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A weighty new biography shows Charles Darwin in a 'chaos of

delight' at the beauty of bugs, but still clinging to Christianity

THIS is the first part of a projected two-volume biography. Charles Darwin: Voyaging covers the period from Darwin's birth in Shrewsbury in February 1809 to his long-delayed decision, in May 1856, to write out his book on the theory of evolution. Janet Browne has an impressive knowledge of the archive (she worked for years on the Cambridge edition of Darwin's correspondence) and plenty of room to demonstrate it: her two volumes should add up to at least 1,000 pages.

She begins with a brisk introduction to Darwin's financially comfortable family, his mother a member of the Wedgwood potter family, his father an astute doctor whose own father, Erasmus Darwin, propounded evolutionary ideas in his book Zoonomia and his poem "The Temple of Nature" (he also turned down a request from George III to be the royal "mad-doctor"). She adds little to previous accounts of his outwardly unremarkable childhood, however, and makes no use of John Bowlby's striking discussion (in Charles Darwin, 1990) of Darwin's reaction to his mother's death when he was eight.

The academic politics and general intellectual set of Edinburgh, where Darwin spent two years as an increasingly discontented medical student from 1825-27, are well described, and Browne's account of Darwin at Cambridge from 1828-31, ostensibly preparing for ordination but more often occupied with shooting ("bliss on earth"), riding, dining and increasingly passionate beetling ("I am dying by inches, from not having anybody to talk to about insects") has a good flat clarity.

Darwin combined ambition with dilatoriness, high spirits with reserve, geniality with ob- stinacy, conservatism with innate intellectual radicalism, and deep independence of mind with a habit of intellectual discipleship that seemed to some like toadying. He was kind to many; to others he appeared proud, "aloof, snobbish in a certain withdrawn way". All in all he was a rather normal, clever young man, uncertain of his calling.

Browne allows herself 180 pages for the voyage of HMS Beagle from 1831-6, and is able to give a more measured sense of the whole than Adrian Desmond and James Moore (in their Darwin, 1991), for all their happy laconic zip. As she points out, Darwin spends nearly two thirds of the voyage on land - his mind, as he says, "a perfect hurricane of delight" on the Cap Verde islands, "a chaos of delight" in the Brazilian forest near Bahia, "red hot with spiders" near Rio de Janeiro, where he writes in the saddle: "twiners entwining twiners - tresses like hair - beautiful lepidoptera - silence - hosannah". He has enormous stamina. He rides all day, shoots well, sleeps rough, practises throwing the bolas, smokes cigarritos, grows a black beard. In Tierra del Fuego he feels like a bear in an overcoat, a chimney sweep, a grand "banditti". He witnesses an earthquake and a volcanic eruption on the west coast of South America. He sees that the earth is a harsher thing than the "soft green object" (in Browne's words) of England.

As a collector he concentrates on insects and very small animals: "Many of these creatures so low in the scale of nature are most exquisite in their forms & rich colours. - It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for so little purpose." Wonder like this tips into scepticism about divine creation, but Darwin remains a believer (according to his autobiography) throughout the voyage of the Beagle.

Back home he takes up his life's work, publishing The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle (1838-43), his Journal of Researches (1839), and his books on coral reefs, volcanic islands, and the geology of South America (1842-46), spreading his nets of correspondence wide, filling his notebooks with wonderful speculations on the origin of species, and launching into eight years of work on his "beloved barnacles". In January 1839 he marries his cousin Emma Wedgwood. The first of their ten children is born in December 1839, the last in 1856. His chronic illness establishes itself (Bowlby argues plausibly that it was hyperventilation syndrome), and in 1842 the family moves from Gower Street in London to Down House in Kent. Darwin's first sketch of the theory of evolution dates from 1838; he writes it out in some detail in 1844, but hesitates to publish, anxious for further proofs, afraid of the controversy and the offence to his wife's Christianity.

Browne handles the great tide of facts reasonably well, but this is not the "definitive natural history" of Charles Darwin, as David Bellamy claims in the publicity material. Browne's exposition of Darwin's theories is often rather unclear, and is not always sufficiently complete even for biographical purposes. She also regularly and frustratingly fails to give any clear indication of whether the theories are right or wrong. Her book lacks the penetration - and factual brilliance - of Desmond and Moore's biography.

There is a more serious problem. Whatever her conscious sentiments, Browne does not appear to like Darwin very much. As the book progresses, it acquires a backtaste of animosity. It is as if she feels that Darwin has been too much and too easily loved, not least by his biographers. This is her right, but her apparent ill-spiritedness, however well suppressed, interferes with her understanding. So does her obsession with class, and her mistaken determination - which she shares with Desmond and Moore - to see Darwin's theory of evolution as quintessentially a product of the social and political conditions of his time.

She asserts that "the theory of natural selection could only have emerged out of the competitive context of Victorian England", and that "Darwin could only have hit upon it by thinking of the living world as a financial balance sheet". There is no reason to believe this dogmatic historicism. Like many others, Browne cannot feel the autonomy of the realm of ideas, scientific or otherwise. She underestimates its openness to accident and the contingency of genius, and the extent to which it has its own imperatives, its own internal dynamic, its own processes of evolution, its own history. If David Hume had become a passionate naturalist, and had gone round the world a century before Darwin, I have no doubt that he would have hit on the theory of evolution by natural selection, and that the historicists would have dutifully referred us to Adam Smith and the origins of the industrial revolution.

Letters raise very special and delicate issues of interpretation. Browne misreads homesickness as prejudice, unexceptionable patriotism as ugly nationalism. Mocking Darwin for his prejudice with regard to other cultures, she displays exactly the attitude she criticises. Her Darwin "gushes", "crows" and "brags", as Darwin did not. There are other objections to her gen-erally worthwhile book - the clich-shattered opening, the mistake on the second page, the shifting of an 1836 letter well into 1837 for the sake of a neat ending - but the main problem, perhaps, is one of temperament. Sympathy is an indispensable research tool, and Brown doesn't sufficiently understand her subject.

! 'Charles Darwin: Voyaging' by Janet Browne is published by Jonathan Cape, £25.