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.