Concise history of the paradigm-altering book.
Browne (History of Medicine/University College London) considers On the Origin of Species the greatest science book ever published. The editor of Darwin’s correspondence and author of a definitive two-volume biography (Charles Darwin, 1995 and 2002) would hardly think otherwise. Browne makes it clear that Darwin knew religious shock waves would reverberate from the idea of “transmutation” by natural selection (the word “evolution” was only later applied to Darwinism); that was why he spent decades garnering his facts and postponing publication. Then came the 1858 letter from Alfred Russel Wallace outlining his own account of natural selection, followed by hurried arrangements to credit both men in short papers read at the Royal Society, and by Darwin’s rush into print. Browne retells these familiar events in the context of an increasingly industrial and capitalist society. (T.H. Huxley may have trounced Bishop Wilberforce in the famous “ape vs. angels” debate, but many biblical scholars had already abandoned literal interpretations of the Bible.) The author brings onstage a large cast of opinion-makers, including John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and assorted poets and writers, to stir the air. Darwin stayed out of the limelight but remained very much in the picture through letters. Browne describes his later life and books, but focuses on the fate of evolutionary theory.
Another fine entry in Atlantic’s Books That Changed the World series (see P.J. O’Rourke’s On the Wealth of Nations, Jan. 2007).