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Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Janet Browne, Alfred A. Knopf: 594 pp., $37.50

November 24, 2002|Robert Lee Hotz | Robert Lee Hotz is a science writer for The Times.

The 25 well-bred naturalists of London's Linnean Society had no reason to expect anything unusual when they gathered on a Thursday evening in 1858 for their regular July meeting. Nor is there any indication that, when the night was done, they understood that God had been deposed and the world turned upside-down. These amateur scientists, however, had witnessed arguably the most important moment in the history of science and modern thought. It was to them that Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection was first presented -- an idea that would revolutionize biology and, ultimately, Victorian society itself by showing that a struggle for survival, not a divine will, shaped life on Earth.

For Darwin, it was a turning point. He had mailed the research manuscript a day after his infant son died of scarlet fever. His brainchild now faced its own mortal test. His claim to be father of this theory also was at risk: Working independently, a naturalist named Alfred Wallace had deduced some of the same insights into evolution and sought Darwin's help in making them public.

Typically, Darwin did not attend that meeting, for no one was more agitated about the ramifications of his scientific ideas than Darwin himself, or more uncomfortable with debating them in public. So unseemly did Darwin consider his convictions about natural selection that he kept them secret for 20 years. To discuss them publicly at long last was "like confessing a murder," Darwin confided to a friend. So on this important evening, Darwin left it for two influential colleagues -- botanist Joseph Hooker and geologist Charles Lyell -- to debut his heretical views in public, making sure his work was presented in conjunction with Wallace's first paper. On Darwin's behalf, they ignited a controversy that burns no less fiercely today than 144 years ago, even though science has confirmed virtually every aspect of its postulates.

English science historian Janet Browne opens the concluding second volume of her brilliant, landmark biography, "Charles Darwin: The Power of Place," with this agonizing and yet liberating moment of public disclosure. Freed for the first time from self-doubt, Darwin finished his most influential work, "The Origin of Species," in less than a year. The second half of Darwin's life was dominated by its publication in 1859 and his surprisingly ruthless efforts to promote the ideas it articulated.

In "The Power of Place," Browne has chronicled the public birthing of an idea, long incubated in the womb of Darwin's mind. The paradox of Darwin's personality is the crux of the story. Darwin was both a recluse and the most influential public intellect of his century; jealous and generous; an ocean voyager who hated to travel; a scientist prone to quackery; an unfettered thinker who chained himself to rigid domestic routine; the privileged son of the well-to-do elite, trained for the clergy, whose ideas struck at the heart of Anglican doctrine, the secularist whose life's work sapped the power of the established church and yet who was buried with honor in the nave of Westminster Abbey. What emerges from Browne's book is the most insightful portrait in a generation of this puzzling and provocative mind.

In Browne's view, this shy yet well-connected squire's son conducted his most important work not as a globe-trotting field biologist aboard the HMS Beagle but in self-imposed exile in the rural backwater of Downe, a village of barely 500 people in Kent. There he worked secluded from the distractions of London by country custom and forbidding parish hedgerows. "These home-based researches were the hidden triumph of his theory of evolution," Browne writes. "His family setting, his house, his garden, the surrounding Kent countryside, and his own sense of himself ... and the property he owned provided the finely crafted examples of adaptation in action that lifted his work far out of the ordinary."

In the service of his science, Darwin submitted himself totally to the discipline of his curiosity, obsessively analyzing the intricate mechanisms of natural selection and ruthlessly arranging his domestic routine to accommodate his work. In this vein, Browne demonstrates how completely Darwin was schooled by his exhaustive investigation of living things in the fields and gardens of Kent, where little escaped his sustained attention. He bred pigeons, observed the local bees, tracked the wriggles of local worms, counted blades of grass, even monitored the leafy flutter of the twisting creepers that festooned his garden walls.

What elevates Browne's account of Darwin's life is her insight into the liberating power of domesticity for a contemplative mind. She also well understands how, as an invalid, Darwin used his migraines and digestive disorders to control those around him. She is on equally intimate terms with Darwin's inner family circle and the imperial scientific world in which he flourished.

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