In the sesquicentennial year of The Origin of Species, Darwin biographer Janet Browne is a natural selection for the Drue Heinz Lectures. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In the sesquicentennial year of The Origin of Species, Darwin biographer Janet Browne is a natural selection for the Drue Heinz Lectures.

Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species turns 150 this year. The Drue Heinz Lectures marks the occasion by hosting Janet Browne, who wrote an acclaimed two-volume Darwin biography, Voyaging (1995) and The Power of Place (2002). Browne, a Harvard professor of the history of science, says Darwin's theory of evolution was controversial not just because it suggested human descent from apes, but because it replaced the idea of a harmonious, stable world, guided by God, with one of impersonal Nature, full of the strife of change.

Browne spoke to CP from Cambridge, Mass.


Did Darwin know he was breaking ground?
He -- in 1859 -- was not writing about human species, but that was an implication in his book. He [knew] that many of his readers were embedded in a different framework, of thinking that humans were either created directly by the hand of God, or at least ... that our souls, or our mental abilities, were a direct gift from the Christian God.

And yet his era was also one of considerable intellectual ferment.
It was a fabulously interesting time. It was as exciting then as it is now scientifically. It's hard for us now to think back -- it's a hundred and fifty years ago! -- to think back and imagine that it was just a strong [a sense] of progress, and advance, and doors opening, not just in the sciences but in all ways of thinking about human existence. The world was suddenly becoming a smaller place. There was improved means of transport, there was a terrific postal and mail system. There were all kinds of political reforms.

How is Darwin still misunderstood?
I think [people] tend to believe that he was much more aggressive about his proposals than he really was. People aren't fully aware of what a gentle, thoughtful and sensitive person Darwin was. Darwin did not aggressively promote atheism. Lots of his followers did.

Was "creationism" an issue?
For most of the middle years of the 19th century, the trend in British religious thought was to continue believing in the Bible as a holy document, but it's metaphorical. They didn't imagine Michelangelo's God on the Sistine Chapel, pointing a finger. Darwin wasn't really trying to contest the literal truth of the Bible, because that wasn't an issue.

Why did Darwin's ideas flourish?
They resonate. People who were busy in the world of business, or busy in the world of anthropology, or busy in the world of banking, all saw in Darwin's writings a reflection of what they already understood was happening. In their world, competition, success, survival, were all deeply significant aspects of the processes that were going on. Darwin gave a kind of biological reason for that.

And Darwin himself took Victorian industry as a metaphor.
He was most directly inspired by the political writings of Thomas Robert Malthus, the man who wrote about population theory. When [Darwin] put together a theory which included the theory of natural selection, one of the reasons he was so excited by that theory was that it did seem to mesh with what he knew about life in early Victorian England.

Darwin also drew metaphors from his contemporary Charles Lyell, who wrote Principles of Geology.
He was deeply deeply inspired by Lyell as a young man, at a very impressionable time, when he was on the Beagle voyage. Lyell was a very modern writer, and appealed to Darwin on all kinds of levels.

Lyell provided a lot of information about geological structures, and so Darwin used him as a textbook, almost, for how to understand the things he was seeing. And Lyell also included in his book a long discussion about why evolution can take place. It's one of the earliest times that we know that Darwin was engaging with these sorts of issues.

And the last thing that Lyell does for Darwin is that in his book there's a really neat way of thinking about the world, a methodology, that Darwin finds very attractive, and even without thinking, he absorbs it, and that remains his methodology for the rest of his life. And it's so simple, and it's so wonderful: that many, many small changes add up to big effects. And they take place at such a slow rate, and they're so tiny, that you don't actually see them. But over long, long, long periods of time, there'll be an effect.

Lyell writes that in his book on geology, and Darwin uses that when he's thinking about geology when he goes around the world. But he also uses that when he thinks of evolution, and he uses it for the rest of his life. He's deeply committed to that idea. It's just a key to his intellectual life, and it's Lyell who gives him that. It's a marvelous moment in the history of science -- where a man was writing a book on one thing, and another man reads it, and gets something else from it, and the two become very close friends.

Meanwhile, Darwin the writer struggled to present the impersonal worldview he had conceived.
I think it's actually the same problem many biological writers have today -- that the English language doesn't have neutral words to talk about the processes that are entirely natural. Our language [is] absolutely permeated with wonderful words that have a kind of purpose in them, like "selection" and "evolution" and even "change." Some of the greatness of his work was he was trying to introduce a new way of thinking about nature using the historical words that had emerged at a time when everybody believed in God.

Afterwards, lots of his friends, and he himself, could see that using the word "selection" somehow opens the door for maybe putting God back into the story. Or allowing a sense of "directed evolution." And a lot of very famous biologists after Darwin felt more comfortable -- they accpeted evolutionary theory, but they preferred to think it was a directed process. And the word "natural selection" allowed them to do that.

Darwin's great friend Alfred Russell Wallace suggested, "You should try using some other words." And it's at that point that Darwin starts to use the words "survival of the fittest."

Which was actually philosopher Herbert Spencer's phrase.
"[S]urvival of the fittest," to Darwin, really was a kind of statistical process. But I suspect if he was back here today, he would think it was an unfortunate phrase, because it gave rise to so much misunderstanding of the evolutionary process -- it kind of pushed the idea of evolution into areas that become highly problematic, highly prominent, mostly social and economic.

What will you discuss Feb. 9?
I was going to talk about the way that Darwin's impact has continued since 1859. And in fact intensified. I'm going to show a large number of Victorian cartoons about Darwin, which will explore the ways that the debate after The Origin of Species focused very much on the question of apes as ancestors.


The Drue Heinz Lectures presents Janet Browne 7:30 p.m. Mon., Feb. 9. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $25. 412-622-8866 or

In the sesquicentennial year of The Origin of Species, Darwin biographer Janet Browne is a natural selection for the Drue Heinz Lectures.
Janet Browne explores why Darwin's still controversial.

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