Closing in on 200, a new look at Darwin

Just seven days before his 200th birthday, Charles Darwin’s ghost was dissected and analyzed by Janet Browne, one of his most recent biographers.

“Biographers are in the business of capturing ghosts,” Browne, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, said. “We go after information and use words to bring them back.”

Browne gave a lecture titled “Darwin and the Challenge of Biography” yesterday, in which she explained the evolution in the biographer’s perception of Darwin — from that of a perfect scientist to that of a man who was a product of his time. The lecture, held in the Whitney Humanities Center, was the first of the 2009 Schulman Lectures in Science and the Humanities, which were designed to connect science and the humanities.

“I think it succeeded beautifully,” said Robert Shulman, Sterling professor of Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics, for whom the lecture series was named. “There are just some things that science has no way of understanding without history.”

No matter how you look at Darwin, he revolutionized biology: This famous scientist and author of “On the Origin of the Species” will be under the spotlight all of next week in recognition of his 200th birthday on Feb. 12 and the 150th anniversary of his momentous book, published in 1858.

“Darwin may even be more present in the public today than he was in 1859,” Browne said.

Despite having written his own autobiography, which remained unpublished throughout his lifetime, Darwin has always been a popular target for biographers — though many have come to different conclusions about his character.

“Ambivalence and ambiguity in Darwin’s own recollections left the field open to biography,” Browne said.

The first biography of Darwin, which was published by his son, Francis, was “the Victorian equivalent of credit building,” she said.

The biography highlights such qualities as Darwin’s role as a loving father and a good friend, as well as his ability to endure an unidentified lifelong illness. After his death, biographies tended to focus on his work and highlighted his role as a scientist. Following WWI, researchers such as Nora Barlow focused on the failure of Darwin’s religious belief, tying this to the perception that science was at odds with religion. After WWII, the focus shifted to Darwin’s finches — which were not fully understood until many years after his death.

Biographers, however, agree on certain elements of Darwin’s life, such as the fact that his voyage on the Beagle was a turning point in his life.

Browne’s two-part biography on Darwin, published in 1995 and 2002, tried to provide a fuller biography of Darwin by analyzing both his professional and domestic life. Even this attempt to document Darwin’s life may not have been completely accurate, Browne said.

“We’re probably just as embedded in our own world image as the people we are talking about were, but we can’t see it,” she said.

Audience members said they attended the lecture to understand more about the revolutionary figure of Darwin.

“I find [the theory of evolution] to be the most important ever thought of — greater than Newton or even Einstein,” said Miguel Reyes, a research assistant at the School of Medicine who came to hear the lecture to learn about the contemporary perceptions of Darwin.

Others were drawn to the lecture by their own interest in Darwin.

“I wanted to learn about Darwin because he is a mover and a shaker in environmental history and in history in general,” said Tegan Donnelley ’09, who is taking a seminar called “Darwin and Darwinism.” (Browne spoke to students taking the seminar before addressing a larger audience of over 50.)

Browne’s biography on Darwin received the James Tait Black award for non-fiction in 2004, the WH. Heinemann Prize from the Royal Literary Society and the Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society.

Comments

  • Dr Milton Wainwright

    Darin meets Jane Austen

    Janet Browne continues to publish the "fairy tale view" of Darwin(I guess it seels books!).She never mentions that both Darwin and Wallace admitted that they did not orignate the theory of natural selection.She never mentions that the "tree of life" metaphor did not orignate with Darwin,etc etc. Further details can be found in "It's Not Darwin's or Wallace's Theory" which can be read by searching "Google for "wainwrightscience".
    Dr Milton Wainwright,Dept Molecular Biology and Biotechnology,University of Sheffield,UK