Fruits of Browsing: No. 3 'Small, But Perfectly Formed'

By Bernard Wood
March 02, 2012

A relatively painless way to learn about science is to read biographies of scientists. What better way to learn about evolutionary genetics than to read Jonathan Weiner’s learned and readable biography of Seymour Benzer. Atomic physics is made as accessible as it ever will be for me within Graham Farmelo’s account of the life of Paul Dirac. Molecular biology comes alive via Brenda Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, Georgina Ferry’s excellent account of Max Perutz, and courtesy of Robert Olby’s account of Francis Crick’s life and work. Perutz was Crick’s PhD supervisor and it is especially illuminating to read about both sides of this particular mentor/pupil relationship.

But my favorite in this genre is Janet Browne’s two-volume biography of Charles Darwin. It is, in the true sense of the word, magisterial. Browne, who is the doyenne of Darwin scholars, manages to keep your interest from the first page of the first volume, Voyaging, all the way through to the last page (1,222 pages later!) of the second volume The Power of Place. The two volumes are now available in paperback and they are well worth the relatively modest investment. Browne wears her considerable scholarship lightly. The two volumes represent a wealth of research, analysis, and synthesis, but the end result seems effortless.

What I had not realized, until I found copies in Aadrvark Books (see the previous blog), is that Janet Browne had contributed to a series of biographies of “books that shook the world”; it is not surprising that her contribution is entitled “Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography”. In it Janet Browne manages to condense all of her Darwin scholarship into a modest-sized paperback. The first of its five chapters, “Beginnings”, covers Darwin’s life from his childhood until he returned to Falmouth, England, in October, 1836, “a changed man but not yet an evolutionist” (p. 34). The next chapter, “A theory by which to work,” in just 28 pages traces the evolution of Darwin’s ideas about evolution, and takes us up to the publication of the subject of the biography. The focus of the last two chapters is obvious from their titles, “Controversy” and “Legacy”.

This is a gem of a book. It is a model of fine writing and concision. Even if you think you are a Darwin expert, I urge you to read it. It is an ideal way to introduce students to Darwin – it will give them the confidence to tackle Darwin’s own Origin of Species, and it will ensure that they profit from that experience.

Last, but not least, it is available from your friendly on-line bookstore for just under $9! Buy a dozen and give them to your students. Better still, send one to your elected representative.


Browne J (2003) Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 – Voyaging. 2nd Edition. Pimlico: London. ISBN-10: 0712668373. ISBN-13: 978-0712668378.

Browne J (2003) Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2 – Power of Place. 2nd Edition. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ. ISBN-10: 0691114390. ISBN-13: 978-0691114392.

Browne J (2008) Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography. Series: Books That Changed the World. Grove Press: New York. ISBN-10: 0802143466. ISBN-13: 978-0802143464.

Farmelo G (2011) The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom. Basic Books: New York. ISBN-10: 0465022103. ISBN-13: 978-0465022106.

Ferry G (2008) Max Perutz and the Secret of Life. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press: New York. ISBN-10: 0879697857. ISBN-13: 978-0879697853.

Maddox B (2003) Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. Harper Perennial: New York. ISBN-10: 0060985089. ISBN-13: 978-0060985080.

Olby R (2009) Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press: New York. ISBN-10: 0879697989. ISBN-13: 978-0879697983.

Weiner J (2000) Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior. Vintage: New York. ISBN-10: 0679763902. ISBN-13: 978-0679763901.