On November 14th, Janet Browne braved another Cape Air trip and returned to Colby to speak on the ‘Darwin’s Origin of Species’, her biographical work on Charles Darwin. In reading her book, I was very pleased with the amount of information supplied on the topic. Browne adds well-considered tangential information to the work, which encourages readers to venture off and explore related topics on their own. This helps keep Browne’s book lightweight and pleasantly readable throughout.
To me, reading a biography focused on Darwin himself enabled me to consider his theories in an entirely new light. While I had never learned about Darwin formally as a component of my curriculum, his study of evolution has always been present in my education. His work had always been presented as fact. However, I had never learned about his early life, his educational aspirations, or his family life. I feel that each one of these points of conversation have allowed me to consider Darwin more holistically. Janet Browne does an excellent job of presenting Charles Darwin as a human, first and foremost; something which is often lost in more scientifically oriented texts.
Stories about Darwin’s hardships, like enduring the deaths of three of his children, show the tremendous impact of his personal life on his intellectual endeavors. In losing three children, he was seeing his own theory of natural selection play out right in front of him.
With such an excellent book and domain expertise like no other, I was very excited for the opportunity to discuss with and learn from Janet Browne during our extended afternoon seminar. Much to my dismay, though, it seemed very much that Browne had arrived with a set-in-stone agenda which ended up feeling much like she was leading a book-club. She asked a series of simple questions to the class and insisted on going around the room to hear everybody’s long-winded answers on e.g. whether they were taught evolution in school. I was rather sad about this and felt it to be an inefficient use of time, given that we had the expert on Darwin’s life in front of us.
One topic which I found particularly engaging and attempted multiple times to query about in class was the close relationship between the eugenics movement and Darwin’s work. Although Dr. Browne did entertain some conversation on the matter, it seemed her focus on the topic was mainly to insist that Darwin was a ‘good man’ whose work was perverted by a handful of people. She did also suggest at some points that the eugenics movement in its initial phases was an honorable attempt at improving humanity.
I was extremely thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Browne. Her extensive knowledge of her domain is inspiring and privilege to benefit from. However, I do wish that she had dared venture outside of her immediate comfort zone when asked questions tangential to her immediate expertise.