A Commentary Of: Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography’, Life and Letters (1887)

This Post is in two sections, I have opened with the source in which I have been analysing and to follow up I have written my commentary discussing the extent to which Darwin’s theory was revolutionary. Darwin

Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography’, Life and Letters (1887)

During the voyage of the Beagle I had been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampean formation great fossil animals covered with armour like that on the existing armadillos; secondly, by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the Continent; and thirdly, by the South American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island of the group; none of the islands appearing to be very ancient in a geological sense.

            It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me. But it was equally evident that neither the action of the surrounding conditions, nor the will of the organisms could account for the innumerable cases in which organisms of every kind are beautifully adapted to their habits of life…I soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man’s success in making useful races of animals and plants. But how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature remained for some time a mystery to me.

            In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work…In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages…

            But at that time I overlooked one problem of great importance; and it is astonishing to me…how I could have overlooked it and its solution. This problem is the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character as they become modified…The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.

    Early in 1856 Lyell advised me to write out my views pretty fully, and I began at once to do so on a scale three or four times as extensive as that which was afterwards followed in my ‘Origin of Species;’ yet it was only an abstract of the materials which I had collected, and I got through about half the work on this scale. But my plans were overthrown, for early in the summer of 1858 Mr. Wallace, who was then in the Malay archipelago, sent me an essay “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type;” and this essay contained exactly the same theory as mine. Mr. Wallace expressed the wish that if I thought well of his essay, I should send it to Lyell for perusal.

The circumstances under which I consented at the request of Lyell and Hooker to allow of an abstract from my MS., together with a letter to Asa Gray, dated September 5, 1857, to be published at the same time with Wallace’s Essay, are given in the ‘Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society,’ 1858, page 45. I was at first very unwilling to consent, as I thought Mr. Wallace might consider my doing so unjustifiable, for I did not then know how generous and noble was his disposition. The extract from my MS. and the letter to Asa Gray had neither been intended for publication, and were badly written. Mr. Wallace’s essay, on the other hand, was admirably expressed and quite clear. Nevertheless, our joint productions excited very little attention…

            In September 1858 I set to work by the strong advice of Lyell and Hooker to prepare a volume on the transmutation of species…I abstracted the MS. begun on a much larger scale in 1856, and completed the volume on the same reduced scale. It cost me thirteen months and ten days’ hard labour. It was published under the title of the ‘Origin of Species,’ in November 1859…It is no doubt the chief work of my life. It was from the first highly successful…It has sometimes been said that the success of the ‘Origin’ proved “that the subject was in the air,” or “that men’s minds were prepared for it.” I do not think that this is strictly true, for I occasionally sounded not a few naturalists, and never happened to come across a single one who seemed to doubt about the permanence of species. Even Lyell and Hooker, though they would listen with interest to me, never seemed to agree. I tried once or twice to explain to able men what I meant by Natural Selection, but signally failed. What I believe was strictly true is that innumerable well-observed facts were stored in the minds of naturalists ready to take their proper places as soon as any theory which would receive them was sufficiently explained.

The Commentary

Charles Darwin’s life has been documented within his autobiography and through compilations of his letters both personal and professional[1]. Through these accounts and memoirs, it allows for a more personal insight into the life of this renowned figure. Within this particular source, questions are raised in regards to the significance of his theory of evolution and whether it was as revolutionary as has been previously believed. As titled this is his personal writings, therefore can be deduced as being unaltered as a way to save face.


The source opens by discussing Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle and the origins of his theories, Darwin explains that throughout this cluster of islands, ‘closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the continent’[2]. Darwin began to notice differences between species living on each Island, but at this point he is unable to establish what causes these differences. Darwin logically goes through solutions of why animals are adapting and differing from island to island. Through this logical process, there is obvious questioning of Lamarck’s theory[3] that through the act of will, evolution could occur. Lamarck’s famous example of his theory is horses and due to the need to reach tall branches necks elongate, thus the evolution of the giraffe. Darwin states, this is not the case, yet evolution must occur due to other elements, not of ‘surrounding Lamarckconditions, nor the will of the organisms’[4].What is of great interest here is that Darwin by discrediting previous theories, is accepting that the idea of evolution is not a new theory. The other key aspect within the introduction of this source is that Darwin has identified is that ‘none of the islands [appear] to be very ancient in a geological sense’[5]. The significance to this discovery is evidence that the world is of different ages, questioning ideals of a New Earth, putting more steps away from Christian beliefs and texts as pure facts. Genesis 2.2 states that ‘By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing’, the work being the creation of earth. Again Darwin was not at the forefront of an idea[6]  but was only providing evidence, for findings from previous works. Genesis had been causing anxiety for many years, even Newton[7] had his doubts, where he decided not to receive the word of God as a literal interpretation, yet decided that the length of 7 days is questionable. William Paley[8] followed Newton’s interpretation and created the analogy of God as a watchmaker, the idea that God created the world and then stepped away allowing it to build and ‘evolve’[9] itself. And finally was Lyell’s theory which found geology to disprove the age of the earth[10]. Due to Lyell’s close relation with Darwin, he would have been a very influential figure, and through this particular source it is evident that Lyell’s theory proved existent to Darwin, and how far is the jump from geological to organism evolution or adaptation. So through a small amount of deduction, it has become apparent that Darwin has been following an already “evolving” train of thought, and this is prior to his discovery of ‘Malthus on Population’[11].

‘In October 1838…it at once struck me that under [these] circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result in this would be the formation of new species.’[12]

Darwin has found his theory through reading writings on social behaviour. This does not provide evidence that Darwin advocates, Social-Darwinism that arises later in the period. Yet merely that he was provided a spark for a theory of evolution within organism. This new understanding for Darwin allowed progress, as he states in this autobiography that he expanded a brief extract of his theory of 35 pages to a more substantial 230 page document[13]. This vast increase in size and material provides insight into Darwin’s assurance of his depth and detail within his theory. Currently Darwin is under no time constraints to release his Origins of Species, until as revealed within this text, an essay was received from Alfred Wallace, containing the same theory as Darwin’s[14].

Dismay for Darwin as years of research and work have become no longer as revolutionary with Wallace reaching the same conclusions, but fortunately for Darwin, Wallace’s essay was trusted into his hands. If Wallace had not asked for Darwin to review his essay, than there is a possibility that rather than learning about Darwinism, potential Wallace and ‘Wallacism’[15] could have been at the “forefront” of this movement. Darwin took advice from Hooker and Lyell and published his own findings alongside Wallace’s, thus totally undermining Wallace and down playing his findings, by overshadowing them with his own. To credit Darwin, he shows remorse for his actions, and expresses great admiration for Wallace’s work. Rightly or wrongly, this action put Darwin in the limelight and wDarwin Cartoonas the beginnings of his great success. This success was greatly promoted by popular culture as evolution could easily be characterised and therefore became widely popular and comprehendible[16]. Saying that though Darwin’s Origins of Species was out sold by Essays and Reviews a collection of work from 7 clergymen[17] which was released only a matter of months after Origin of Species. With these two works with high sale rates highlights popular attitudes during the late 19th Century as one of curiosity.


Darwin picks up on the argument that; ‘it has sometimes been said that the success of the ‘Origin’ proved “that the subject was in the air,” or “that men’s minds were prepared for it.”[18] Darwin denies that this is the case. I find it difficult to stand by Darwin here, due to the amounting evidence discussed within this commentary. The idea of evolution has previously been raised and the reasons for survival have become apparent, so Darwin provided a bridging thesis and through his extensive research provided insight into the theory of evolution. I am not disputing the works of Darwin, but merely that he did not stand alone, if Darwin had not reached these conclusions, then the theory of evolution would still have been established. By Wallace in fact, I stand that regardless of Darwin’s work the theory would still be known. This personal insight of his autobiography, shows anxiety and understanding that Darwin himself realises this fact.




Brown, Janet, ‘Darwin in caricature: a study in the popularisation and dissemination of evolution’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 145:4 (2001)


Darwin, Charles, ‘Autobiography’, Life and Letters (1887)


Darwinproject.ac,.(2016). Darwin Correspondence Project.


Lamarck, J.B., Zoological Philosophy (1809)

Lyell, Charles, Principles of Geology (1830-33)


Malthus, Thomas, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)


Morrisroe, Vicky lecture, Darwin and Darwinism


Newton, Isaac to Thomas Burnet (letter dated 13 January, 1681)


NWCreation.net,. (2016). Biblical Young Earth Creationism

Paley, William, Natural Theology (1802)


[1] Darwinproject.ac,.(2016). Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 11 April 2016, from https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/

[2] Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography’, Life and Letters (1887)

[3] J.B. Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy (1809)

[4] Darwin, ‘Autobiography’

[5] Ibid

[6] NWCreation.net,. (2016). Biblical Young Earth Creationism. Retrieved 20 April 2016, from http://nwcreation.net/ageyoung.html

[7] Isaac Newton to Thomas Burnet (letter dated 13 January, 1681)

[8] William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

[9] The term evolution was not used by Paley, The term is being used to exemplify the connection to Darwin.

[10]Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1830-33)

[11]  Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

[12] Darwin,’Autobiography’

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Vicky Morrisroe lecture, Darwin and Darwinism, 10 February 2016

[16] Janet Brown, ‘Darwin in caricature: a study in the popularisation and dissemination of evolution’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 145:4 (2001), 496-509

[17] Morrisroe, Darwinism

[18] Darwin, ‘Autobiography’

A Commentary Of: Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography’, Life and Letters (1887)

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