Book Review: Our Time

The audiobook reviewed is ‘In Our Time’. I’ve classed it here as an audiobook but it is a collection of several episodes of the BBC Radio 4 series ‘In Our Time’ which examine the life and works of Charles Darwin. This audiobook comes at a significant time given that it is the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’. Melvyn Bragg interviews several prominent figures including Professor Steve Jones and Darwin biographer James Moore. He covers Darwins early life, then discusses the voyage of the Beagle before looking at the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ and finishes with a look at some of the events in Darwin’s later life. Such is the breadth of material covered that I found a vast amount of interest. It becomes evident on learning about Darwin’s life that ‘On the Origin of Species’ was not an insightful flash of genius on Darwin’s part but instead represented the cumulative results of a systematic study of different forms of life. Like Newton, who in his study of the diffraction of light made minute observations, so too did Darwin make the most detailed of observations. Testimony to this is his monograph on the Cirripedia (Barnacles) which was completed before ‘On the Origin of Species’ and which represented Darwin’s efforts to develop expertise on a single species before generalising to all species. This work included an analysis of fossil barnacles and an attempt to create a family tree for the barnacles. He had also worked as an entomologist and took a keen interest in geology. What was also conveyed clearly from the interviews in this audiobook was that Darwin created an elaborate network of many types. He was keen to develop relationships with relevant scientists and also had a global network of specimen collectors whom he corresponded with and he arranged for the transport of specimens through this network. This already suggests an immense drive on Darwin’s part for the study of his subject.

However there are a number of other features that combine favourably with these. In the interviews special significance is given to his grandfather. His grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a noted natural philosopher, physician and polymath who had written the book Zoonomia which already hints at evolution. I would argue that were Charles Darwin familiarised early in his life with his grandfather’s impressive work, he would have had ample time to both imitate his grandfather’s approach as well as to consider the profound principles that his grandfather had proposed. Here are a few quotes from Zoonomia (freely available here):-

In the preface Erasmus begins with

…A theory founded upon nature, that should bind together the scattered facts of medical knowledge, and converge into one point of view the laws of organic life, would thus on many accounts contribute to the interest of society

Here Erasmus draws a parallel between animal and plant physiology

‘This leads us to a curious enquiry, whether vegetables have ideas of external things? As all our ideas are originally received by our senses,the question may be changed to, whether vegetables possess any organs of sense? Certain it is, that they possess a sense of heat and cold, another of moisture and dryness, and another of light and darkness; for they close their petals occasionally from the presence of cold, moisture, or darkness’

Here Erasmus although disagreeing with it, draws a parallel between an animal and a machine

‘But all those actions of men or animals, that are attended with consciousness, and seem neither to have been directed by their appetites, taught by their experience, nor deduced from observation or tradition, have been referred to the power of instinct. And this power has been explained to be a _divine something_, a kind of inspiration; whilst the poor animal, that possesses it, has been thought little better than _a machine’

Here Erasmus shows evidence of detailed observations of a non-human primate – the Monkey

The monkey has a hand well enough adapted for the sense of touch, which contributes to his great facility of imitation; but in taking objects with his hands, as a stick or an apple, he puts his thumb on the same side of them with his fingers, instead of counteracting the pressure of his fingers with it

Here Erasmus shows a profound knowledge of migratory habits of chaffinches across Europe

‘Linnaeus has observed, that in Sweden the female chaffinches quit that country in September, migrating into Holland, and leave their mates behind till their return in spring’

Here Erasmus discusses imitation (or observational learning as it is now known) across animals and humans

Not only the greatest part of mankind learn all the common arts of life by imitating others, but brute animals seem capable of acquiring knowledge with greater facility by imitating each other, than by any methods by which we can teach them

Here Erasmus refers to a ‘similar living filament’ from which animals are derived. While this is not what he meant, it is interesting to note that animals are derived from filaments – the strands of DNA that code for the instructions on their construction.

when we revolve in our minds the great similarity of structure, which obtains in all the warm-blooded animals, as well quadrupeds, birds, and amphibious animals, as in mankind; from the mouse and bat to the elephant and whale; one is led to conclude, that they have alike been produced from a similar living filament

Here Erasmus hints at ‘perpetual transformations’ which could be thought of as analogous to adaptation

‘from their first rudiment, or primordium, to the termination of their lives, all animals undergo perpetual transformations’

Here Erasmus suggests that the filaments are common to animals and plants and that vegetation would have populated the earth before animals did so.

Shall we then say that the vegetable living filament was originally different from that of each tribe of animals above described? And that the productive living filament of each of those tribes was different originally from the other? Or, as the earth and ocean were probably peopled with vegetable productions long before the existence of animals; and many families of these animals long before other families of them, shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life? This idea of the gradual formation and improvement of the animal world accords with the observations of some modern philosophers

Another feature of Darwin’s life that combines favourably with that previously discussed was his place on the Voyage of the Beagle (see review here). This long voyage across the world must have been a very unique trip during that time and Darwin had secured a position on the Beagle. Charles Darwin’s book on the Voyage of the Beagle targetted at a general audience sold immediately on publication while the popularity of ‘On the Origin of Species’ speaks for itself. Thus Darwin by the time of his publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ had already developed an audience that was interested in his work and this was useful in the dissemination of his theory. In comparison, Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ (see review here) sold relatively few copies when it was first published. Darwin was also awarded the gold medal by the Royal Society on his return from the Voyage of the Beagle. From this audiobook, I was also surprised to find that Darwin is credited with the earliest research into hormones – plant hormones known as auxins which preceded the discovery of animal hormones by many decades. For this alone, it was argued that this would be sufficient to guarantee Darwin a place of significance. The series also looks at other aspects of Darwin’s life outside of his work.

After listening to this audiobook, it was tempting for me to speculate that Darwin’s work ‘On the Origin of Species’ (when he was aged 50) was contingent on the work of Erasmus Darwin culminating in Zoonomia (when he was aged 65) and that their combined age for the publication of both books was 115 years. This suggested to me that in both men there was a long term vision or even a considerable determination to pursue their work. They also exhibited an ability to gather a wide variety of data from across the world and to synthesise this information according to underlying principles.

In conclusion I found this production of ‘In Our Time’ useful and interesting as it contained a number of interviews with relevant specialists and these interviews conveyed a sense of Darwin’s work, the time in which he lived and the impact that his work has had.


Melvyn Bragg. In Our Time. Hodder Headline Limited. 2009.


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