Monday, January 12, 2015

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Short but sweet
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin was originally published in 1887. Darwin began writing it in 1876, though the final chapter was not completed until 1881. He explains that he began writing this sketch of his life to satisfy a German editor who requested details on his intellectual development, but his son Francis Darwin, who edited the published version, states that the work was intended as a memento from the great scientist to his children. There are brief parenthetical notes by Francis throughout the text, but they are few and far between and don’t interfere with his father’s narrative voice. The reader can easily imagine himself in a lamplit room of some 19th-century London academic club, filled with wingback armchairs and pipe smoke, as Darwin regales a select few listeners with his tales of yore.

This is a very brief work, consisting of only about 64 pages. For that reason, serious scholars of Darwin’s life and works will likely be disappointed by the lack of detail, but for the general reader with a fascination for the man, the brevity of the piece works to its advantage. Darwin’s concise encapsulation of his life provides surprising insight into his mind and personality. Judging by the short length of the work and its table of contents, I was worried that it would be merely a curriculum vitae of his research accomplishments, but there are plenty of personal anecdotes here that make for a lively read, particularly in the passages where he’s discussing his childhood and youth. This autobiography will be most enjoyable and accessible to those who already have some knowledge of Darwin’s works. It helps to have read The Voyage of the Beagle first, because Darwin pretty quickly glosses over that period—having already written and entire book about it—but he does allude to some of his discoveries from that journey, such as his theory of the formation of coral reefs. The latter portions of the book are less personal and more career-focused, discussing the work that went into his various scientific publications, yet still for Darwin enthusiasts its quite entertaining to hear accounts of his research methodology related straight from the horse’s mouth. The only dull moments in the book are when he’s describing some of his scientific colleagues. He’s so hesitant to characterize anyone in a negative light that the relentlessly polite praise becomes repetitive.

The overwhelming feeling that permeates this text is one of a boundless enthusiasm in scientific discovery and a wonder for the natural world. The period in which Darwin practiced his naturalistic profession was like a scientific Wild West. So much was left to be discovered, that anyone with talent willing to work hard could stake his claim in whatever disciplines he chose, and the opportunity for eureka moments was virtually limitless. This was definitely not the age of specialization, and Darwin’s breadth of knowledge in all matters of natural science is truly staggering. Another quality of the man that comes shining through is his remarkable modesty. When speaking of other scientists, he’s not afraid to say, “I was right; he was wrong,” but when it comes to his general career success he speaks as if the theory of evolution was something that just fell into his lucky lap.

Of course, that’s not the case. Darwin was a singular genius, and his success was the result of a tenacious work ethic. This autobiography is a fitting memorial to this brilliant man and his myriad achievements. Every Darwin admirer should read it.

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