Nature Notes

November 1, 2010

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , — Harold Stiver @ 6:00 am
John Collier?s 1883 portrait of Charles Darwin (detail)

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.

Charles Darwin and The Evolution of the Species

Public Domain

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)

Charles Darwin (English Heritage Photo Library)

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  1. Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle has been on my reading list for a long time, never got around to it. Now I am finding that his entire works, autobiography included, are available on Kindle for just $0.95! I can’t pass this up, although finding time for it is still going to be a problem…

    Comment by Hilke Breder — November 1, 2010 @ 7:33 am

  2. The story of Wallace (whose first name is Alfred by the way) and Darwin is a pretty fascinating one, and rather ironic that their ideas converged on the same solution, much the same way countless species convergently evolve solutions to challenges faced in their environments! Although Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published for the public, Wallace and Darwin shared authorship of the papers presented to the Linnean Society of London, thus making them equals in the eyes of science. It was ultimately Darwin’s greater social status which pushed him into the science textbooks, leaving Wallace as footnote until rather recently.

    Comment by Morgan Jackson — November 1, 2010 @ 9:49 am

  3. Thanks Hilke,

    I have been looking at the kindle and being able to get older books out of copyright at low prices seems like a great benifit. I’ve added Voyage to my list to read as well.

    Thanks, Harold

    Comment by Harold — November 1, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  4. Thanks Morgan,

    The interplay of Wallace and Darwin seemed very admirable to me. In my reading of Darwin’s letters in the book, it seems he was prepared to leave the credit to Wallace although he had been working on it for many years, and Wallace’s response was similarly magnanimous.

    Thank you for the name correction (which I have edited), I did not mean to credit the former Alabama Governor ;~).

    Your website looks very interesting!

    Cheers, Harold

    Comment by Harold — November 1, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

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