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Charles Darwin


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Darwin wrote this short autobiography for his family between the ages of 67 and 71, starting in 1876. It was not intended for publication, and when it was published, shortly after its author's death, certain passages, mainly those in which he criticised religion were omitted. This was because some of his family members, especially his widow, felt that they should not be included. The present version, edited by Darwin's grand-daughter, Nora Barlow, restored these passages. It also included some other biographical material not reviewed here.

The autobiography begins with Charles's memories of his father, Dr Robert Darwin. He was a physician, and evidently a very successful one, although Charles tells us that he had not wished to follow that profession. He was evidently a man of remarkable intuition, who often guessed what was troubling a patient before being told.

Charles was supposed to follow his father's example and become a physician, and went to Edinburgh to study medicine; but he disliked the lectures, which he thought a most unsatisfactory way of teaching, and he was horrified by seeing an operation being performed without anaesthesia. He therefore left and went to Cambridge, where his interest in science began to develop, although slowly at first.

The decisive event in his life was, of course, the voyage of the Beagle, which provided the experiences that were ultimately the source of his theory of natural selection. That is touched on only briefly here, since Darwin had already published a detailed account of the voyage.

He returned to England in October, 1836, and in January, 1839, he married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. A few years later, in 1842, he bought Down House, which was to be his home for the rest of his life.

Darwin provides a frank account of his loss of religious faith, and one can understand why this would have distressed bis wife, who remained a firm believer. Darwin himself began life as a convinced Christian (unlike his father), but his faith gradually faded away as he thought more about it. 'Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted, even for a single second, that my conclusions were correct.'

He describes himself, nevertheless, as agnostic about the existence of God (though not about the immortality of the soul). He reviews various reasons that have made so many people believe in a god or gods, but finds all of them unconvincing. At the time he wrote The Origin of Species he still thought that there must be some First Cause with an intelligent mind, but that is no longer the case now: 'since that time … [my belief] has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker.' But he feels he cannot fully trust this conclusion, because the human mind has evolved from that of the 'lowest animal' and so cannot be relied on to reach certainty in such matters. 'The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.'

Darwin tells us that when he was younger he felt awe and devotion while standing in a Brazilian forest, but now such feelings have completely deserted him and he is 'colour-blind' in respect of them. Elsewhere he remarks that he has also lost his former keen appreciation of poetry, pictures, and music, although he still reading novels (provided they end happily). But the love of natural history remained with him to the end.

Most of the rest of the Autobiography deals with Darwin's scientific work. There are also quick impressions of people he has known, mostly appreciative although occasionally biting. His scientific work was undertaken in the face of continual bouts of ill-health, which sometimes prevented his working for months at a time. There is no general agreement today about the nature of this illness, although some of its features would fit a description of what we call chronic fatigue today (this, of course, is itself an illness about which there is enormous uncertainty and disagreement).

Darwin's integrity and honesty about himself emerge very clearly here. In his concluding pages he offers an assessment of his own character and abilities.

Of these the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important points.

%T The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
%A edited by Nora Barlow
%I Collins
%C London
%D 1958
%P 124pp
%K autobiography
%O edited by his grand-daughter, Nora Barlow

5 January 2012

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