At the request of a German editor, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) began his autobiography at the age of 67. His granddaughter and editor, Nora Barlow, tells us that he revised it over several years.

Darwin remembers little about his mother who died when he was 8, but talks at length about his forceful physician father, who measured 6 foot 2 inches, and weighed over 336 pounds. His father's success guaranteed that Charles would never have to work for a living. Darwin was a naughty boy schooled in humaneness and manners by his loving sisters. Early on, he showed a passion for collecting, mostly beetles, but also coins, shells, and minerals. He hated boarding school; he enjoyed running in the open air and shooting snipes with his dogs. He quotes his father's characterization of him as a young boy: "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family" (28).

As a medical student at Edinburgh University, he witnessed operations without anesthesia which caused him to revolt against his father's wish that he become a doctor; he couldn't take the sight of blood.  At Cambridge, he found most of his classes and professors dull, except for his botany professor, John Stevens Henslow, his mentor and hiking companion. The paternal plan for him to become a clergyman foundered at Cambridge, as Darwin questioned the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

From 1831, he sailed with Capt. Fitz-Roy on board  The Beagle for 5 years and 3 days (again, against his father's wishes). He quarrelled with  Fitz-Roy whose mood swings required Darwin's tact. They disagreed about slavery, FitzRoy defending it, and Darwin abominating it. He carried Lyell's Principles of Geology with him, read Milton, and collected numerous specimens which he sent back to Britain.

28 months after his return, Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. The marriage was happy and produced 10 children.

In the chapter on his religious beliefs, Darwin gives 4 reasons for believing the Old Testament to be false; as he has studied the laws of nature, he has ceased to believe in miracles. He rejects Bishop Paley's argument for intelligent design: "Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws" (87). The Christian god is cruel, as he causes innocent animals to suffer and condemns non-believers to hell. Darwin confesses he does not understand "the mystery of the beginning of all things" (94), calling himself an agnostic. He outlines the great Victorian men he has known, though his ill health has long  prevented him from traveling or seeing friends. He discusses his publications, including Origin of Species, stating he did not care whether he or Wallace got the credit for the theory of evolution. He attributes his success to his moderate abilities. He has been methodical, industrious, and commonsensical.

The appendix includes Darwin's list of pro and con arguments about marriage, Mrs. Darwin's papers on religion, and a short chapter on his illnesses.


Darwin is selective in composing this self-portrait. He says almost nothing about his mother, whereas his father comes across as a tyrant. Though educated at the best schools, Darwin professes to be an autodidact. In his youth, he loved music and literature, but his sense of beauty has become dulled over the years. He speaks little and without much emotion of his siblings, wife, and children, but writes at length about his publications. He presents himself as a public man, a scientist.

Mrs. Darwin's two letters to her husband ask him to reflect on his religious skepticism because: "Everything that concerns you concerns me and I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other for ever" (237).


Darwin resource material on-line:

Janet Browne, historian of science at Harvard University and the author of several books on Darwin, discusses previous Darwin anniversaries and what Darwin himself might have thought of his bicentenary celebrations: audio file




W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York




Nora Barlow

Page Count