SHiPS Resource Center ||   BOOK BRIEF

reviewed 9/97 Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1: Voyaging. Janet Browne. Princeton Univ. Press (1995). ISBN 0-691-02606-8. 606pp.

Darwin aficionados may have already encountered this volume. It is destined to be a classic. Janet Browne conveys an intimate knowledge of Darwin gained from her years as associate editor of his correspondence. The vivid accounts of the young "Bobby," in particular, distinguish this narrative from others of Darwin. Student may enjoy hearing what Charles was like at their age. The comparison may be discomforting for educators at one level. Charles was an idle sporting man—and Dr. Darwin, his father, once expressed his outrage: "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." But the young Darwin was also an avid collector (beetles and more) and his passion for the outdoors certainly nurtured an enthusiasm and emotional attitude that would later shape his commitment to a scientific career. It is a gentle reminder how important natural history experiences (not just classroom or lab "biology") may be for our own students today.

As the title indicates, the book also covers the voyage of the Beagle, revealing elements of Darwin's journey that may have been far more important than most textbook Galápagos-myths might suggest. Teachers will equally enjoy the detailed account of how Darwin ultimately did come to appreciate his finch specimens (in retrospect), and how they were part of a critical nexus of experiences that allowed Darwin to see for the first time how species might diverge. Oddly perhaps, Darwin solved the problem of "the origin of species" while he was focused on other puzzles—about biogeographical relation-ships. Darwin's triumph suggests that these puzzles, now almost absent from standard curricula, may be important in guiding students to reason about evolution themselves.

While Browne's book gives added texture to these familiar incidents, it is perhaps even more valuable in providing a rich and much needed personal profile of Darwin. You will be ready for Volume 2, which will pick up just after Darwin decides to proceed with "a big book" in 1856.

--Douglas Allchin

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