Saturday, February 07, 2009
On reading Charles Darwin's autobiography
"There is something in that young man that interests me."
– Sir J. Mackintosh, on Charles Darwin, 1827
And so it's upon us - Darwin Day, the 12th of February, 2009.
In sorting through the writings of Charles Darwin for something that I could read and write about, I quickly realized that a lot of his works are very dense, very long, and deal with subjects that, quite frankly, don't interest me that much. A case in point: the lengthy monograph The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations on their habits, or the succinctly-titled, but equally daunting, Coral Reefs. Even those that are available as audio books would take hours and hours of listening to wade through.
Baffled and bewildered, and growing increasingly desperate, I stumbled upon an absolute gem: Darwin's autobiography, edited and annotated by his son Francis. Tipping the scales at a mere 38 pages once I'd shoehorned the Project Gutenberg version into a Word document, it's turned out to be just what I was looking for: engaging, conversational, full of interesting anecdotes, and refreshingly free of sentences like "In the latter case, water charged with excrementitious and decaying matter would be slowly forced outwards, and would bathe the quadrifids, if Iam right in believing that the concave lobes contract after a time like those of Dionaea." (from Insectivorous Plants).
Darwin, it seems, didn't feel that he was a particularly interesting person, which seems a little surprising given his impact on science over the past, oh, 170 years or so. And this assertion isn't supported by the anecdotes in his autobiography, some of which I will gleefully quote here:
On his early years at day school:
“I believe that I was in many ways a naughty boy”
This sentiment is echoed in his later observation about his years at Cambridge:
“I had been rather extravagant at Cambridge, and to console my father, said, "that I should be deuced clever to spend more than my allowance whilst on board the Beagle;" but he answered with a smile, "But they tell me you are very clever."”
The idea of Darwin as a cheeky schoolboy, or a dissolute youth, really hadn't occurred to me before. He was also, apparently, an exceptionally good shot and an avid hunter, skills which would benefit him in his later travels as he collected his way through South America and beyond, in side trips from the HMS Beagle.
The autobiography does, however, reveal a lot that we might have suspected, such as an early passion for collecting insects. At Cambridge, he relates that "...one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one."
Now that's dedication.
As the book progresses, more interesting facts come to light, such as his arguments with his friend, fellow collector, and ship-master FitzRoy about slavery, which Darwin vehemently opposed. At the same time, he reveals that he is keenly aware of experimental bias:
“We had several quarrels; for instance, early in the voyage at Bahia, in Brazil, he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered "No." I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answer of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything? This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word we could not live any longer together.”
Fortunately, they managed to patch up their relationship, so that Darwin could complete the Beagle voyage, an event that he refers to as “the first real training or education of my mind”.
The rest of the book, remembering that it's not very long, is a dense narrative of his interactions with various learned scholars, and a rather nice summary of his writing, including of course discussion of the famous On the Origin of Species. It's a fascinating read, and contains a few more quotable gems, my favourite of which has to be this one:
"I remember when in Good Success Bay, in Tierra del Fuego, thinking (and, I believe, that I wrote home to the effect) that I could not employ my life better than in adding a little to Natural Science."
Brilliant understatement from a brilliant man. I'll let him finish up in characteristically modest style, with the final words of the autobiography:
"Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points."
He obviously had some idea of the impact of his discoveries at the time; but even he couldn't have imagined the discussion they'd engender, two hundred years after his birth and one hundred and fifty after the publication of his most famous work.
Happy Darwin Day, everyone.