Autobiography of Charles Darwin: A Book Review and Reflection on the Personality

What better way to get started toward understanding Charles the Person than with his own words about himself.  In 1876, at age 67, seven years before his death, Charles wrote Recollections of the Development of my Mind and Character for the benefit of his wife, Emma, and his seven living children.  He begins with a passage that shows his humility and his intent:

 

A German Editor having written to me for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.  I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read ever so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather, written by himself, and what he thought and did, and how he worked.  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.

 

Unlike his Victorian peers, his style of writing is easy, direct, approachable – and revealing.  I enjoyed these 79 pages more than any other by Charles Darwin.  Of course, it would not be important to read these recollections without his other more important books.   By 1876, Charles was aware of his global fame and therefore the public fascination with himself.  Were it not for the controversy he fueled in British society, he would have been knighted by Queen Victoria, as were some of his close friends (and, later, even some of his own sons).  Yet British society showed its enormous respect by interring the unknighted Darwin almost beside Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. 

 

Charles’s Testament to His Heirs

 

He was pleased by the success of his books and his theory but distressed by the way his writing so distressed others.  A determinedly private man, Charles refused to engage publically with the socio-scientific-religious dust storm he had kicked up.  He fully expected a quiet burial in the Downe church cemetery, but this was not a man whose contribution to science and society lay undiscovered until after his death.  He had a profound effect on his peers, and he knew it.  Yet, in acceding to requests for his autobiography, he wrote as father and husband, aware that like his own curiosity to really know his nearly-as-famous grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, his children and grandchildren would want to know how he thought, worked and lived.  This was his testament to his heirs.

 

Can We Trust Charles’s Account of Himself?

 

Charles was aware of his success in achieving the scientific stature he clearly craved yet remarkably frank about his own shortcomings.  Did he engage in false humility?  Only a little, if at all.  Can we really trust what this man has written about himself?  Yes, I think we can.  Charles observed his own life with the same dispassionate acumen he applied to the natural world, but surely nothing is more difficult to observe with dispassion than one’s own life.  The best we can hope to get directly from Charles is an honest portrait of his self-image, an accurate rendition of what his memory chose to hold on to over the decades.  I suspect we do indeed get the best in this sense.  Emma Wedgwood, his wife and first cousin, knew Charles literally all his life and found him the most open man of her acquaintance (we would say “transparent” these days), a major reason she gave for falling in love with him.  His openness of mind and demeanor, and even writing style, made Charles stand out as exceptional in a generation given to artifice and ceremony.  By his nature, he seems worthy of our careful trust in what he has to say about himself.

 

A Passion for Collecting

 

Charles remembered that by the age of eight, “my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed.  I collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals.”  This passion for collecting extended in his teenage and university years to insects, especially beetles.  “But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles.”  His mind kept “indelible impressions of many beetles” he encountered, as one might remember time, place, and circumstances of meeting a fascinating person.  Just by the subtle shift in his writing of these lines, an increased intensity and detail, I can sense his passion.  Today, Charles would certainly have become an avid birder, like me, keeping detailed lists of species seen, lists which evoke vivid, colorful, detailed memories of the birds themselves and the circumstances of finding them.  We share this odd collector’s mentality. 

 

A Passion for Shooting (and Keeping Records)

 

Unlike me, Charles also had a passion for shooting (we would call it “hunting” these days), which was how one studied birds in those days (the double-barreled shotgun was the predecessor of the double-barreled binocular).  His “zeal for shooting in autumn” extended to keeping “an exact record of every bird shot through the whole season” which made him the butt of jokes by his “wicked friends.”  “I must have been half-consciously ashamed of my zeal.  I tried to persuade myself that shooting was almost an intellectual employment.”

 

Youthful Shortcomings

 

I can see in this admission a reflection of Charles’s self-consciousness about his youthful shortcomings.  Respect for the intellectual life was instilled in him, no doubt, by his intellectually distinguished father and grandfather.  Respect for the industrious life was instilled, too, by his father, a well-regarded physician, and his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood II, who made Wedgwood china the dinnerware of royalty.  As a boy and even as a young man, Charles was neither intellectual nor industrious in usual sense.  He was never a good student.  To him a classical grade school education was a waste, most university lectures a tedious bore, “maths” was repugnant, and his medical education at Edinburgh was distressing, even haunting.  “During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language.”  He was hilarious among friends for his tin ear and inability to remember even simple musical tunes.  He thought his school masters and his father considered him “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”  His father even once made the stinging remark that “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”  Charles excused this as an uncharacteristic outburst by “… the kindest man I ever knew, and whose memory I love with all my heart …” Nonetheless, the threat of disapproval by his beloved but remote father lingered long into Charles’s adult life.

 

Intelligently Curious and Socially at Ease

 

In contrast, Charles clearly possessed deep native intelligence and curiosity, as well as a confident and pleasing social character.  Reflecting more positively on his school life, he wrote “I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing.”  He loved reading books, and regretted that later in life he lost all pleasure from poetry of any kind.  He often took long, solitary walks and loved to ride (horses, of course) across beautiful landscapes.  But Charles was hardly a loner.  He made many friends at school and considered his disposition to be very affectionate.  He was at ease in society and adept at making friends with those who shared his general interests in collecting, riding, and shooting – and later in science. 

 

A Companion of Distinguished Men of Science

 

Most important for an unaccomplished youth, Charles’s personal qualities of openness, enthusiasm, curiosity, drive to understand, passion for nature, personal charm, and gentleman’s manners enabled him to become the companion of several distinguished men of science, when science was still known as “natural philosophy” and not quite yet an acceptable university major.  These men, especially Cambridge University Professor Henslow, the pioneering botanist, saw more in Charles than he could see in himself.  As Charles put it, “Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above-mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them.”

 

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

 

What they saw recommended him for the opportunity of a lifetime, to travel as Captain FitzRoy’s gentleman companion and unofficial ship’s naturalist on the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle to map the coasts of southern South America and to circumnavigate the globe to take chronometric measurements.  Charles’s personal qualities prepared him well for integration with the socially diverse crew of the Beagle for five long years, 1831-1836, and his many arduous collecting expeditions from various ports of call.  In these Recollections, Charles treats the voyage briefly, referring the reader to his first published  book on the topic, but he sums up simply, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career …”  He felt he owed to the voyage his first real education.  “I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.”

 

Imagine such a gift of opportunity to a young man!  It was almost a fluke, and he would have passed it up, except for the intervention of his Uncle Jos(iah Wedgwood II) with his skeptical father.  Unpromising as Charles was for a standard career in English society, his mentors recognized exceptional qualities that might be nurtured by an exceptional experience.  The voyage of the Beagle was one of many expeditions of exploration, especially following in the wake of Captain Cook’s voyages.  And many ship’s naturalists and medical officers collected specimens of all sorts and reported their findings to a society eager to learn about the world beyond Britain and Europe – in fact, Charles was able to draw on their work to put his own observations in global perspective.  To his generation, these voyages of discovery were equivalent in fascination to our exploration of space.  Even as late as the 1830s, it was still almost easy to discover something new and interesting for science and society simply by traveling the world.  If he could capture his observations and experiences in good English prose, his reports would have a guaranteed, eager audience.  However, there was nothing so unusual about Charles or the voyage of the Beagle that a scientific breakthrough would inevitably result.  His personal qualities, the mentors he gathered, and pure chance delivered him to this fabulous opportunity.  It was then solely up to Charles to make something very special of it.

 

Perspective Gained from Knowing the Young Man

 

Charles continued in his Recollections to briefly recount the people, places and events of his life from the departure of the Beagle from Portsmouth in December 1831 to his writing them down during May-August 1876.  I won’t summarize these recollections here, as the facts are recorded in other letters and books by and about Darwin.  I will review and reflect on many of these in later blog postings.  What is particularly important about his Recollections is that we have little else to tell us the story of Charles’s life and its influences during the formative years before his momentous voyage.  I believe that understanding the basic personality and the experiences that formed it into a young man is fundamental for putting his later life and work in proper perspective.  I will return to this theme repeatedly. 

 

I found Charles’s Recollections in a small volume reprinted from the Life of Charles Darwin, edited by his son, Sir Francis Darwin.  The volume was published as a small hardcover book, No. 7 in The Thinker’s Library, published by Watts & Co. (London) in 1929.  It is titled Autobiograhy of Charles Darwin with Two Appendices, comprising a Chapter of Reminiscences and a Statement of Charles Darwin’s Religious Views, by his Son, Sir Francis Darwin (Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge).  I will review the chapter and statement by Charles’s son in upcoming postings.

 

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

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1 Response to “Autobiography of Charles Darwin: A Book Review and Reflection on the Personality”


  1. 1 RBH July 16, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    I’m looking forward to this series with anticipation. This fall I’ll be teaching a college course (a new one for me) on the history of the religious, socio-cultural, and scientific controversies surrounding the theory of evolution, starting with the 19th century pre-Darwinian state of affairs, and I’m going to assign your series as part of the background reading for the course. 🙂


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Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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