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The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882 Paperback – September 17, 1993
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About the Author
Naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is the father of evolution. His groundbreaking The Origin of Species argued that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection. As much as anyone in the modern era, Darwin has changed the course of human thought.
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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.
The most important thing to know about this edition of the autobiography of Charles Darwin is that it is the edition that contains the entire autobiography. Most editions of the autobiography, especially those edited by his son Francis Darwin, were bowdlerized by his family, removing sections that could be seen as far too controversial for his day, especially on the issue of religion. The version by Penguin, 128 pages, which Amazon identifies as a newer edition of this volume, may be the unedited version, but I cannot tell the exact differences, since I do not own that one. I did search it for certain passages that are normally not present in the autobiographies, and they seem to be present in the Penguin edition, but at about 100 pages shorter than the Norton edition, at least some extras are missing.
This edition, edited by his granddaughter Nora Barlow, first made available the complete autobiography in 1959, a full century after the publication of his seminal work, "On the Origin of Species."
Other items in the Norton edition: letters between Charles and other family members, namely his wife, Emma; notes jotted down by Darwin on various things, some quite humorous, such as his evaluation of the pros and cons of getting married; the controversy between Darwin and Samuel Butler on the nature of evolution.
If one wants to read the autobiography, the Norton edition is the definitive edition, with the Penguin edition being a possible alternative. If one wants instead to read an authoritative scholarly biography of his life, select the two volume edition published through Princeton University Press by the Darwin scholar and historian of science, Janet Browne of Harvard. Those may be found here: Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 - Voyaging and Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2 - The Power of Place. All other Darwin biographies are inferior.