A New Take on Darwin's 'Origin of Species' Janet Browne talks about the life of Charles Darwin. Her new book, Darwin's Origin of Species, takes a look at the English naturalist and his theory of evolution. The biography is the latest in a series called "Books that Changed the World."
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A New Take on Darwin's 'Origin of Species'

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A New Take on Darwin's 'Origin of Species'

A New Take on Darwin's 'Origin of Species'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

"The Origin of Species" is among the most important books ever published. Charles Darwin's argument for natural selection sold out its first printing on the day of its publication 150 years ago. The book challenged religious, intellectual, moral and political beliefs, and the arguments continue to this day. Who are we, it asked.

Where do we come from? And are we animals or angels? In the latest in a series on "Books That Changed the World," Darwin biographer Janet Browne describes how a man who thought he'd end up as a clergyman developed his ideas on natural selection and how the British postal service played a critical part in his success.

Later, a skeptic examines what looks like a revolution in music downloads and wonders if it is too good to be true. But first, "The Origin of Species." If you have questions about Darwin's ideas and their influence today, give us a call: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Janet Browne joins us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston. She's a professor of the history of science at Harvard, also the author of "The Power of Place," a two-volume biography of Charles Darwin. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor JANET BROWNE (History of Science, Harvard University; Author): Hi, Neal. Thank you very much. It's good to be here.

CONAN: Our image of Darwin is that after he published his great book, he stayed at home in the English countryside and didn't choose to engage in the enormous arguments he set off. Not true, you say.

Prof. BROWNE: No, it's not true, although it's only true in a sense. He did stay at home in the countryside. We know that about Darwin. He had a wonderful house, a lovely family, and beautiful living arrangements. He felt that he would stand back from the controversy and only participate through letters. So what we have here is a man who was very actively engaged in the controversy, but through the medium of the postal service - through the letters.

CONAN: And the development of the royal mail actually made it possible for him to win converts in London, where he left several very influential friends to carry his water as well.

Prof. BROWNE: Yes, his program of reforms were carried through by four or five very close friends: two in London, one in Boston, actually - one called Asa Gray, a professor at Harvard University. They defended, supported, expanded his program, went out doing all the things that Darwin didn't want to do personally, and actually that Darwin was unable to do personally.

CONAN: As you point out in the book, not all of his ideas were exactly original. And if you read "The Origin of Species," it's not exactly a manifesto, a call to the barricades. Why was he successful when others were not?

Prof. BROWNE: It's one of the big questions of history. Books are written about this all the time. It's something very particular to do with the way that 19th century thought was shifting. The world was changing to become much more liberal, there was a much - there was a very extensive secularization, that people were beginning to feel that the church, perhaps, didn't have all the answers for the way to live. And there was considerable geographic expansion, people's horizons were opening up very broadly, so that Darwin was one of many people - eight, nine, 10 people - who put forward evolutionary views of one kind or another.


Prof. BROWNE: The way that he was so successful is that simply rests in this book that he wrote. The book is full of examples. It's built up a tremendously powerful case that if you just look at the natural world in the way that Darwin was suggesting, it might be able to - I'm sorry, I'll start that again - that if you could look at the world the way Darwin was suggesting, you might well see that natural selection was a valid explanation for what was happening there. Darwin presented a huge body of evidence. I think we could say that was the case.

CONAN: Yet there was a seemingly perfectly plausible explanation that people were happy to live with before that, generally referred to as the clockwork mechanism.

Prof. BROWNE: Well, it didn't answer everything, that the clockwork mechanism, or the perfection of design, failed to explain those cases where the design wasn't perfect, where things didn't work, where the clockwork broke down. And Darwin's suggestion was that this was entirely explicable if things were still progressing towards some kind of adaptive - Darwin doesn't use the word perfection...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BROWNE: ...if they were moving towards some kind of adaptive strategy. Yeah.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. Our guest is Janet Browne. She's the author most recently of "Darwin's Origin of Species," the third book in a series called "Books That Changed the World." 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Sharon, Sharon calling us from Fremont in California.

SHARON (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SHARON: My father was very fond of Darwin and many of Darwin's theories. However, reflective upon the industrial age, then I think that's where Darwin's theories begin to peel off because after the industrial age, we interfered in a lot of botanical life, as well as the human and plant life. And then the cause of all things is generated into a different type of cells and structure. And I'll be glad to take my answer off the air, and I learned this from my father at a very young age because my father was a scientist...


SHARON: ...and so I just wanted to let you know that my dad was very fond of his theories before the industrial age. However, after the industrial age, this would not make any sense at all. But thank you very much.

CONAN: OK, Sharon. Thanks very much.

SHARON: Uh-huh.

CONAN: It's interesting that you write in the book how Darwin looked at the way that man did interfere with nature, in terms of breeding certain kinds of animals for a woollier sheep, for example, and that was one of the mechanisms that he studied as he was developing his ideas on evolution.

Prof. BROWNE: Yes, he did a great number of experiments, and he read a very large number of books and articles about what farmers and animal breeders generally did. And this was the basis of his work, that there was an analogy, he suggested, between the farmyard and the selective procedures that horticulturalists, gardeners, farmers were very familiar with and what might happen in the wild.

CONAN: It just happened more quickly as they selected their species -particularly for certain qualities - and then the same thing happened a little bit more slowly in nature.

Prof. BROWNE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. BROWNE: Much, much more slowly in nature.

CONAN: Much more slowly. And you also point out that his ideas were - that ideas about geology were critical to his thinking, too, that there were millions and millions and millions of years for all of this to happen, which was really the product of his study of rocks.

Prof. BROWNE: Yes, he went on the Beagle voyages, many people know, and as he went round the world on this voyage, he became very deeply engaged with the geological structures that he was seeing, as well as the animals and plants that he was collecting. And I think one could really say that the root of all his ideas about the natural world took their shape from those early geological findings.

He was traveling with a book that he had been given before he left on the Beagle voyage, which was written by the man who then later became one of his closest friends - Charles Lyell. And Lyell's doctrine was that the geological world only operates through very minute and very slow and gradual accumulation of little events. And I think Darwin took that idea from Lyell and applied it to the biological world, and it's the root of much of his notions of natural selection.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Joe, Joe with us from Chandler, Arizona.

JOE (Caller): Yeah, hi. I had a question for your guest. You mentioned that Darwin had a tremendous amount of evidence in his writings, and you also mentioned that he sort of started out like a - as a clergyman. So I was curious was Darwin more of a theologist or a scientist in his education and his approach to the writings that he did? And I'll take my answer offline.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks, Joe. Actually, he was first a medical student, then a theology student, right?

Prof. BROWNE: Right. Although in those days, you didn't actually take a university education in theology. They all went to university and took what was called a general degree with a general education which included mathematics, for example. I don't think any clergyman today would want to have to take mathematics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BROWNE: So Darwin did...

CONAN: Or journalists, either. Let me throw that in there, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BROWNE: Or journalists either, yes. So Darwin did take the ordinary degree, which was the usual preliminary for then going on to do holy orders. But he was delighted that the Beagle voyage - the invitation to go on the Beagle voyage intervened. And for a few months on the Beagle voyage, he was still thinking he might return to become a clergyman, but that soon died away.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. How unusual was it? He was a wealthy young man from a very prominent family. Nevertheless, to get the opportunity to go on this trip as a gentleman companion, this was quite unusual.

Prof. BROWNE: It's a fabulous opportunity. And I've done some research into whether other people ever had that opportunity offered to them, and it seems that Darwin was genuinely unique in this regard. Often, when a companion or a naturalist was wanted for a voyage, they would be well-qualified people who were already known to the British Admiralty or to the captain of the ship.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BROWNE: In this particular instance, I think we have to put it down to the captain who probably didn't have very many friends in those areas. And the captain, Robert FitzRoy, asked the admiralty to find him someone. And the old boy network immediately got into operation, and they wrote around to their friends in the universities, and very luckily, very fortunate - what a wonderful opportunity - Darwin's professor said I think I've got just the man for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're going to have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Janet Browne about Charles Darwin and one of the books that changed the world: "The Origin of Species." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking about Charles Darwin's seminal work "The Origin of Species" with Darwin biographer Janet Browne. The book is nearly as controversial today as it was when it came out 150 years ago. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

I wanted to read a brief excerpt from your book: Only his wife Emma was aware of his general notions. She knew Darwin had religious doubts. Even before they married, she said my reason tells me that honest and conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us.

She expressed the fear that science was leading him into ever greater skepticism. Hesitantly, she suggested that Darwin's doubts might prevent them meeting in the afterlife or belonging to each other forever. This letter was treasured by its recipient. When I am dead, know that I have many times kissed and cried over this, Darwin wrote on the edge.

That's a very moving episode with his wife, but was Charles Darwin an atheist?

Prof. BROWNE: Oh, he was never an atheist, no. But he did have very considerable doubts all through his life about the role of the divine in nature, and he says when he wrote "The Origin of Species," that if - that really he should - he considered himself a deist, that he believed in something - something supernatural, something powerful, something divine - but he certainly didn't adopt the principles of the Protestant church in which he was raised. I think he probably would have called himself a Christian, but he was never, ever an atheist.

There was some interesting works written at the end of his life. After he died, one or two people tried to suggest that he was an atheist, and the remaining family came out very strongly and said, no, no...


Prof. BROWNE: ...Darwin was never an atheist. Let's call him agnostic.

CONAN: Hmm, e-mail from Mike in Davis, California. I was wondering if Darwin faced death threats or the like after publishing his book. If he'd published his book today, I'm sure he would have received quite a few.

Prof. BROWNE: Well, the climate was different then. No, he didn't receive death threats. What he did receive were what he used to call curious letters, so he certainly received abusive mail of a nature that either accused him of dancing with the devil and things like that. Or he was being accused personally of introducing doubt in the minds of children and women and people who were less able to - in those days it was thought - make up their own minds. So he was -he never felt endangered.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Scott - Scott calling us from Modesto, California.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

SCOTT: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SCOTT: I just wanted to say that the controversy continues even today. It seems - well, it seems self-evident to me that he's on the right track. I have colleagues who - I'm in the medical field as are they, so they've had science classes, they've had biology, microphysiology, all those kinds of courses, and yet still can't see the science behind Darwin's work and just refuse to even discuss it sometimes.


Prof. BROWNE: Well, it's a difficult issue, isn't it? And I find in my daily life, too, that everybody has a view about Darwinism and about the divine, as you might imagine. And no two views are the same, are they? It's a very perplexing issue, and we've seen so many civil cases coming up in recent years that are trying to address these issues through the procedures of the law that seem to me both intriguing, difficult and perplexing.

CONAN: Scott, so when they bring it up - do they bring it up or do you bring it up?

SCOTT: I've brought it up. In fact I was at a zoo one time - or I suppose a marine park - and I was trying to show my friend the difference between a seal and a sea lion and how that was an evolutionary pathway...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SCOTT: ...how they came from probably the same creature but one species has moved a bit above and their bodies have changed a little bit so they can function on land. And she just absolutely wouldn't see it.


SCOTT: Just couldn't see it, that those were two separate creatures that God made and made them different for a reason.

CONAN: Well, Scott, thanks very much, and enjoy your next visit to the zoo.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. It's interesting. We think of Darwin primarily in terms of his ideas as a challenge to religion, yet at the time, this was also seen as politically dangerous, this was a threat to the proper order.

Prof. BROWNE: Well, yes. If you start saying that animals and plants were not given their identity and their place in the natural world, the implication immediately is, well, what about human beings? Are they, too, not given their particular place in the world?

And that opens the door - it certainly opened the door in 19th century thought - for all kinds of questions about, well, maybe the natural hierarchy of the social order - as was very rigid in the United Kingdom in Darwin's country at that time - perhaps there would be opportunity for the social order to change and evolve in just the same way as he was suggesting that animals and plants did.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There was also - various people came up with adaptations of Darwin's theory - this was not endorsed by the man himself - ideas that came to be known as Social Darwinism and which a lot of people - which led to a lot of problems later.

Prof. BROWNE: It sure did. Much of Darwin's work, in fact, was based on an idea of what humans might be like in societies, so Darwin was not completely separated from these ideas, but they were extended onwards after his death, towards the end of his life, by other people to suggest that - putting it very crudely - might is right, that the economic structures of a society should be adjusted so that competition could flourish in an unfettered way, and that those people who succeeded in the competition for existence in the economic and political world, those nations that succeeded in that kind of competitive struggle, were by definition therefore the fittest.

Now these are difficult and dangerous ideas. We know they all came to a head in the Second World War, and I think we find it very objectionable now to discuss and address Social Darwinism as if it were still a living thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Here's an e-mail from Matthew. It's my understanding that Darwin didn't like or use the term evolution because it implies a progress, a movement forward, and Darwin's theory of natural selection just explains adaptation and change without any implication that later species are superior to earlier species.

Prof. BROWNE: Yes, you're quite right. The - he does use the word evolution later on in his life, once it becomes - takes on the meaning that it has today. But Darwin was extraordinarily conscious of the fact that change isn't necessarily progress, that adaptations might in fact be very successful if they took an animal backwards or took an animal sideways, or maybe a plant might be more advantageously adapted if it was a little more primitive than its relatives.

So there was no necessary progress in Darwin's scheme, and that's been the most difficult thing for many people to understand in his own day. And even now, it's still very hard to deal with that.

CONAN: Let's talk with Carl. Carl's on the line with us from Fremont, California.

Prof. BROWNE: Hi, there. Professor, I was wondering if your - what your thoughts are about Alfred Russel Wallace. In particular, I have a book that I read, it was published in 1980, called "A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace" by Arnold Brackman, B-R-A-C-K-M-A-N. Out of print, but I got it at the library, and it's available as a used copy on Amazon.

And this author, he basically makes a case that Darwin was in a crisis about how to really put his theory of evolution all together, and he was spurred to publish "On the Origin of Species" as a result of some correspondence from Wallace, who - in looking to get some validation for his ideas - had sent him a transcript of his theory.

And it caused a great deal of consternation, not only for Darwin, but for his celebrated friends that you referred to in the beginning, and that there was a crisis of primacy - who was going to get credit for articulating this theory of evolution? And I understand that Darwin himself actually gave Wallace credit as being a co-creator of theory of evolution. But this man Alfred Russel Wallace is really quite forgotten, certainly in a lot of academic writing. So I'm wondering what your thoughts are and if you're familiar with Arnold Brackman's book, "A Delicate Arrangement?"

Prof. BROWNE: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, all the Darwinists are very familiar with the Brackman book and with a number of other books that suggest that possibly Alfred Russel Wallace has been the victim of either a bit of sharp dealing on Darwin's part or even the victim of a conspiracy, a silence, because Wallace did come up with almost identically constructive theory of evolution by natural selection.

He is one of the several individuals who think of evolution at the same time as Darwin. Wallace writes this up and sends it to Darwin, who he knew a little bit. And the Brackman argument is that Darwin stole some things from Wallace's writings before he then acknowledged the receipt of Wallace's letter and the two went forward to publish jointly.

So there's a lot of accusation flying around there from defenders of Alfred Russel Wallace. The case, as most people now seem to think as it happened, is that Wallace and Darwin were both exceptionally generous men, and neither of them knew that the other one was working towards this same theory. So that when their paths crossed in this very circumstantial way, they were, of course, shocked.

Anyone who has put together such a tremendous theory would be shocked to find somebody else had the same idea. And they very delicately - that's why the book is called "A Delicate Arrangement" - very delicately wished to share the credit with each other - an extremely gentlemanly arrangement.


CARL: Hmm. You know, there was - follow up that is that Brackman made the case that Darwin was a lousy writer, that the "Origin of Species" was very difficult to read and he had difficulty elucidating concepts. And that if you looked at contemporary writings from Wallace at the time and communications that he had sent to Darwin, it was much cleaner prose, much more well thought out.

Prof. BROWNE: Yes, that's right. If you think of Wallace as the brilliant essayist with the clarity of vision and the tight prose of an essayist and Darwin as the man who had spent 20 years plodding through the evidence and piling it up in these great accumulated chapters, that they are both working on the same thing with different styles.

CARL: So then you see this as...

CONAN: Carl, I wanted to give some other people a chance. OK?


CONAN: All right. Carl, thanks very much. We're talking with Janet Browne. Her new book is "Darwin's Origin of Species," part of a series of books on series on books that change the world. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can talk with Debra - Debra with us from Berkeley, California.

DEBRA (Caller): Hi.


DEBRA: Coincidently, I was in England last week and I went to Darwin's house. And there was a display there about his family, and one thing was very intriguing. It said that his grandfather had his own theory of evolution. And I was wondering - there wasn't much about it, so I'm wondering if you could speak to that.

Prof. BROWNE: Yes. His grandfather was called Erasmus Darwin and was a doctor, a philosopher and a poet - a combination that you don't often find. And the grandfather was part of the 18th century rationalist group of thinkers who believed in progress - a little bit different from the grandson.

And the grandfather, Erasmus Darwin - along with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and one or two other European thinkers - put forward a scheme of evolution. It wasn't given a structure in the same kind of way that Charles Darwin eventually gave to it.

Putting round another way, Erasmus Darwin - the grandfather - didn't really have a mechanism for the changes that he was proposing. What he did do was that he wrote the most wonderful evolutionary poem that talks about progress from the most minutest little speck of matter, through to human beings and oak trees and elephants.

So I'm glad you went to Down House. It's a wonderful place to go.

DEBRA: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Thank you, Debra.


CONAN: Is this the most important scientific work ever published?

Prof. BROWNE: I would think so. It's on a par with the article by Francis Crick and Jim Watson in the nature magazine about the structure of DNA. I would think that - yes, if we're going to have two or three most famous books in biology, the most - books that have the greatest impact, I would perhaps choose something from Aristotle...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BROWNE: ...and Darwin's work - Charles Darwin's work and Francis Crick and Jim Watson's work on DNA.

CONAN: And since we've agreed to skip mathematics, we can skip Euclid, too.

Prof. BROWNE: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let me ask you also: as you go through this book, in the history of science there've been so many challenges to Darwin, how well does his work hold up?

Prof. BROWNE: Almost every biologist I've ever met says that it's still the most wonderful theory. It's more than a theory now, that it has been shown to really be the truth for biologists and has opened up doors that were quite inconceivable when it was first published. So it has held up in the most remarkable way.

It hasn't always had frontline billing. There were moments around 1900, there were moments around 1930, when biologists felt there were alternatives that were working rather better than Darwin's theories of natural selection. But since the 1950s - oh, actually since the 1940s, it has been the most remarkable, unifying theory for the whole of the biological sciences.

CONAN: Hmm. You quote near the end of your book, Theodore Dobzhansky in the 1960s. Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution. Janet Browne, thank you so much for being with us.

Prof. BROWNE: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Janet Browne is the author most recently of "Darwin's Origin of Species." One of a series on books that changed the world.

When we come back from a short break, EMI becomes the first of the big music labels to sell songs without anti-piracy software. Is this all it seems? We'll be coming back. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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