Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. Edited by Nora Barlow. New York: WWW. Norton & Company, Inc. 1993. Reissued 2005.

Darwin’s autobiography has gone through several evolutions of its own, and finally emerged in its intact, original & intended form about fifty years ago. It was later published in paperback by Norton Paperback and was reissued in 2005. That is the edition under review.

An autobiography is generally expected to provide insights on the author’s thoughts and feelings and experiences. In reality, most autobiographies are just another face that the author (or the author’s family, in this case) carefully presents to the world.

The author creates a persona he wants known as his “real self” – a persona that may contradict the known facts – or the author may edit out significant events of his or her life in order to create a perfect reality.

To gauge the extent that Darwin’s autobiography follows this strategy we’ll review, the origin of the autobiography, its publication history, as well as the content and omissions.

Genesis of the Autobiography

Darwin tells us, as a way of introduction, that the autobiography was suggested to him by a German editor; Darwin thought “the attempt would amuse me and might possibly interest my children or their children.” He began writing on May 31st, 1876, when was already sixty-seven years old, and almost seventeen years had passed since the publication of On the Origin of Species. Clearly, it was written at a time when Darwin had much to look back on. He may have taken this opportunity not just to amuse himself and his descendants but also to set the record straight, so to speak.

According to the introduction provided by Nora Barlow, Darwin’s granddaughter, Darwin wrote his autobiography in about three months but then expanded it by an additional sixty seven pages in the last six years of his life. The current edition represents the original draft plus the additions, grafted into the appropriate chapters.

History of Publication

That there was desire to mold and control the public perception of Darwin is never clearer than in the introduction provided by Barlow. The first publication in 1887, which was controlled by Darwin’s wife and surviving children, went through an editing process that excised some significant passages pertaining to Darwin’s religious beliefs, as well as some occasional commentary that may have offended still-living friends or colleagues of Darwin.

The need to protect the public image of Darwin would certainly be paramount to the family; though apparently some members thought that Darwin would have wanted the unexpurgated manuscript published. I think a case could easily be made for the latter viewpoint, after all Darwin certainly wrote it after a request from an editor. And the fact is he never instructed otherwise (that is, not to publish).

Barlow suggests that in reality Darwin’s thoughts were never intended for publication and certain family members (Henrietta Darwin, in particular) believed that publishing the manuscript as-is would damage his reputation. As a member of the succeeding generation, Barlow believed that the omissions were not of such great consequence as to necessitate expurgation. In fact, she had them restored in the 1958 edition of the Autobiography.

After reading the Autobiography, I would have to concur with Barlow – perhaps the passage of time and the general change in the centrality of religion was the significant factor affecting the perception.

Summary of the Text

Aside from the posthumous editing, the Autobiography is rather short—only about one hundred pages for the proper autobiographical section; that is, excluding the appendix, and notes.

The Autobiography briefly discusses growing up; his education; the seminal event of his life: the voyage of the Beagle, his marriage and; and finally his life at Down House, working and raising a family.

Upon my initial reading of the Autobiography, I was struck by how modest Darwin sounded. He downplayed his achievements (how could he only take a mere one hundred pages to tell the story of his long eventful life?) and exaggerated his faults.

To the degree that I was unfamiliar with his large body of work and the details of his efforts in producing the work, I fell for this humble act. I genuinely believed that he’d been extraordinarily lucky and it might well have been someone else who could easily have come up with the theory of evolution, much as he had done. Once I began reading his works, I realized how wrong I was.

Darwin was certainly modest, and the paragon of politeness and decency – his letters show his solicitousness. But, in his Autobiography I think the missing detail of his day-to-day work (captured in his notebooks and his actual publications) makes it hard to assess his industry and originality.

Darwin’s recollection of his time in Edinburgh and Cambridge as dissipated seems to be an obvious act of humility or simply the statements of an overachiever. He made too many scientific connections to have just been idling. He presented his first scientific paper at the age of 18 to the Plinian Society in Edinburgh.  Rebecca Stott claims in Darwin and the Barnacle that Charles and his brother Erasmus checked out more books from the library during his first term at the University than most students did during the entire year.

Another interesting episode is that of the first publication of On the Origin of Species. He lets others take the responsibility (eg: Hooker and Lyell) for co-opting Wallace. Clearly, Darwin wanted to maintain his distance from the rough politics of science. And he certainly let T.H. Huxley fight his battles, after publication!

In the Autobiography, Darwin emerges as a solid family man, who loved his wife and children dearly. He was also a decent human being and a genius.

As an introduction to Darwin or simply for insight into Darwin’s personality, I strongly recommend the Autobiography. But, do read some of his other works, or at least get an overview of the scope of his work. I think the Autobiography highly understates him.

Marta Cervantes

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