Charles Darwin (John Collier Portrait)
Charles Darwin wrote his autobiography in 1876 when he was an old man, over 40 years from his famous trip on the Beagle. By that time he was one of the most famous persons of his time and a figure of controversy. However the book was not written to answer his critics, as these engagements were normally done by others such as Thomas Huxley. In fact it was written for his wife and children, and not intended for the general public.
The autobiography is largely made up of excerpts from his letters to his friends and colleagues. Much of this material was introduced to the public in 1887 in a biography written by his son, Francis Darwin. Many modern readers will find it a bit dry but it is very revealing as to Darwin’s nature and character, less a narration of facts and dates.
Darwin was meticulous, very careful about his writings and took a long time to finish each of his books. This was compounded by the fact that he was often ill for long periods of time throughout his life and unable to work for weeks and months at a time. I was surprised to learn that ” On the Origin of Species” which outlined his theories on evolution was not published until 1858, 22 years after his voyage on the Beagle. It was actually to be a much longer writing and to be published much later, but it was done because Alfred Wallace had sent him a letter outlining his own similar theory, unaware of Darwin’s ideas. Both men acted with honor, as Wallace readily accepted Darwin’s ideas as earlier than his own, and Darwin’s friends made the facts publicly known as Darwin was reluctant to.
The book is fascinating for the many scientific ideas that Darwin worked on but I will leave them to the readers. I was very impressed with his character, a very honest and humble person, and at the same time, a person with the strength to declare for ideas he knew would be very unpopular.
If you have an interest in the natural world,especially biology and geology, I believe you will enjoy this book.
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin, 1887 (Barnes and Noble Edition 2005)
Charles Darwin (English Heritage Photo Library)