, was required to carry out the water treatments at Down House.
    Darwin was probably the greatest life-scientist of the last 200 years, and perhaps the most influential scientist of any stripe during that span. He was a very loving husband and father. But we should not treat him as a secular saint, an object of veneration.

  20. JoeB says

    re: Darwin and Fitzroy on the Beagle:
    Darwin suffered from more than one eruption of Fitzroy’s mercurial temper, early in the voyage, and he nearly left the ship at one point. Fitzroy apologised each time, and they did find an amicable modus vivendi for the rest of the voyage.

  21. Crudely Wrott says

    “I gotta stop multi-tasking . . .”
    He says while typing on pharyngula and blinking and breathing and swallowing saliva and and and… :P

    Heh! Not to mention the sub-context that deals with doing things that are not part of the organism’s natural propensities. Such as buying subscriptions to the magazines my grandson’s like (Popular Science and Popular Mechanics! Just like me and there great grandfather!), can I cut loose a few bucks for my daughter’s back rent, will the will of the parties crush the will of the people and if so, how will the people account for such dereliction and paying attention to headlines not concerned with celebrity relationship meltdowns and definitely trying to stay abreast of it all. Whew!

    Just being human is work enough. It’s a shame we burden ourselves with the way that popular opinion morphs and warps and presumes to be the last word. In this regard the protestations of the religious camp fall far short of addressing reality in any real fashion. Their presumption is that we used to be closer to knowledge than we are now. You know, simple knowledge like, “fear of god is the beginning of wisdom.” In my case, the beginning of wisdom (my version, YMMV), was ceasing to be concerned with the ineffable and concentrating on what was amenable to inquiry.

    Just the tale of another life . . .

    E Pluribus Unum

  22. says

    Well, I think that we could do a finer job of remembering him. Richard Carter reports that the British National Heritage Memorial Fund has decided to spend 10 million pounds to secure an Italian painting. While I am a fan of fine art, I would have said that 5 million pounds would buy a fine repro and a nice frame, and the other half could have gone to fund The Beagle Project. Because, after all, Darwin was British. Not Italian.

    (I made care to close my italics.)

  23. Betz says

    I just got back from Janet Browne’s lecture – capacity crowd, good talk, well received. And I am now the proud owner of Charles Darwin: Voyaging, which promises to be quite the good read from all reports.
    I also got to meet our host PZ, who is actually fairly quiet and self-effacing. What a nice guy, but don’t let that get out!
    I even managed to drop by Drinking Skeptically and hoist a few. How odd to have thought-provoking and interesting bar-room conversations! What a great evening despite the horrendous Philly traffic.

  24. says

    I bought and read both volumes of Browne’s bio of Darwin as part of preparation for leading a seminar on the history of the socio-cultural and religious controversies surrounding the theory of evolution. I could have done the whole semester course on just one of the volumes. Her bio of him is a magnificent accomplishment.

  25. says

    Of course, we all know that the Auditors of Reality tried mucking up Darwin’s life, because they don’t like evolution one bit. But thanks to Rincewind, reality was set right.

    I also have proof. A copy of “The Origin of Species” by the Rev. Richard Dawkins, and a copy of “Theology of Species” by Charles Darwin, both from parallel universes.

  26. Rasmus Holm says

    For me the publication of Origin represents the single most important event in human history, the point where we came of age as a species. Rightly do we remember Charles Darwin.

  27. Brownian, OM says

    cultural evolution vs darwinian evolution. who’s ahead???

    I’m stealing one of your ‘?’ because I don’t understand the question.

  28. khan says

    I’m practicing my art in public…should I ask for an honorarium? Tips from the crowd afterwards?

    PZ, I’d tuck a $20 into your pocket.

  29. DiscoveredJoys says

    Damn you PZ! I’ve got both volumes of Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin, and now I’m going to have to read them again, just because you have reminded me how good they are!

    On a different blog, far, far away, there was an article about how imitating a spiritual master could help bring you happiness. It was interesting how the deffinition of spiritual was left open ended. Some people commented how they admired particular saints or gurus, and others mentioned secular examples. I wrote:

    Charles Darwin. Fantastically dedicated to finding out why the natural world looked the way it does; he didn’t teach, he showed. His insights were down to long deep thought and lots and lots of hard work.

    There are several very good biographies that tell of his unexceptional childhood, his voyage on the Beagle, and how he deliberately chose to earn scientific respectability before published his world shaking ideas, backed by huge amounts of examples. It turns out that he was a fairly nice gentle man too.

    Anyone that looks that clearly at the world merits profound respect.

    It is not my blog, it belongs to Gretchen Rubin, and is about ‘Happiness’. It’s not (generally) woo, and the specific blog can be found at:

  30. Neil Schipper says

    Apologies for the length of this in advance, but the topic and the discussion seems too apt.

    I’ve been lobbying folks who are somehow associated with life science and science ed in my province to make noise about Darwin (and evolution) next year. I’m doing this not so much because ev-ed is under active threat here, but because I think there needs to be an increase in the confidence in how we as a society talk about evolution and it’s implications.

    I sent the email that follows to about 150 people, including: museum and zoo people, the local science teachers association, dozens and dozens of profs (mostly bio, but also some from geol, anthro, psych, educn and history), some politicians, and even some people in biotech and in the arts.

    Realistically, I expected (and have received) not much more than a trickle of polite replies. This is of course disappointing, esp. from professional museum and zoo people. Still, it seems to me important to be sending the dual message to the professionals that (a) there is an appetite in the community for a normalized and confident way of speaking about evolution, and (b) people expect them to be more proactive in engaging the public.

    (To be fair, some activities are being planned by the university biology departments, but the activities seem primarily to be lectures by academics that will reach a small university audience. Such lectures, like the one that’s the subject of PZ’s post, can certainly be wonderful, but I’m trying to promote the planning of activities that are far more public).

    The template for the letter follows.

    Dear Dr. XX,

    As you likely know, next year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species.

    This double-anniversary ought to be an opportunity for science and science education communities to promote greater public understanding of Darwin’s life and achievements. More people should have a sense of Darwin the man: patient, gentle and respectful, while endowed with astonishing curiousity, gargantuan observational stamina and wide-ranging intellect.

    Beyond Darwin the man is of course his bold contribution: the framework he established for our understanding of life, the interrelatedness of all its forms (which we now know extends down to the molecular level), and our place in the natural world. Widespread understanding of these ideas holds great significance for how able we will be to confront many of the challenges we face locally and globally.

    I’ve noticed that numerous other localities are planning to commemorate this bicentennial. Museums, zoological societies and universities are putting on public lectures, special exhibitions, and academic conferences. These are taking place not solely in places like Oxbridge, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and various cities in California, but also in places like North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and closer to home, in Ontario and in B.C.

    As far as I can tell there are no plans along these lines locally. I’m writing this letter to people I believe are likely to have an interest in the public understanding of science and Darwin’s legacy in the hope of starting a conversation about what could be done here in Manitoba.

    What are some specific things that could be done? Here are some:

    * Exhibits that can travel for circulation among malls, the Forks, the foyers of the concert hall, MTC, MTS center, and such
    * Exhibits could summarize the life and times of Darwin and his main achievements. Interesting things to emphasize include the route and timeline of the Beagle voyage (and D’s age at the time), his discoveries about the growth of corals, barnacles, sexual selection, the reasons for his delay in publishing OOS, and the relationship with Wallace
    * A “Many key ideas about evolution preceded Charles Darwin!” display. It would summarize the ideas/contributions of persons in Darwin’s time and earlier who proposed ideas of change over geologic time: al-Jahiz, Lamarck, grandfather Erasmus D, Chambers, Lyell, Malthus, etc.
    * Exhibits featuring Manitoba flora and fauna with well-understood natural histories: side by side exhibits of forms — specimens, fossils or drawings — at varying points in deep time
    * Special awards for history-of-life related projects at the provincial science fair
    * Workshops for high school teachers with the specific intent of sharing information about recent discoveries and techniques in natural history (I noticed that workshops of this kind are planned in other places)
    * Dissemination to schools of relevant high quality materials — videos or traveling exhibits — as a way of marking the bicentennial
    * Launching experiments with fast reproducing plant or insect species to be carried out by students, experiments of long duration (a year or longer) that would allow the observation of genetic variation
    * Billboards celebrating the bicentennial, with reference to a website containing further information
    * Performances of theatrical renditions of vignettes from Darwin’s life or readings of his works or letters, or renditions of the famous debates

    My hope is that a coordinated effort could bring at least some of these to reality. There will certainly be media attention to the bicentennial in 2009, and it seems appropriate for there to be a local effort to leverage the expected increase in public interest.

    I am a member of the executive of the Humanist Association of Manitoba, and among our ranks are a number of people (non-specialists, with some exceptions) who would volunteer for things like manning exhibits in malls, transporting exhibits, acting as ticket-takers for presentations and the like. I suspect there are other groups that could likewise provide a pool of volunteers.

    My own background is in physics and electrical engineering, and my interest in the life sciences occurred rather late in life. As I learned more about natural history, I was often astonished by its findings: the numerous bird and lizard “ring” species; similarities among fossils and geological formations situated across the span of oceans; plots of average brain mass to body mass across species correlating with observed animal intelligence; parthenogenesis, and how some species will temporarily adopt that strategy, returning to sexual reproduction when environmental conditions allow it; the recurring patterns of chromosomal fusion and fission that often occur in speciation, along with the mathematical sophistication of chromosomal and DNA analyses supporting (or refining, or even overturning) prior morphology-based opinions on specific ancestries.

    I learned about experiments with crickets in which a female becomes sexually responsive to a male from a species with which she can’t reproduce if the chirping ability of the male was defeated but the chirps from an out of view same-species male are audible. And how in the wild, birdsong under detailed analysis changes subtly over the span of decades, with the females finding the recordings of recent variants more alluring than those of older variants. And how certain plants which are normally aggressive in obtaining resources are less aggressive, i.e., more cooperative, when they sense by some molecular signaling mechanism in their roots, the presence of same species plants.

    It strikes me that many aspects of this great body of knowledge are not only fascinating, but they are not especially onerous to either communicate or to comprehend. It also strikes me that a collaborative effort from the ranks of the many talented bipedal primates of this province — our science teachers, university professors and their grad students, museum and zoo staff, people from our research institutes and biotech firms, artists, actors and filmmakers, marketers and public relations specialists — could accomplish some wonderful things.

    So, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Do you think there ought to be an effort of this kind in Manitoba? Would you or your organization be willing to participate in some way? Should there be a steering committee struck? Which people or organizations do you imagine ought most naturally be its participants, leaders and champions?

    Best regards,

    Neil Schipper

    P.S. Don’t hesitate to forward this to anyone else you think might share an interest in this.