The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]


Charles Darwin was an old man when he sat down to write a few words about his life. He was also famous, possibly the most famous man of his day. From the moment of the publication of his book The Origin of the Species (1859), which challenged the traditional view of Creation, he found himself at the center of a storm which still rages.

A shy, often sickly and retiring man, Darwin did his best to stay out of that storm, but in 1876, after all the years of insults and accolades, ...

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The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Charles Darwin was an old man when he sat down to write a few words about his life. He was also famous, possibly the most famous man of his day. From the moment of the publication of his book The Origin of the Species (1859), which challenged the traditional view of Creation, he found himself at the center of a storm which still rages.

A shy, often sickly and retiring man, Darwin did his best to stay out of that storm, but in 1876, after all the years of insults and accolades, Darwin decided to speak for himself. He did not intend his autobiography to be for public consumption. Rather, he wanted to explain himself to his family and, by way of moral lessons and anecdotes, to guide them in their lives. The Autobiography is an intriguing example of the genre and gives us the opportunity to glimpse the inner feelings of one of the most influential men of modern history, a man who changed the world with an idea.

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Meet the Author

Charles Darwin

Robert Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809, into a wealthy and highly respected family. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a doctor and the author of many works, including his well-known Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life, which suggested a theory of evolution. Charles's father, Robert Waring Darwin, was also a prosperous doctor; his mother, Susannah, was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the renowned Wedgwood potteries. The Darwins and the Wedgwoods had close and long-standing relations, and Charles was to marry his cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

In 1825 at age sixteen, Darwin matriculated at Edinburgh University to study medicine. There, his early interest in natural history developed, and he studied particularly crustaceans, sea creatures, and beetles. Nauseated by the sight of blood, however, he decided that medicine was not his vocation, left Edinburgh in 1827 and entered Christ's College, Cambridge University, with no clear sense of possible vocation, theology itself being an option. At Cambridge he became friends with J. S. Henslow, a clergyman who was also professor of botany. Although Darwin was to graduate from Cambridge with a B.A. in theology, he spent much time with Henslow, developing his interest in natural science. It was Henslow who secured a position for Darwin on an exploratory expedition aboard the HMS Beagle.

In December 1831, the year he graduated from Cambridge, Darwin embarked upon a five-year voyage to Africa and South America, acting as a companion to the captain, Robert Fitzroy. Darwin spent more time in land expeditions than at sea, where he was always seasick, but during the long voyages he continued his collecting and, cramped in his tiny cabin, meticulously wrote up his ideas. Several years after his return, at the time of the birth of his first son, William, Darwin fell ill. It is conjectured that while in South America he had contracted Chagas's disease, but whatever the cause, the effects were debilitating for the rest of Darwin's life.

By the time he returned to London in 1835, many of his letters, some to scientists like Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick, had been read before scientific societies, and he was already a well known and respected naturalist. His first published book, an account of his voyage aboard the Beagle, entitled Journal of Researches, appeared in 1839 and was widely popular. He married the same year; soon after, the family moved from London to a secluded house at Down, in Kent, where Darwin wrote initial sketches of his theory and then preparing himself for the full exposition, spent eight years writing a detailed set of definitive monographs on barnacles.

In 1858, when Darwin was halfway through writing his book, "Natural Selection," A. R. Wallace sent him a paper called, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." In language similar to Darwin's own, Wallace laid out the argument for natural selection. Wallace asked Darwin to help get the paper published -- obviously an alarming development for a man who had given twenty years of his life to getting the argument for natural selection right. Darwin's scientific friends advised him to gather materials giving evidence of his priority but to have the Wallace paper read before the Linnaean Society, along with a brief account of his own ideas. Immediately after the reading, Darwin began work on his "abstract" of "Natural Selection." The result was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859. Despite the controversy it generated, it was an immense success and went through five more editions in Darwin's lifetime.

Darwin devoted the rest of his life to researching and writing scientific treatises, drawing on his notebooks and corresponding with scientists all over the world, and thus developing and modifying parts of his larger argument.

Darwin never traveled again and much of his scientific work was done in his own garden and study at home. Others, particularly his "bulldog," T. H. Huxley, fought the battle for evolution publicly, and as Darwin remained quietly ailing at home, his family grew -- he had ten children -- and so did his reputation. Although he was always ill with symptoms that made it impossible for him to work full days, he produced an enormous volume of work. His death, on April 19, 1882, was a national event. Despite the piety of his wife, Emma, Darwin had fallen away from religion as he reflected both on the way nature worked and on the way his favorite daughter, Annie, died painfully from an unknown feverish illness, when she was ten. Nevertheless, ironically, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Author biography from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Origin of Species.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      February 12, 1809
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shrewsbury, England
    1. Date of Death:
      April 19, 1882
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      B.A. in Theology, Christ’s College, Cambridge University, 1831


Charles Darwin was an old man when he sat down in 1876 to write a few words about his life. He was also famous, possibly the most famous man of his day. From the moment of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle For Life (1859), which challenged the traditional view of Creation, he found himself at the center of a storm which still rages. Darwin posited that the great diversity of life on earth was the result not of some divine breath, but of the slow, incremental, materialistic process called evolution and its primary mechanism of natural selection. He was alternately hailed as a hero and condemned as a villain. His name conjures up images of monkeys turned to men and of life evolving from a primordial soup, and his ideas still provoke debate and controversy. A shy, often sickly and retiring man, Darwin did his best to stay out of that storm. He let others, most notably Thomas Henry Huxley, fight his critics. Darwin himself lived quietly with his family at Down House, outside Kent, England. In 1876, after all the years of insults and accolades, Darwin decided to speak for himself. He did not intend his autobiography to be for public consumption, however; rather, he wrote it as a personal work meant for his wife and children alone. Darwin wanted to explain himself to them and, by way of moral lessons and anecdotes, to guide them in their lives. The Autobiography is an intriguing example of the genre and gives us the opportunity to glimpse the inner feelings of one of the most influential men of modern history, a man who changed the world with an idea.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was born in Shrewsbury, England, to Robert and Susannah Darwin during the Industrial Revolution, an age in which great changes were occurring in society, religion, and politics. Darwin's father and grandfather were both doctors; his mother belonged to the Wedgwood family of pottery fame. Darwin's parents expected him to go into medicine, and although he entered Edinburgh University to pursue a medical degree, for various reasons, including squeamishness, he left without graduating. On his father's advice he entered Christ Church College, Cambridge University, to study for the ministry, and Darwin found his change of studies amenable. As a clergyman, he would have the free time to follow his real intellectual love: natural history. Darwin was a passionate student of nature, and while still in school he had amassed a considerable beetle collection as well as other specimens. At Cambridge, he excelled in geology and botany as well as in theology. In 1831, Darwin was given the chance of a lifetime to travel as a civilian naturalist on board the British warship HMS Beagle on a survey mission to map and study the coast of South America. The expedition lasted until 1836 and was the transformative event of Darwin's life. Much of the material and data he gathered on this trip contributed to the formation of his theory of evolution. Upon his return to England, Darwin abandoned the ministry, entered British scientific circles, and began to write books on the material he had collected. At this stage, he was careful not to mention anything about evolution for fear he would be ridiculed and attacked by both the scientific establishment and the church since both of these institutions still held to a divinely ordered universe. Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896) and purchased Down House, where he produced a family of ten children and thought about evolution.

In 1857, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a young Englishman working in Southeast Asia who had independently come up with an evolutionary theory almost identical to Darwin's. Wallace, unaware of Darwin's work on evolution, explained his idea and asked Darwin to comment on it. Darwin had kept his research in this area a close secret, and because he was unsure of how people would react to his radical idea, he hesitated to publish his thoughts on transmutation (as evolution was then known) for over twenty years. Stunned by Wallace's letter, Darwin quickly arranged to have the Origin published. From that point on the world was a different place.

The first public appearance of Charles Darwin's autobiography did not come until 1887 when his son, botanist Francis Darwin (1848-1925), included it as part of the introduction to The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. This work included a selection of Darwin's letters on topics ranging from the publication of the Origin to how it was received by readers to life at Down House. It is Francis Darwin's version of the Autobiography that is published in this volume.

Charles Darwin began his life story by stating: "I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life." Francis and his mother pruned from both the autobiographical material and the correspondence what they considered inappropriate or less flattering parts. By the late 1880s, Charles Darwin's reputation was well on its way to reaching a status of world renown and the family did not want anything, no matter how casual, to besmirch the memory of the father of evolutionary thought. In his introduction to the Life and Letters, Francis explained the editing by saying, "It will be easily understood that, in a narrative of a personal and intimate kind written for his wife and children, passages should occur which must here be omitted; and I have not thought it necessary to indicate where such omissions are made." Several editions of Francis' work appeared throughout the 1880s and 1890s. An edition also appeared in 1959 with a foreword by the influential evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson.

Telling the story of one's own life has a long literary tradition. Following Socrates' dictum that a life unexamined is not worth living, autobiographies come in two basic forms. One is the author's personal journey inward to plumb the depths of his soul, and the other approach is to use one's life to examine external issues. Darwin's work essentially falls into the latter category. All autobiographies are, by their nature, reconstructions of a person's life, attempts to make a life look the way the author wants to be remembered. In the nineteenth century, a related type of literature was the memoir of a scientific traveler and naturalist, one of the most famous being Richard Burton's descriptions of his travels through Arabia and his search for the source of the Nile River. These works also commonly included collections of letters and related the author's wild adventures and fascinating discoveries, all in the name of science. One of Darwin's first writing projects was such a memoir. The Journal of Researches (1839), while not an autobiography in the strictest sense, is Darwin's description of his experiences and scientific observations while on board the HMS Beagle. Written in diary form, it allows a few glimpses into his feelings, particularly on slavery (which he staunchly opposed).

There is quite a bit of material to work with in telling Darwin's story. He corresponded with friends and colleagues on a monumental scale. This collection of letters, diaries, and personal papers remained in the hands of the Darwin family for years after his death and was available to researchers only sporadically and in fragmentary form until the latter half of the twentieth century when the bulk of the collection was made public. An exacting and scholarly reproduction of his papers can be found in the multi-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin which first began publication in 1985 and runs to over a dozen volumes of meticulously collated and edited material. Scholarly editions of Darwin's informal writings are also available in Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844, which was published in 1997.

There is a certain parallel between the Autobiography of Charles Darwin and such American works as the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and particularly the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793). Douglass illuminated the life of slaves and the importance of and moral need for the abolition of slavery and the promotion of black equality. Franklin strove to teach his readers the value of honesty, hard work, and economic frugality. Works such as these go beyond simply discussing a life as it was lived, but present the life more as a parable. Similarly, Darwin told his story not as a straightforward narrative, but as a collection of vignettes. For example, Darwin recounts with Ben Franklin-like charm how a school friend tells him a fantastic story: the friend claims he has a special arrangement with local merchants by which he can take anything he wants for free if he wears his hat in just the right way. Astonished by this, young Charles readily accepts the offer to give the hat a try. The scene ends with Charles running out of a shop followed by a merchant in hot pursuit. "Don't believe everything someone tells you," is one way to interpret the moral of this particular story. In another vignette, Charles is overcome with guilt for beating an innocent puppy. He then explains that his love of the natural world came on him as a boy. "I was interested at this early age in the variability of plants!" He also suggests that he was singled out to be a natural historian because none of his siblings shared his interest in collecting. As if to show that he did not originally intend to upset religious sensibilities with his ideas as an adult, Darwin admits that he was not always so skeptical of revealed religion, and that early on he fully believed "the strict and literal truth of the Bible." These are all stories with a point to make. The entire enterprise recounts his life in a folksy and intimate way, with the same immediacy as if he were telling the story to a close friend while sitting by the family fire.

The Autobiography reappeared in print in 1958 when it was published as part of the centennial of the publication of the Origin. This version was edited by Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow (1885-1989), who had studied genetics at Cambridge, married British civil servant Sir Alan Barlow in 1911, raised a family of six children, and produced several works about her celebrated grandfather. In her version of the Autobiography, Barlow replaced much of what Francis had excised, but failed to identify the reinserted text, making it difficult for new readers to appreciate the difference between the two versions. Barlow published part of Darwin's Beagle diary in 1933 as Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of the Beagle, and in 1945, she edited Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle, a selection of letters Darwin sent and received during his famous boat trip interlaced with her own commentary.

Telling his own story was not the only foray Charles Darwin made outside the world of scientific writing. At about the time he began to work in earnest on the Autobiography he also began writing a biography of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). Influential in his own right, Erasmus Darwin was one of the more fascinating characters of eighteenth-century England. He was a deep thinker and leading physician. He wrote poetry which influenced the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, more notably, he wrote Zoonomia (1794-1796), in which he proposed a coherent theory of biological change. Erasmus Darwin's scientific work was ahead of its time and was largely rejected or forgotten. However, it was powerful enough that when Charles published his book years later critics argued that he had just dusted off, polished, and added a few details to his grandfather's work.

Like the Autobiography, The Life of Erasmus Darwin (1879) was not a traditional narrative but a number of scenes arranged to illuminate Erasmus' character, his contribution to intellectual history, and his relationship to evolutionary thought. As with the Autobiography, Darwin wrote the book on Erasmus Darwin more as a personal project rather than a grand statement to the world. Desmond King-Hele, who edited the modern reprint of the Life of Erasmus Darwin (2003), said that Charles was writing the work "as an item of family history, not because Erasmus's life-story needed to be told." The Life of Erasmus Darwin was edited prior to its original publication by Charles' daughter Henrietta with his knowledge and approval. Upon reading his original draft Henrietta thought it on the dull side, and several other family members concurred. Disappointed by this reaction, Darwin happily left the editing to Henrietta, who proceeded to cut the work down, removing parts she deemed inappropriate for public consumption.

Charles Darwin combined a painful shyness and disdain for the public gaze with a powerful ambition for his work. Behind it all, however, was a personal disquiet about his ideas. Unlike the popular view of Darwin as a gleeful God killer, he was torn between a traditional Christian religiosity and the convincing nature of his discoveries. Darwin was, in the words of biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore, a "tortured evolutionist." Just weeks after the Origin was published, Darwin wrote to Alfred Russel Wallace about the book saying, "God knows what the public will think." Even in its fragmentary form, the Autobiography of Charles Darwin offers the reader insight into his life, his work, and his experience, at least in the sense that he wanted his family to understand these things.

Brian Regal teaches American history and the history of science at the TCI College of Technology in New York. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from Drew University and writes frequently on the history of evolutionary theory.
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