Interview with Janet Browne

«Darwin had the most astonishing idea»

Science historian

Janet Browne

The historian of science Janet Browne is probably the author of the best biography of Charles Darwin available today. Divided into two volumes (Charles Darwin: Voyaging, 1995, and Charles Darwin: The power of place, 2002), it has won several awards, including the Pfizer Research Prize from the History of Science Society. Browne is also regarded as a leading figure in the history of 19th-century biology. She is currently working on a third volume on Charles Darwin, looking at the importance of the naturalist and his work after his death. To mark Darwin Day, we interviewed her by email to look back on the scientist’s great ideas and the process of writing his complete biography.

How did you first discover Darwin? What did you like most about him or what attracted your attention?

I first encountered Darwin’s ideas when I was a zoology undergraduate, although of course I had been taught about evolution at school. Previously it never crossed my mind that all the things we learn in science were once proposed and established by people in the past, i.e., I was not particularly concerned about how we had arrived at where we were in science. It was a big moment for me aged 20 or so to see that an actual person had proposed these interesting things and that the ideas had been (and still were) so much contested.

Why did you decide to study him and how did you come up with the idea of writing such a comprehensive biography?

I decided to follow these new interests by studying for a PhD in History of Science. It was such fun and opened up for me a whole new way of thinking about history. And I chose to study Darwin as a PhD topic because I wanted to know all about the history of biology. I now know that there is much more to the history of biology than just Darwin. I learned such a lot! In any case, I did not think to write a biography until many years later, about 15 years after my PhD was finished. It came about while I worked as an editor on publishing Darwin’s correspondence in Cambridge University Library, where the nicest part of the work was looking things up about Victorian England that helped us date the letters. There were so many fascinating things about the background to Darwin’s life and his family that I decided I could write his life story in a different way from all the other biographies.

When you wrote your biography of Darwin, what did you want to show that was different from what others had written about him? What was the process like? 

I specially wanted to show that an individual’s life story involves lots of other people too – that Darwin hardly ever worked alone and even his greatest ideas built on the ideas of others. I was extremely fortunate in having access to the entire collection of correspondence that exists in Cambridge University Library. It took years to read through it all and make notes but fortunately we had computers by then. Initially I planned to write only one volume but as I proceeded it seemed a really good thing to split into two, and make one all about Darwin’s early experiences and how he came to his big theory, and the second all about the way publishing On the origin of species changed his life. So the first volume is about private creativity and the second about the consequences of going public. 

How did researching Darwin’s private life affect you personally?

The research and writing affected me considerably: I saw my children grow up as I wrote and I became very interested in Darwin as husband, father, friend, and householder. I liked his company and would get my morning coffee, turn on the computer, and settle down to a day of writing about his life. It was extremely sad for me when the time came for me to write about his death.

What did you find most surprising about Darwin’s life?

This is a hard question. Probably the realization that he was tremendously good at finance and investing. Who would have thought it?

What do you consider Darwin’s most outstanding contribution to science?

He brought the idea of evolution to public attention by crystallizing and modifying all the ideas about organic change that had previously been proposed. His idea was not new (and it was also thought of at the same time by Alfred Russel Wallace) but he put it in a book that was widely circulated and discussed. The time was ready for this discussion, especially after some other famous evolutionary books like Robert Chambers’s. Darwin’s ideas have subsequently been integrated with other evolutionary ideas, modified and enhanced by knowledge of genetics, so that the theory today is actually pretty different in the details but basically the same in the big concepts of competition, selection, and change.

How would you define Darwin in three words (or as few as possible)?

Prosperous Victorian gentleman who had the most astonishing idea

Charles Darwin is known for his theory of evolution, which he presented in On the origin of species, but which other book do you think deserves more recognition?

The most well-known is probably The voyage of the Beagle, which is a delightful travel story. People should also read his books about plants and worms!

Are you still interested in other facets of Darwin? What other areas of research are you currently involved in?

I am currently working on what I am calling a third volume of biography, about Darwin after his death. It covers the way in which Darwin became a celebrity scientist and the person most associated with evolutionary ideas.

Do you think it is possible to understand Darwin without knowing the time in which he grew up?

No, absolutely essential. Ideas don’t appear out of nowhere and they have very definite locations and circulations.

Why do you think no one had thought of his theory before?

All the elements of the theory were available for years beforehand. It seems to me that Darwin was only able to put them together after he had experienced the circumstances of the voyage around the world and the industrialized, progressive framework of the UK during early Victorian times.

Do you personally find any of Darwin’s ideas problematic (perhaps because of the time in which he lived or because of your own prejudices)? 

It becomes increasingly problematic to write about a rich white man whose theories provided foundational support for many aspects of modern life that we absolutely don’t wish to endorse: economic inequality, racism, gender differences, etc. It is clear to me that Darwin was a generous, well-meaning person who loved his family, tried to do good in the world and bring clarity to biology, but the theory is hard-nosed and ultimately harsh. That’s the problem that historians try to illuminate.

© Mètode 2023

Journalism student at the University of Valencia