This is Darwin week in my intellectual history class; we’re reading selections from On the Origin of Species, Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, and finally Charles Darwin’s charmingly personal Autobiography, which he wrote for his family toward the end of his life. I don’t have any Big Thoughts to share with you on Darwin’s story, but there were a couple of passages from his recollections that I thought I would quote here, to give you a sense of his autobiographical writing and sense of himself as a human being.
On his education: “During the three years I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as academical studies were concerned, as complete as at Edinburgh and at school . . . I got into a sporting set, including some dissipated low-minded young men. We often used to dine together in the evening, though these dinners often included men of a higher stamp, and we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards. I know that I ought to feel ashamed of days and evenings thus spent, but as some of my friends were very pleasant and we were all in the highest spirits, I cannot help looking back on these times with much pleasure . . . But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow” (50-53).
On society: “Few persons can have lived a more retired life than we [he and his wife] have done. Besides short visits to the houses of relations, and occasionally to the seaside or elsewhere, we have gone nowhere. During the first part of our residence we went a little into society, and received a few friends here; but my health almost always suffered from the excitement, violent shivering and vomiting attacks thus being brought on . . . I have [thus] lost the power of becoming deeply attached to anyone . . . As far as I can judge this grievous loss of feeling has gradually crept over me, from the expectation of much distress afterwards from exhaustion having become firmly associated in my mind from seeing and talking with anyone for an hour, except my wife and children” (95).
One final note: For those of you who didn’t see this link earlier on my post about Darwin and Lincoln’s joint birthday, check out the beautiful online exhibition about Darwin’s life and work at Chicago Field Museum.