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The Autobiography – Charles Darwin ****

I have to confess to putting off reading this book until the last moment, as I expected it to be a typical piece of Victorian sentimental unreadable stodge. I was wrong.
Darwin’s little book (only 150 small pages with appendices) was originally written for his own children, and displays a very personal style of writing – though, as son Francis comments, his style was always more populist than was common then: “In writing he sometimes showed the same strong tendency to strong expressions that he did in conversation. Thus in the Origin, p440, there is a description of a larvel [sic] cirripede ‘with six pairs of beautifully constructed natatory legs, a pair of magnificent compound eyes and extremely complex antennae’. We used to laugh at him for this sentence, which we compared to an advertisement.”
The main book is delightful because it demonstrates Darwin’s self-depreciating modesty, and the fascinating path he took from enthusiastic shooter of game, to amateur geologist (still his main interest when he set out on the Beagle) and self-taught naturalist. He does not describe the voyage of the Beagle at all, leaving that to his published journal, but does describe how, on his return he attempted to apply the scientific rigour of Lyell in geology and Francis Bacon’s concept of collecting all the facts together without hypothesis before going any further, in the process of coming to his ideas on natural selection and evolution.
The main text is supported ably by a pair of appendices added by Francis (or Frank, as Darwin refers to him). The first is Francis’ recollections of life with Darwin, what Darwin was like (he as described as being so ruddy in the face that people thought him very healthy when he wasn’t), and what his days at Down involved.
The second appendix is equally fascinating as it deals with Darwin’s religious beliefs, which have been much misreported, and were important given the on-going clash between some churchgoers and those who support evolution. Early on Darwin was a Christian, but he ended up, in his own words, not an atheist but an agnostic. He says that he could not believe in a revealed religion like Christianity, but that religious beliefs were in no way incompatible with evolutionary theory – there was only a problem if you believed in direct divine design. He seemed to base his agnosticism more on the existence of human suffering than anything deduced from evolution – so creationists, please leave off!
All in all, a pleasant surprise.

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Review by Jo Reed

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