Roy Lotz's Reviews > The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82 by Charles Darwin
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bookshelves: history-of-science, biography-memoir-travel, anglophilia

I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

This is the quintessential scientific autobiography, a brief and charming book that Darwin wrote “for nearly an hour on most afternoons” for a little over two months. Originally published in 1887—five years after the naturalist’s death—it was somewhat censored, the more controversial religious opinions being taken out. It was only in 1958, to celebrate the centennial of The Origin of Species, that the full version was restored, edited by one of Darwin’s granddaughters, Nora Barlow.

The religious opinions that Darwin expresses are, nowadays, not enough to raise eyebrows. In short, his travels and his research slowly eroded his faith until all that remained was an untroubled agnosticism. What is interesting is that Darwin attributes to his loss of faith his further loss of sensitivity to music and to grand natural scenes. Apparently, in later life he found himself unable to experience the sublime. His scientific work also caused him to lose his appreciation for music, pictures, and poetry, which he heartily regrets: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he says, and attributes to this the fact that “for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry.”

The most striking and lovable of Darwin’s qualities is his humility. He notes his lack of facility with foreign languages (which partially caused him to refuse Marx’s offer to dedicate Kapital to him), his terrible ear for music, his difficulty with writing, his incompetence in mathematics, and repeatedly laments his lack of higher aesthetic sensitivities. His explanation for his great scientific breakthrough is merely a talent for observation and dogged persistence. He even ends the book by saying: “With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important point.” It is remarkable that such a modest and retiring man should have stirred up one of the greatest revolutions in Western thought. Few thinkers have been more averse to controversy.

This little book also offers some reflection on the development of his theory—with the oft-quoted paragraph about reading Malthus—as well as several good portraits of contemporary thinkers. But the autobiography is not nearly as full as one might expect, since Darwin skips over his voyage on the Beagle (he had already written an excellent book about it) and since the second half of his life was extremely uneventful. For Darwin developed a mysterious ailment that kept his mostly house-bound, so much so that he did not even go to his father’s funeral. The explanation eluded doctors in his time and has resisted firm diagnosis ever since. But the consensus seems to be that it was at least in part psychological. It did give Darwin a convenient excuse to avoid society and focus on his work.

The final portrait which emerges is that of a scrupulous, methodical, honest, plainspoken, diffident, and level-headed fellow. It is easy to imagine him as a retiring uncle or a reserved high school teacher. That such a man, through a combination of genius and circumstance—and do not forget that he almost did not go on that famous voyage—could scandalize the public and make a fundamental contribution to our picture of the universe, is perhaps the greatest argument that ever was against the eccentric genius trope.
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Reading Progress

March 2, 2014 – Shelved
March 2, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
April 6, 2015 – Shelved as: history-of-science
June 7, 2016 – Shelved as: biography-memoir-travel
Started Reading
July 26, 2018 – Finished Reading
July 28, 2018 – Shelved as: anglophilia

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by T.D. (new)

T.D. Whittle Excellent review, Roy. I wonder if he was depressed? That would account for his social withdrawal and his anhedonia too. Obviously, we can never know, but I know plenty of atheists who enjoy poetry and music and nature, so it makes me curious. It seems as if his life overall must have felt quite diminished in the last years.

message 2: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz T.D. wrote: "Excellent review, Roy. I wonder if he was depressed? That would account for his social withdrawal and his anhedonia too. Obviously, we can never know, but I know plenty of atheists who enjoy poetry..."

Thanks! For my part I didn't get the impression that Darwin was unhappy, though admittedly such things can be hard to tell. He does not complain at all and expresses only a few regrets. I should also mention that he professes an unbounded love for novels to the end of his life. So he was not entirely devoid of pleasures.

message 3: by Travelin (new)

Travelin I once spent a little time documenting what a wretched geneticist Darwin was (marrying his first cousin, but "shocked" that his daughter died young), along with being an out-and-out racist:

message 4: by T.D. (new)

T.D. Whittle Roy wrote: "T.D. wrote: "Excellent review, Roy. I wonder if he was depressed? That would account for his social withdrawal and his anhedonia too. Obviously, we can never know, but I know plenty of atheists who..."

Ah, thanks for clarifying. Good to know. I'd hate to think his last years were distressing for him.

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