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Charles Darwin’s foremost biographer, Janet Browne, delivers a vivid and accessible introduction to the book that permanently altered our understanding of what it is to be human.  A sensation on its publication in 1859, The Origin of the Species profoundly shocked Victorian readers by calling into question the belief in a Creator with its description of evolution through Charles Darwin’s foremost biographer, Janet Browne, delivers a vivid and accessible introduction to the book that permanently altered our understanding of what it is to be human.  A sensation on its publication in 1859, The Origin of the Species profoundly shocked Victorian readers by calling into question the belief in a Creator with its description of evolution through natural selection.  And Darwin’s seminal work is nearly as controversial today.  In her illuminating study, Browne delves into the long genesis of Darwin’s theories, from his readings as a university student and his five-year voyage on the Beagle , to his debates with contemporaries and experiments in his garden.  She explores the shock to Darwin when he read of competing scientist’s similar discoveries and the wide and immediate impact of Darwin’s theories on the world. As one of the launch titles in Atlantic Monthly Press’ “Books That Changed the World” series, Browne’s history takes readers inside The Origin of the Species and shows why it can fairly claim to be the greatest science book ever published.


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Charles Darwin’s foremost biographer, Janet Browne, delivers a vivid and accessible introduction to the book that permanently altered our understanding of what it is to be human.  A sensation on its publication in 1859, The Origin of the Species profoundly shocked Victorian readers by calling into question the belief in a Creator with its description of evolution through Charles Darwin’s foremost biographer, Janet Browne, delivers a vivid and accessible introduction to the book that permanently altered our understanding of what it is to be human.  A sensation on its publication in 1859, The Origin of the Species profoundly shocked Victorian readers by calling into question the belief in a Creator with its description of evolution through natural selection.  And Darwin’s seminal work is nearly as controversial today.  In her illuminating study, Browne delves into the long genesis of Darwin’s theories, from his readings as a university student and his five-year voyage on the Beagle , to his debates with contemporaries and experiments in his garden.  She explores the shock to Darwin when he read of competing scientist’s similar discoveries and the wide and immediate impact of Darwin’s theories on the world. As one of the launch titles in Atlantic Monthly Press’ “Books That Changed the World” series, Browne’s history takes readers inside The Origin of the Species and shows why it can fairly claim to be the greatest science book ever published.

30 review for Darwin's Origin of the Species: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dillwynia Peter

    I’m divided about this book. I heard it as an audiobook somewhere in the Outback & so couldn’t judge the thickness. It’s a slim book & as such I would not have taken it off the shelf. This probably sounds snobbish, but it isn’t meant to be, and I shall explain. I read Darwin’s Origin of Species not long after its 1st edition – it was some years ago, let’s just say. Actually, if this little book is correct, I probably read the 6th Edition (Darwin constantly re-wrote chunks of this till he died) so I’m divided about this book. I heard it as an audiobook somewhere in the Outback & so couldn’t judge the thickness. It’s a slim book & as such I would not have taken it off the shelf. This probably sounds snobbish, but it isn’t meant to be, and I shall explain. I read Darwin’s Origin of Species not long after its 1st edition – it was some years ago, let’s just say. Actually, if this little book is correct, I probably read the 6th Edition (Darwin constantly re-wrote chunks of this till he died) sometime in the early 1990s. I have also read some of Wallace’s works, Hooker’s introductory essays on southern hemisphere biogeography, and something by Huxley (my paper book diary isn’t at hand); and I have a book of his essays stashed in the library awaiting to be read. I would like to think I know a bit about these earlier writers etc. What I was thinking I was getting was another essay on interpreting the impact on the world on Darwin’s work etc. You do get that, but not as a critical analysis based on new insights & thought. What you **do** get is a lovely overall review of Darwin, his times, those people he worked with & the consequent affects in both the wider community, but also for evolutionary biologists. What I liked about the book was the easy digestible bits about Darwin: his personal & professional life, and the effect he had on science. Then there are his close friends – Hooker, Huxley & Lyell. We do sidestep the very thorny bit about Wallace’s treatment after publication of Origin of Species. Wallace is given his due, and his later studies are commented on – but this is about Darwin, after all. I really liked the last portion that dealt with his influence into eugenics, business and sociobiology (survival of the fittest mantra); and I liked the commentary regarding the New Science movement of Julian Huxley, Ernst Mayer & George Gaylord Simpson. It brought back those days in Honours & MSc days when I read all this & much more – based primarily from the initial readings made as an undergrad. What I didn’t like was the lack of depth. For me, it gave me no new insights nor in depth analysis. I ended up knowing only one new piece of info (listed above regarding editions) and was a big disappointment for me. The matter of Darwin's health issues - which is always fun to speculate, is also given a whitewash job; not something I would expect from an eminent biographer. (Actually, I think the Desmond & Moore biography [from the early 90s] to be the acme of them all.) It took me a little time to realise that this book should be treated as either a general intro for those that don’t know the field and want to learn, or as a crib to some undergrad doing a general evolution course at uni. This is fine, but not what I, the grumpy well read botanist, wanted. It has made me, however, hunt out those books and articles that I do need to read that are missing from my previous readings. That isn’t a bad thing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne Moore

    This selective biography highlights Darwin's early career and then focuses on his famous theory with a brief background of his work and how it was received upon release. As a young man, Darwin attempted to study in the medical profession and ended up training to be an Anglican priest. He later signed up for a voyage on the HMS Beagle as a naturalist and while surveying and charting the coasts of South America, Europe, and Asia, he kept journals on geology, plant and animal life leading to years This selective biography highlights Darwin's early career and then focuses on his famous theory with a brief background of his work and how it was received upon release. As a young man, Darwin attempted to study in the medical profession and ended up training to be an Anglican priest. He later signed up for a voyage on the HMS Beagle as a naturalist and while surveying and charting the coasts of South America, Europe, and Asia, he kept journals on geology, plant and animal life leading to years of research. I was touched by his devotion to his wife and children with whom he spent a great deal of time sharing his discoveries. Browne mentioned the depression Darwin suffered when his daughter died young after an illness. He had suffered many years with heart problems and stomach troubles himself. I learned a lot about Charles Darwin in this short book, but would have enjoyed a more narrative biography. It would be a good introduction to Darwin's The Origin of Species.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    This book is more difficult for me to rate, as it almost felt more like a text book. I wanted to learn more about Darwin's theories after recently going to the Galapagos Islands, and this book served that purpose well. It was just a touch dry. Can you really spice up evolutionary theory though? The last chapter that discussed resistance to the theory and lawsuits around it was quite interesting however. The book is part of a series called 'Books that changed the world'. Realizing that 'The Origi This book is more difficult for me to rate, as it almost felt more like a text book. I wanted to learn more about Darwin's theories after recently going to the Galapagos Islands, and this book served that purpose well. It was just a touch dry. Can you really spice up evolutionary theory though? The last chapter that discussed resistance to the theory and lawsuits around it was quite interesting however. The book is part of a series called 'Books that changed the world'. Realizing that 'The Origin of Species' is one of those is not any stretch of the imagination - it was absolutely revolutionary.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Iris

    Dense yet brief, not a biography of Darwin but a story of the conception, creation and reception of the book that changed everything. Other men were cast out of society for promoting very similar theories: Darwin's mild-mannered character and lovely writing helped make "On the Origin of the Species" a hit.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Emma Chen

    For assignment... Interesting to know the story behind natural selection

  6. 5 out of 5

    Wendelle

    ''These five years on the Beagle voyage were the making of him. Some of them were spent galloping on hired horses, striking camp in new places every night, hunting game for supper with companions from the ship, discussing the news from back home and enjoying himself; they were an extension of the carefree days as a Cambridge undergraduate... In Montevideo they marched into town armed tot he teeth to quell a political uprising. In Tasmania they attended a very fine concert. In the far south they ''These five years on the Beagle voyage were the making of him. Some of them were spent galloping on hired horses, striking camp in new places every night, hunting game for supper with companions from the ship, discussing the news from back home and enjoying himself; they were an extension of the carefree days as a Cambridge undergraduate... In Montevideo they marched into town armed tot he teeth to quell a political uprising. In Tasmania they attended a very fine concert. In the far south they were nearly capsized by a calving glacier. Out in the forest near Conception Darwin felth the earth buckle under his feet in a major earthquake. He swam in coral lagoons, was entranced by birdsong in a tropical forest, and contemplated the stars from the top of a pass on the Cordillera de los Andes."(Browne) This Darwin dude seriously lived a nice Victorian adventurer's life. This slim book is a great passport to Darwin's world and formative experiences. It chronicles the events in his life, up to and during the book's publication. It is interesting to know that in the intervening years Darwin spent 8 years studying barnacles. You also get to meet his 4 'apostles'- his 4 scientific defenders, Asa Gray, TH Huxley, Hooker and Lyell, who organized his cohesive defense and directed the discussions in centers of learning to make sure Darwinism became accepted. However this is very much an introductory text in the history of evolutionary sciences. Altogether very straightforward.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Carla

    Standard, dry biography by a solid liberal historian. Good as far as it goes. White, male, propertied, heterosexual says that we evolved along with the rest of the animal kingdom. Supports industrialism, imperialism and gets buried in Westminster despite the fact that he was a major player in dethroning God as the alpha and omega of creation. Browne lists the ways in which the science of evolution has been abused by numerous parties thru the 20th century. It would be also interesting to hear wha Standard, dry biography by a solid liberal historian. Good as far as it goes. White, male, propertied, heterosexual says that we evolved along with the rest of the animal kingdom. Supports industrialism, imperialism and gets buried in Westminster despite the fact that he was a major player in dethroning God as the alpha and omega of creation. Browne lists the ways in which the science of evolution has been abused by numerous parties thru the 20th century. It would be also interesting to hear what evolution has made possible in terms of scientific progress. Evolutionary psychology has just begun to think about how different parts of the brain have evolved - I look forward to reading more about why the idea of 'evolution' even matters.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jorge

    Style is clear and engaging, and the story told thought-provoking. From time to time, subjective historical interpretations or a certain bias can be seen in the pages, but for the most part, the book is a very interesting insight in the history, the precedents and the outcomes of Darwin's theories. A must-read for anyone interested in the History of Biology, or aiming to understand present-day confrontations between evolution and creationism.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    Great to read about Darwin's life, development of theories, and interaction with other scientists. Janet Browne discusses how Darwin's theories influenced social theories of survival of the fittest, which was illuminating.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Bolton

    Charming and concise introduction to Darwin ; his life and thought, made me want to read the full bio by browne immediately .

  11. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    A contemporary look at Charles Darwin, his book 'Origin of Species', the voyage of the HMS Beagle and how Origin has affected research since it's publishing to the present day.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sonia

    I really like her great overview of 19th century thought, especially in the area of science. It's a great introduction to Darwin's Origin.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ville Kokko

    An entertaining, inspiring book about the background, creation, reception and legacy of The Origin of Species. I was looking for some light reading for a science enthusiast such as myself and was quite satisfied. An entertaining, inspiring book about the background, creation, reception and legacy of The Origin of Species. I was looking for some light reading for a science enthusiast such as myself and was quite satisfied.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Colleen

    A good overview of the origin’s origin, it’s reception and it’s legacy. Wish it had been made even clearer that Darwin was not responsible for social Darwinism.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kimbolimbo

    I loved reading this right after reading On The Origin of Species. Very good supplemental text.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jacquelyn Fusco

    Nice, short volume. Much easier than actually reading Origin, although I kind of want to. This will do for now.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Fauque

    This book is well-written but it didn't grab my attention and pull me in.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kitty

    This book is one of a series titled Books That Changed the World published by Atlantic Monthly Press. This is the only one of the series I've read. It's short at 153 pages, and about the page size of a small paperback, so the author gives only a general look at various aspects. There are 5 chapters titled as follows: 1, Beginnings; 2, 'A theory by which to work'; 3, Publication; 4, Controversy; 5, Legacy. Throughout the book the author gives probably enough information to get started if you want This book is one of a series titled Books That Changed the World published by Atlantic Monthly Press. This is the only one of the series I've read. It's short at 153 pages, and about the page size of a small paperback, so the author gives only a general look at various aspects. There are 5 chapters titled as follows: 1, Beginnings; 2, 'A theory by which to work'; 3, Publication; 4, Controversy; 5, Legacy. Throughout the book the author gives probably enough information to get started if you want to look into any of the topics she presents. Also there is a bibliography, and an index. I don't know if the rest of the series suffers with the drawbacks of this book, but it may. The problems seem to be not giving enough space to develop themes in the text and hurrying to publish. It seems a bit of a cursory look at the subject. However, as I said above, there is enough information to start with if you want to look into it further, and maybe that is the point of the series rather than to give a thorough look at any of the books. The other problem I noticed was one related to proofreading and fact checking. Charles S. Peirce's name was spelled 'Pierce' in both the text and the index. Andrei Sakarov's name was spelled correctly in the text but spelled 'Sakariv' in the index. Alfred Lord Tennyson's name was spelled 'Tennnyson' in the text but spelled correctly in the index. So just a closer attention to detail was needed. I think the book was worthwhile reading as it gave me a better understanding of the circumstances of Darwin's life and the publication of his opus. Also, it whetted my appetite and I am now thinking I would like to read Darwin's book on his adventures on the Beagle and also a biography.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    This book provides an excellent introduction to Darwin, and should be a minimum "must read" for everyone in 2009, as that year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Origin of Species." Janet Browne has devoted almost her entire academic career, since receiving her PhD in the early 1980's, to the study of Charles Darwin. Her two-volume biography of Darwin, "Charles Darwin: Voyaging" (1995) and "Charles Darwin: The Power of Place" (2002) are re This book provides an excellent introduction to Darwin, and should be a minimum "must read" for everyone in 2009, as that year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Origin of Species." Janet Browne has devoted almost her entire academic career, since receiving her PhD in the early 1980's, to the study of Charles Darwin. Her two-volume biography of Darwin, "Charles Darwin: Voyaging" (1995) and "Charles Darwin: The Power of Place" (2002) are recognized as the preeminent Darwin biographies of this generation of historical research. In "Darwin's Origin of the Species: A Biography," Browne sets the man and the book in the context of both Darwin's times and the contemporary knowledge of science. She accomplishes this in a brief, clearly written 153 pages that can be easily digested by the general public. Browne's Darwin is fascinating and engaging, and she shows the conflict and creative scientific ferment that resulted from the book's publication. We live in a time when some religious communities in the United States have launched efforts to repeal the teaching of the ideas of evolution in our schools. Any citizen sympathetic to the goals and achievements of science should understand how fundamental evolutionary ideas are for continued advancement of research programs of the biological sciences. This book provides a base of knowledge that will lead the average reader toward a greater appreciation for the historical achievements of Darwin. This book will also be the Linda Hall Library's One Book reading program for February 12, 2009 (held on the bicentennial of Darwin's birth).

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    I recently finished The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins and it inspired me to learn more about Charles Darwin. I'd read Voyage of the Beagle before, and I was quite taken with Darwin's writing in that book, but I found the prospect of taking on The Origin of Species rather daunting for some reason. I found this little book and thought I should give it a go before diving into On the Origin of Species. I was not disappointed. This book provides an excellent min I recently finished The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins and it inspired me to learn more about Charles Darwin. I'd read Voyage of the Beagle before, and I was quite taken with Darwin's writing in that book, but I found the prospect of taking on The Origin of Species rather daunting for some reason. I found this little book and thought I should give it a go before diving into On the Origin of Species. I was not disappointed. This book provides an excellent mini-biography of Darwin and details the publication and legacy of Origin. I learned a lot from this little book and would definitely recommend it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Laurel

    This is a short but interesting look at Darwin's life, how he came to arrive at his theory of evolution, how that theory sparked enormous controversy at the time (a controversy which continues to this day for some), and how it ultimately changed how we view the world. What I found perhaps most fascinating (and disturbing) was how Darwinism, in some small part, played a role in the rise of eugenics, genocide and racial prejudices. As much as I realized how important Darwin's work was on a biologi This is a short but interesting look at Darwin's life, how he came to arrive at his theory of evolution, how that theory sparked enormous controversy at the time (a controversy which continues to this day for some), and how it ultimately changed how we view the world. What I found perhaps most fascinating (and disturbing) was how Darwinism, in some small part, played a role in the rise of eugenics, genocide and racial prejudices. As much as I realized how important Darwin's work was on a biological level, I don't think I'd ever fully considered the sociological impact, nor how it lead some to the idea that certain humans were more evolved, and thus superior to others. These sort of thoughts also existed in history pre-Darwin, of course, but it was interesting to explore these events from this perspective. This book is marketed as (and titled) a biography, and though it is in part, I would say it is much more a summary of the scientific history surrounding evolutionary theory.

  22. 5 out of 5

    David

    The title is really kind of a misnomer, because the book isn't really so much a "biography" of On the Origin of Species as it is an elementary introduction to Darwin. The author pays no attention at all to Darwin's publisher, John Murray, even in the chapter entitled "Publication." The dissemination and distribution of "transcendental" texts like Darwin, Freud, Marx, strike me as too important to simply gloss, particularly in a book about a book. I think the idea of this book - and the whole Atlan The title is really kind of a misnomer, because the book isn't really so much a "biography" of On the Origin of Species as it is an elementary introduction to Darwin. The author pays no attention at all to Darwin's publisher, John Murray, even in the chapter entitled "Publication." The dissemination and distribution of "transcendental" texts like Darwin, Freud, Marx, strike me as too important to simply gloss, particularly in a book about a book. I think the idea of this book - and the whole Atlantic series of Books That Changed The World - is a good one, but poorly executed because the author attempted more than was possible in a short format. A more successful example of this format is John Ray's "The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt" Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt.

  23. 5 out of 5

    John

    Probably unsurprisingly, this jolly little book doesn't quite live up to its promise in the subtitle -- really it's a selective biography of Darwin himself, focusing on those elements of his life that related to Origin, from inception through composition to aftermath, plus the reactions of others to it. Browne is the author of one of the biographies of Darwin, the whopping two-volume (1200+ pages) study comprising Voyaging (1996) and The Power of Place (2003), so obviously she knows what she's t Probably unsurprisingly, this jolly little book doesn't quite live up to its promise in the subtitle -- really it's a selective biography of Darwin himself, focusing on those elements of his life that related to Origin, from inception through composition to aftermath, plus the reactions of others to it. Browne is the author of one of the biographies of Darwin, the whopping two-volume (1200+ pages) study comprising Voyaging (1996) and The Power of Place (2003), so obviously she knows what she's talking about; in consequence, I was slightly alarmed to come across the occasional footling mistake, such as spelling Stephen Jay Gould's first name with a "v" rather than a "ph". Such annoyances aside, this was a great read and surprisingly informative for a book that appears at first to be so slight.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jesse

    This was literally the first audio book I've listened to. I checked it out the library and listened to it in the car. It really wasn't what I was expecting at all...but I love how it touched a lot on his personal life and what a devoted family man he was. My main criticism was the reader; although she has won awards for reading books into audio format, it REALLY annoyed me when she pretended to be darwin...sorry lady, just inflecting a deep voice doesn't make you sound like a dude. Would it be a This was literally the first audio book I've listened to. I checked it out the library and listened to it in the car. It really wasn't what I was expecting at all...but I love how it touched a lot on his personal life and what a devoted family man he was. My main criticism was the reader; although she has won awards for reading books into audio format, it REALLY annoyed me when she pretended to be darwin...sorry lady, just inflecting a deep voice doesn't make you sound like a dude. Would it be any less weird for me to recite an audio book and try to speak like minnie mouse for quotes from a lady!?

  25. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Houweling

    A biography of the live of Charles Darwin: how he came to join the journey of the Beagle, the doubts he had about writing down his theory of natural selection, how he was pre-empted by Alfred Wallace, but after all published his book "On the Origin of the Species" (which isn't actually about the *origin* of the species, but how species *evolve*). A considerable part of the book is spent on the controversy that this book caused in 19th century England and on the impact - both intended and uninten A biography of the live of Charles Darwin: how he came to join the journey of the Beagle, the doubts he had about writing down his theory of natural selection, how he was pre-empted by Alfred Wallace, but after all published his book "On the Origin of the Species" (which isn't actually about the *origin* of the species, but how species *evolve*). A considerable part of the book is spent on the controversy that this book caused in 19th century England and on the impact - both intended and unintended - of Darwin's theory on many scientists and politicians.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    A fast and engaging read. I enjoyed the biographical parts most, which isn't surprising, as biography is Browne's specialty. I find précis like these really helpful for teaching: it's interesting to see how specialists craft their story when writing for a wide audience. The last chapter on the legacy of The Origin is a whirlwind and sometimes reads like a list of names and book titles. I found it useful nonetheless. The Modern Synthesis is a pretty big gap in my knowledge and I was glad to get a A fast and engaging read. I enjoyed the biographical parts most, which isn't surprising, as biography is Browne's specialty. I find précis like these really helpful for teaching: it's interesting to see how specialists craft their story when writing for a wide audience. The last chapter on the legacy of The Origin is a whirlwind and sometimes reads like a list of names and book titles. I found it useful nonetheless. The Modern Synthesis is a pretty big gap in my knowledge and I was glad to get a quick sketch.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maryann

    I checked this out, thinking it was the original by Charles Darwin, not realizing it was a biography by Janet Browne. I'm not sure if I want to finish the book - since I believe that many "Darwinians" don't understand Darwin. It seams to me that they all think that he believed in Evolution, when he mentions "natural selection." He was a religious man, not the Evolutionist everyone makes him out to be. Natural selection happens, we have proof - but I still believe in The Creation!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Clare

    the accuracy of the historic content is arguable as it makes a conscious effort to remediate some commonly perpetuated myths about Charles Darwin, but as most literature, falls short of exploring the true nature of the historical development of the theory of natural selection. Nonetheless if you are interested in developing a basic understanding of the en mass accepted beliefs on the brilliant man it is an easy and enjoyable read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    JJ Lehmann

    A very concise, clear, and thoroughly readable 'biography' of, in my mind, the most important and influential book of the last 250 years. She clearly explains its importance in the sciences and for society, and demonstrates how Darwin came about his theory through the mountains of data and ideas available to him at the time. "Darwin's Origin of the Species: A Biography" is an invaluable introduction to "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin.

  30. 4 out of 5

    A

    This was far shorter than I had anticipated and very scarcely referenced the actual publication "Origin of Species". Rather it focused on Darwin's life and the implications of his beliefs and writings. It also discussed the legacy and effect it has had on society after Darwin's death. It is a fairly short read and is chock-full of information about the effects of the publication, but seemed lacking coverage of its content.

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