The Autobiography of Charles Darwin | Nora Barlow


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Published in: 1993

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When Charles Darwin wrote his memoirs, he was 67 years old and lived a secluded life in his home, where he observed the outraged debate that his theories gave rise to. During his lifetime he had written some of the most important books in history, where mainly On the Origin of Species and The Desccent of Man sent shock waves through churches and universities. His autobiography was published in 1887, five years after his death.

THE DOCTOR’S SON. Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809. His mother died when he was eight years old, and his father was a medical doctor and a careful businessman. The father was not very scientifically inclined but acted as moral support. Darwin’s grandfather, however, had written the Botanic Garden and other works. Charles Darwin’s interest in natural history, especially in collecting, started in his early school years.

SCHOOL – A TORMENT. Darwin regarded primary school as an institution, and he had difficulty learning languages (which was considered particularly important). However, from an early age he had felt a strong desire to understand or explain everything he had observed, and to bring all the facts together under a universal law. In 1825, Darwin, like his brother, began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. But the lecture-based teaching was unbearably boring. He was by then told that his father would leave behind a fortune large enough to live well on. It was enough to not make an effort in the medical studies. After two years of study in Edinburgh, Cambridge followed.

MENTOR HENSLOW. From a study point of view, the three years at Cambridge were as wasted as the years at Edinburgh. He tried to understand mathematics, but it went slowly. In Cambridge, however, he became friends with Professor Henslow – a man with extensive knowledge in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. It was Henslow who said that Captain Fitz-Roy was willing to take an unpaid natural scientist on the journey with “The Beagle”. Darwin’s father first opposed this idea but said: “if you can find a wise and sensible man who advises you to travel, I give my consent”.

THE LEGENDARY ”BEAGLE”. Beagle sailed from Plymouth in December 1831. While the expedition was originally planned to last for two years, it lasted almost five, and Beagle did not return until October 1836. Darwin spent most of this time exploring on land (39 months on land; 18 months at sea).

RETURNING HOME. In March 1837, Darwin rented an apartment in London where he completed his diary for two years, lectured at the Geological Society, began the manuscript of the Geological Observations on South America (published in 1846) and edited the book Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle. In the summer of 1837 he began, without setting up a theory, to compile facts for On the Origin of Species, which he worked on for the next twenty years. When he looks back at the books and writings he read and summarized, he is amazed at his diligence.

“In October 1838 … I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population … it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.”

A 20 YEAR PROJECT. After Darwin read Malthus, he finally had a theory to work on. Darwin began working on the subject in 1837. In 1842 he had drawn “some short notes” of five pages, and in 1844 expanded them to a sketch of 230 pages. In early 1856, Darwin wrote down the theory in detail, and this material became three to four times more comprehensive, albeit only a summary of the material collected, than what was published in 1859 in On the Origin of Species. Darwin says that he gained a lot from waiting with the publication from 1839, when the theory was clearly formulated, until 1859. The timing contributed to the theory being well received.

SELF-REFLECTION. Darwin did not consider himself to have the quick perception or wit of many other intelligent scientists (he was therefore a bad critic; “when I read an essay or book for the first time, it usually arouses my admiration, and it is only after a lot of thought that I detect the weak points.”). His ability was limited to, for example, follow a long and completely abstract reasoning used in metaphysics or higher mathematics. Some critics said, “of course he is a good observer, but he has no ability to reason.” However, Darwin did not agree with this. Origin of Species is a single long reasoning and has convinced many knowledgeable men.

PATIENCE AND PERSEVERANCE. Darwin describes himself as quite inventive and has good judgment (“as a reasonably successful lawyer or doctor but no more than that”). His diligence when it came to observing and gathering facts as well as love of science could not have been greater. This gave him such patience that he was able to reflect or ponder unresolved problems for many years. He always tried to keep his mind free so that he could abandon any hypothesis if it turned out to contradict the facts.

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