Saturday, June 20, 2009

Review of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882 by Charles Darwin Edited by Nora Barlow

Review of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882
By Charles Darwin, Edited by Nora Barlow

-Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

In her edited version of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow, granddaughter of the legendary Charles Darwin, revives sections on religious and contemporary thinkers that two important women in his life, his wife and daughter, purposely censored due to the sensitivity and controversial nature of his religious views and thoughts on his still-living-at-the-time contemporaries. What Barlow’s edition adds to the previous incomplete ones is a compelling introduction on context, the evolution of the editions, and the reason for previous exclusion of these sections, restoration of sections that were once thought to be potentially harmful to the family patriarch’s reputation, detailed footnotes on historical and social context, and appendices including importance correspondence letters concerning life events, including the initial disapproval of Darwin’s plea to go on the Beagle by his father as well as the Butler controversy. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin is great for learning more about Darwin’s personality rather than the gravity and details of his body of scientific work.

Originally written in 1876 at the ripe old age of 67, Darwin’s autobiography is a well-thought over self-reflection of the life of a scientist and shy recluse. Filled with tales of awe of nature, boyhood academic troubles, and scientific discovery, this autobiography is intended for the private audience of his family. It is clear that Darwin wants his children and grandchildren to remember him as an exceedingly scientific man, who was loving, but often kept to himself. The reader must be careful of the assumptions that are made when one writes a memoir of himself with a specific intended audience; an autobiography reveals how he views himself and how he wants to be remembered.

As goes his reputation and evidenced by this work, Darwin was first and foremost, a scientist. In his autobiography, we see the beginnings of his empirical explorations of nature from his boyhood appreciation of beetles to his collection of animal and plant species aboard the HMS Beagle to his later extensive document of Cirripedia. From his personal writings surrounding the publication of his scientific ideas, a humble and thankful Darwin emerges. In explaining the reception of On the Origin of Species, his seminal work, Darwin thanks fellow contemporary thinkers and friends, Lyell, Hooker, and Wallace for their contributions. To me, this was somewhat conflicting with the Darwin that wrote the introduction to the On the Origin of Species, who was often reluctant to cite potential competitor scientists or family members as influencing his thoughts.

However, this edition of the autobiography made me more excited about two other aspects of Darwin’s life: 1) the women in it and 2) his views on religion. Young Charles’ first memory involves sitting on the knee of his sister Caroline and being cut accidentally by her. Often recalling memories together, Darwin was clearly close to his sisters. Another possible influential womanly figure in his life seems to be his late mother, who he does not remember much of, except for her black dress in death or his mom’s saying that she would only ask him to do things that would be good for him. The citing the death and absence of his mother numerous times leaves the reader wondering about the effect of this event on Darwin. Moreover, Darwin’s love for his wife, Emma Wedgwood is endearing and brings out the loving husband and wife in Darwin. He speaks lovingly and appreciative of her and takes the time to discuss religion, a topic of genuine concern for Emma. Women who are notably missing detail or mention at all in this autobiography include his beloved daughter Annie, who died at a young age.

Barlow’s edition of the autobiography is most strengthened by its addition of the previously omitted comments on religion. In it, Darwin is depicted as a man who cannot accept a divine design of nature, with his observations and empirical discoveries of nature and natural selection at work. Instead of focusing on critiquing a deity, he seems to bolster the importance of nature and natural selection. From his musings, it appears that Darwin did not just jump to the conclusion that there is not a divine maker in the sense of the Bible immediately, but came to this realization after extensive observations and reflections on the empirical data.

The society the people within it that Darwin describes serve as a way for the reader to learn about the historical and social climate at the time of his work. It is quite shocking that Darwin’s theory continues to be debatable although the environmental climate today is more religiously critical and scientifically based than the one of his day. While this autobiography does a great job developing the persona of Darwin for the reader, its brevity does not do his scientific theory justice, with only brief mention or summary of his ideas. Perhaps this is fitting to a familial audience, but for aspiring and critical scientists, his treatises including On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man may be more useful.


Mark Pallen said...

You are right to note how little space is given to discussion of the death of Darwin's daughter, Annie. However, she is mentioned briefly:

"We have suffered only one very severe grief in the death of Annie at Malvern on April 24th, 1851, when she was just over ten years old. She was a most sweet and affectionate child, and I feel sure would have grown into a delightful woman. But I need say nothing here of her character, as I wrote a short sketch of it shortly after her death. Tears still sometimes come into my eyes, when I think of her sweet ways."

But note that Darwin never says anything here or anywhere that Annie's death had any impact on his religious beliefs. This is a modern myth.

Anonymous said...

As a struggling writer I found his insights and struggles with the same encouraging and inspiring. It strips the myth and fantasy off and reveals a man with genuine doubts but not carried along by the romance of modern day skepticism. Excellent book!