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In 1858 Charles Darwin was forty-nine years old, a gentleman scientist living quietly at Down House in the Kent countryside, respected by fellow biologists and well liked among his wide and distinguished circle of acquaintances. He was not yet a focus of debate; his “big book on species” still lay on his study desk in the form of a huge pile of manuscript. For more than twenty years he had been accumulating material for it, puzzling over questions it raised, trying—it seemed endlessly—to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Publication appeared to be as far away as ever, delayed by his inherent cautiousness and wish to be certain that his startling theory of evolution was correct.
It is at this point that the concluding volume of Janet Browne’s biography opens. The much-praised first volume, Voyaging, carried Darwin’s story through his youth and scientific apprenticeship, the adventurous Beagle voyage, his marriage…[more]