Book Reviews

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
Janet Browne

Review by William A. Spriggs, February 1, 2004

This is an incredible book; the wealth of unrevealed information about Darwin is nothing less than stunning.

The reason for my delight is that it clearly establishes itself as one of the most definitive narratives of the man Darwin and the legacy that we call Darwinism. Because of its detailed research and down-to-earth style, the book reveals the true overview of our evolutionary hero in the most intimate of portraits. Ms. Brown's research into personal correspondence -- not just Darwin's, but also those with whom he corresponded with, is the equivalent of eavesdropping on personal conversations and seems to take Darwin from a shinning light upon a hill and puts him on the same plane as we mere mortals. Despite this, Mr. Darwin's contribution to natural science is monumental in the flow of world human culture and historical events, and by the end of the book, that is where he is firmly placed -- and, where he deserves to be placed. But, in between, the book leaves us with the impression that Darwin's success was not all his personal triumph and was owed primarily to his close alliances with fellow naturalists, scientists, politicians, and his luck at being born to wealthy parents -- which overall, allowed him years of freedom in which to carry out his experiments and do his correspondence. In a nut-shell -- Darwin did not have "to struggle for existence" with annoyances like competing for employment or being so physically drained on a job that at the end of a long day, the only thing he would want to do would be to collapse in bed so that he could repeat the process the next day. Darwin was free to concentrate on the "higher" cerebral thoughts of his day -- and simply stated, Darwin had 40 years of mostly uninterrupted time to study, reflect, correspond and pull all those efforts toward his goal.

The book is volume two of the monumental two-volume set by Ms. Browne, (The first titled: Charles Darwin: Voyaging -- which, I must admit, I have not read yet) and details his life after Darwin's early education, his struggles for "finding his place in the world," the Voyage of the Beagle; the formation of the theory of natural selection; his early research and the early environment which highly influenced his thinking; his mysterious lower intestinal "disease," and of course, his interesting, which I consider humorous, "bank ledger" list of pro and con reasons for getting married to his first cousin, Emma -- which he took very seriously.

But, in her second volume, Ms. Brown brings together the historical series of events that follow the publication of Origin of the Species -- and where myth, celebrity, and religious controversy collide; and it is her interpretation of those events that is nothing less than brilliant. In regards to this book, I tip my hat to Ms. Browne for her acknowledgement that Alfred Russell Wallace was the co-conceptulizer of natural selection independent of Darwin; she writes the truth about how Darwin treated the man and his theory with dignity and respect, and in the beginning, she tells us that Darwin was deeply depressed that he had been beaten to that discovery because of his hesitation to publish. Ms. Browne details how he agonized over whether or not he should joint-publish with Wallace, and the interesting information brought out by Ms. Browne is the method in which he maneuvered his colleagues into convincing himself that he should publish on his own because science would be better served through his stewardship. How Darwin did this maneuvering through correspondence to navigate this "small problem," I'll leave up to the reader to discover.

Jumping ahead in the book, let's move straightaway to the religious controversy surrounding the publication of Origin of the species. Heated debate spread rapidly in the spring after its publication, and it quickly came to a head with an explosive scene at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford in June, 1860. Since Darwin could not attend due to his "illness," the torch was passed to Thomas Huxley, who came to be known as "Darwin's Bulldog" on the subject of evolutionary theory. He was pitted against Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and the whole controversy quickly boiled down to simply: "Who had the right to explain the origin of living beings? -- should it be theologians or scientists?" p. 114.

Wilberforce, used the arguments in 1860 that religious leaders still use today in debates regarding the separation of humans from the primates, which trumpets that humans are so superior and complex from animals that it is not possible that we evolved from the lower animals. And, also true to form of a conservative holding on to old territory, delivered insults to Huxley disguised as friendly jests. One in particular exchange, Wilberforce asked Huxley if he was related on his grandfather's or grandmother's side to an ape. This set the stage for Huxley's reply that will live in history.

"If I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion -- I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." p. 122

As mentioned, Darwin was noticeably missing during this important 1860 debate as his general health was poor and he cited his stomach problems as the reason for not attending the conference. It has been augured widely in modern evolutionary circles that Darwin's medical problems of "vomiting and retching" was nothing more than self-induced anxiety manifesting themselves in physicality ("dis-ease"). This conclusion has been argued because these bouts of medical absences magically seemed to coincide with scheduled live debates, audiences with detractors, reward ceremonies, or people with whom Darwin wished not to receive at his residence. Since Mr. Darwin was such a prominent figure and a physician himself, his correspondence is full of debates with prominent and various doctors concerning his own diagnosis and course for treatment; "Darwin's disease" remains a mystery still today. After all, what doctor could argue convincingly against the famous naturalist, Mr. Darwin?

Now, protectively hidden away at his country home because of his illness, Darwin now sets the stage for the next publication of his controversy, and that would be the The Descent of Man -- What Darwin called his "man book." It is here that Darwin takes the theory of natural selection and places it in context with the argument that man DID evolve from the "lower" primates. With the publication of Species, the controversy of transmutation from beast to human was just heavily hinted, but with the publication of Descent, Darwin was taking a firm stand on his theory. It was a courageous move, and he paid dearly in regards to public and private ridicule from the educated, subordinate public -- no wonder he wanted to hide behind his "illness."

Reaction to both books was swift, even in Darwin's time. Although this was still before the era of the public library, there were the beginnings of "lending libraries" that helped to spread the word and meaning of Origin of the Species and Descent of Man down to the masses. Since the local environment was still primarily in control of religious priests and bishops, the majority of the masses still held the strong belief that man was created by God separated from any natural forces in nature. But, songs, (THE DARWIN THEORY) caricatures, and advertisements bubbled up from culture and found every opportunity to poke fun at the Darwin and his theory. My favorite is the advertisement for "Merchant's Gargling Oil." Here we see a dark, hairy primate with a bottle of the product looking out at us with a full set of shinning white teeth; an exclamatory look of glee upon its face (don't know if its male or female) and spewing forth the dribble: "IF I AM DARWIN'S GRANDPAPA, -- IT FOLLOWS DON'T YOU SEE, -- THAT WHAT IS GOOD FOR MAN AND BEAST, -- IS DOUBLY GOOD FOR ME!" [between pp 280 & 281]. Darwin's own physical appearance was also used as a weapon in the hands of caricaturists: It seems that Darwin's long flowing "hairy" beard and his large, looming forehead, lent very nicely to cartoon parodies. Various examples of caricatures show Mr. Darwin hunched down into a knuckle-walk primal position, swinging from trees as a man/ape, and even sitting on a throne; in most cases the cartoons showed Darwin with a tail. One can only imagine the carnage that could be inflected in my modern America with the advent of late-night television talk shows.

But it is now that I must bring froth, what I consider to be Mr. Darwin's minor flaw: and that is the direction Darwin took at the juncture in the path leading from natural to sexual selection. Without recalling both entire theories, natural selection is basically the random series of events that lead to evolution, and sexual selection is the non-random series of events which produces variations; non-random means choice. You can also look at this junction as the fork in the road between nature and nurture; genes and culture; instinct and will. Sexual selection is the whipped cream and cherry on top of basic vanilla ice cream which which can be represented as the basic package of natural selection. Since you only have been given vinella-flavored ice cream at birth as the genetic package that keeps your lungs breathing, your heart pounding, and your brain buzzing, you have no choice in the matter. But after a while you get this crazy notion and "choose" that you want to have a little variety in your life because you think it might solve the problem that you face today better than the solution you learned from your mother, father, sister, or friends. You, being the rebel and non-conformist, decide to put whipped cream and a cherry on your basic package of vanilla ice cream. Your choice is not necessary for survival, but you think it makes the monotony of just eating vanilla ice cream that much more "pleasurable," and if it solved the current problem you were faced with -- wow -- that's a winning combination (for you) and you continue its use. Guess what? The idea catches on amongst all your relatives and the lasts for many, many generations. If the variation persists, it will eventually be folded into, and be included, in the basic ice cream package as something the brain can expect to occur, and future generations grow up having a preference for the whipped cream and cherry flavors -- that is until a future distant relative wants to try this new thing called -- chocolate syrup.

But it is in the gender preference of choice where I seem to be stuck by the divergent flow in Darwin's theory, and hence, what I consider to be, the minor flaw: "In animal species, he had [Darwin] suggested in the Origin of Species, females would mate more readily with males displaying the largest antlers, the brightest colours, the neatest nest, or the most beautiful song, and thereby leave descendants liable to possess the same characteristics. Over the generations such features would build up in a population. Sometimes the attributes might determine the victor in a fight for possession of the female but generally they served no life-preserving adaptive function. They merely increased the chances of mating and thus the number of offspring...He was convinced that this explained many aspects of human evolution. 'Among savages the most powerful men will have the pick of the women, and they will generally leave the most descendants,' he mused to Wallace. Strictly speaking, this was not natural selection, since choice was involved. In humans, said Darwin, the choice was exercised by males. The situation was otherwise in the animal kingdom, where he believed females took the decisive role."p. 306

How come the gender switch? Did biology abruptly make a decision to prefer choices by males previously made by females? Did nature feel that males preference towards violence and war was more beneficial than the female's preferences for nurturing and compassion? Did nature decide, in order to evolve the human species, that only males could make intelligent and correct choices to follow that path upwards? Did Mother Nature suddenly decide that the selection process which worked for billions of years to perfection needed to be "sexed up?" Or, was Darwin, "a most powerful man," a captive of strict cultural and behavioral social norms of his Victorian England in the mid-19th century that overwhelmingly favored males? And to consider otherwise, would his theories have fallen on deaf ears of his male colleagues, also captives of the same social norms of an elite hierarchy; and these colleagues, without whose cooperation in the scientific community, would have turned thumbs down to his theories if they did not appear to be in control of the selection process? Here is an excellent clue: "And on the other hand, he [Darwin] lived in a world in which heredity was an obvious organizing principle. The upper reaches of Victorian society were, after all, built on the notion of human pedigree and good breeding, not only in the sense that an individual's position in the existing social order depended to a large degree on birth, but also in the heightened emphasis then laid on manners and the cultivation of taste and intellect...Darwin had every reason to muse on good and bad breeding among humans. His personal circle belonged to a close-knit stratum of society, the intellectual aristocracy of the high Victorian era, sympathetic to Mill's idea of a 'learned elite' and Carlyle's 'aristocracy of talent.' Most members of this intellectual elite associated themselves with the rising ideologies of meritocracy, utilitarianism, and personal 'character,' a Smilesian sense of personal effort and determination under adversity, while for the most part enjoying inherited private incomes and status by birth. Darwin's position as a gentleman was secure." pp. 227 & 228.

Here is the nail in the coffin to put my argument that Darwin was a captive of his time and place: "Darwin certainly believed that the moral and cultural principles of his own people, and of his own day, were by far the highest that had emerged in evolutionary history. He believed that biology supported the marriage bond. He believed in innate male intellectual superiority, honed by the selective pressures of eons of hunting and fighting. 'To avoid enemies, or to attack them with success, to capture wild animals, and to invent and fashion weapons, requires the aid of the higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination. These various faculties will thus have been continually put to the test, and selected during manhood...Thus man has ultimately become superior to women' [The Descent of Man: 2: 327-28]. The possibility of female choice among humans hardly ruffled the surface of his argument, although he repeatedly claimed that female choice was the primary motor for sexual selection in animals. Primitive societies, he conceded, may be matriarchal or polygamous. However, he regarded this as an unsophisticated state of affairs, barely one step removed from animals. Advance human society, to Darwin's mind, was patriarchal, based on what was them assumed about primate behaviour and the so-called 'natural' structure of civilised societies." p. 346.

And of course, to make sure that our assumptions about Darwin's patriarchal leanings are correct, one sure method is to know what his thoughts were regarding his beliefs on birth control. To be a complete patriarch, many in the social sciences believe that the male has to control the "sexual urges" of the female -- and that includes "deciding for the female" the direction her bodily functions should take. Birth control came to the fore when an national "scandal" unfolded in the summer of 1877 with the notorious obscenity trial of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, in which Darwin was almost embroiled when he was solicited by Bradlaugh to provide assistance. "In a sixpenny pamphlet issued early in 1877, Besant and Bradlaugh had described the perils of of over-population and recommended various methods of contraception...The pamphlet addressed a completely new audience, issuing dire Malthusian warnings about degeneration, dissipation, and 'unrestrained gratification of the reproductive instinct' By explaining the means of contraception to the masses they hoped to avert these calamities." p. 443.

Darwin's reply:
"I have not seen the book in question but for notices in the newspaper. I suppose that it refers to means to prevent conception. If so I should be forced to express in court a very decided opinion in opposition to you & Mrs. Besant...I believe that any such practices would in time lead to unsound women & would destroy chastity, on which the family bond depends; & the weakening of this bond would be the greatest of all possible evils to mankind. [To Charles Bradlaugh, June 6, 1877]. Here, Darwin made it plain that he believed that civilised societies were best advanced by childbirth taking place only within the respectable boundaries of marriage -- a point of view that had also been the gist of Malthus's original remarks. Like Malthus, Darwin disparaged contraception, which he regarded as an impediment to natural processes. He thought easy access to contraception would lead to unfettered sexual activity outside marriage, which in turn would introduce licentiousness and vice, inadequate care of children, financial insecurity, death, and disease. 'If it were universally known that the birth of children could be prevented, and this were not thought immoral by married persons, would there not be great danger of extreme profligacy amongst unmarried women?' he wrote in a concerned manner to George Arthur Gaskell, an advocate of birth control." pp. 443 & 444.

It is in this letter to Bradlaugh and to George A. Gaskell, that I interpret that Darwin held a common belief that was common amongst the educated elite of Victorian England that viewed the undereducated common person as "dirty, diseased, and of poor breeding," and hence, incapable of making proper decisions. References to..."If it were universally known"... I interpret to read as "if the great unwashed ever becomes educated to the knowledge "...that the birth of children could be prevented"... literally changes the entire perspective. Although it is widely know that Darwin was a kind, compassionate, and adoring family man, this patriarchal perspective fits nicely into the 1999 Social Dominance theory of Jim Sidanius & Felicia Pratto and is strongly confirmed with historical intelligence regarding the social norms of this era. As Charles Dickens has written to us in A Christmas Carol across the ages, those at the top of the tree who feast on the unlimited availability of abundant leaves see their cousins foraging on the ground in a different light.

I realize that, overall, I have been generally harsh to Darwin in this review, but I also am a prisoner of my time and era. I am a progressive who is writing at a time when my America is being dragged off to war by a dominating conservative"educated elite," who wish to control all aspects of our lives, including taking away the right of women to choose what they should do with their own bodies. In some ways I see Darwin in this unfavorable light as an wealthy elitist, and a very lucky person to be born in his time and place. At the same time, I also recognize that his freedom to pursue his studies and his high position in his perspective hierarchy made it possible to topple age old dogmas of superstition that also kept humankind as mental slaves in the shadow of superstitions. Please do not let my momentary tainted bias distract you from purchasing this magnificent book. It truly is a masterpiece in biographical .......literacy about a man who will always find a place of honor in my mind to advance the truth. And that is the ultimate goal of all science -- the truth. All of us, stand on the shoulders, of great men and women who have come before us.

The book, of course, will be placed on my Recommend Reading section.

Click here to learn more or purchase from

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995-2011