“The Autobiography of Charles Darwin”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > History / Biography > Biography

Overall Rating: ★★★★★ (5/7) (solid for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★ (5/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Challenge Level: 2/5 (Easy) | 224 pages (official)

Blurb/Description: The full, uncensored version of Charles Darwin’s autobiography.

Summary: Well before hypermathematization / “physics envy” crept into biology, Darwin deduced natural selection and evolution without recourse to almost any math.  While evolution and trait adaptivity may seem obvious today, they were anything but at the time – which is why many investors admire Darwin.

Although, as with all biographies, this one contains some biographical details that are neither interesting nor relevant, on the whole it provides a fairly concise and interesting “behind the curtain” look at how Darwin came to his conclusions.

Highlights: Here’s a confession: I’ve never made it past, like, the second chapter of The Origin of the Species because it’s pretty dry and I know the punchline already.  Darwin’s writing in his Autobiography is actually much more readable than Origin of the Species.  

Lowlights: Darwin’s humility is well-known and well-noted; humility is great, of course, but Darwin sometimes goes a bit far.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Pointsincentives, one-to-many, trait adaptivity,  memoryscientific thinkinghindsight biasstatus quo bias / cultureideology

You should buy a copy of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin if: you want a digestible overview on Darwin that doesn’t require the tedium of actually reading The Origin of the Species.

Reading Tips: Consider skipping the section about Darwin-Butler.

Pairs Well With:

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith (OthM review + notes): a great discussion of trait adaptivity as it relates to the evolution of consciousness and intelligence in the octopus.

Internal Time by Till Roenneberg (IntTm review + notes): another great discussion of trait adaptivity, this one relating to how circadian rhythms evolved from tiny marine plankton all the way to modern humans, and the consequences of the dramatic environmental shift that evolution couldn’t have predicted.

The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean (TVT review + notes) – an engaging exploration of how genetics affects our lives.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (ABF review + notes) – it’s interesting to compare and contrast Darwin’s scientific thought process, and slower / less busy life, with that of Franklin.

Reread Value: 2/5 (Low)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Darwin was born in 1809; his mother passed away when he was eight years old.  He went to a boarding school from age 9 – 16, but it was a mile from home.

Darwin was interested in the natural world from an early age… he didn’t get much out of school:

nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical… much attention was paid to learning by heart the lessons of the previous day… but this exercise was utterly useless, for every verse was forgotten in forty-eight hours.  

Ahem, memory.  Darwin described himself as being:

“considered by all my masters and by my Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”  

Darwin’s father, a successful doctor with an uncanny sense of intuition, added: “you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” (which I suppose proved true enough, what with this evolution heresy, though perhaps not for the reasons Darwin’s father envisioned…)  Darwin’s father was good at solving marital problems with a “don’t blame the other” approach (p 29).

Darwin left school early and spent two years in medical school, although his belief that he would get an inheritance “check[ed] any strenuous effort to learn medicine.”  He also found lectures “intolerably dull… [with] no advantages and many disadvantages… compared with reading.”  

With medicine not seeming like a suitable career, Darwin’s father encouraged him to become a clergyman, which Darwin later reflected was ironic:

“it never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.”

Darwin enjoyed collecting beetles.  He went on a geology tour with Professor Sedgwick, which left a number of impressions, including one on scientific thinking:

Nothing before had ever made me thoroughly reali[z]e… that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.

And, in the two of them not noticing evidence of former glaciers that would later become obvious:

“I had a striking instance how easy it is to overlook phenomena, however conspicuous, before they have been observed by anyone.”  

Cross-reference Peter Thiel’s discussion of secrets in Zero to One (Z21 review + notes), as well as Jordan Ellenberg’s discussion of annuities in How Not To Be Wrong (HNW review + notes) – pretty easy to see things as obvious with  hindsight bias

Darwin nearly didn’t go on the Beagle as its naturalist, because his father thought it didn’t make sense, but Darwin’s uncle convinced his father otherwise.  (Meanwhile, the Captain nearly turned him down because his nose was the wrong shape – which seems ridiculous to us today, but there are things about today that will seem ridiculous in fifty years…)

Darwin attributes to his trip on the Beagle the first real training or education of my mind.”  

He “took much pains in describing carefully and vividly all that I had seen,” ranging from geology (“recording the stratification and nature of the rocks and fossils at many points, always reasoning and predicting what will be found elsewhere”) to collecting animals.  

(He didn’t get everything right – he notes that he attributed something to sea waves that he later recanted when someone proposed a different, better glacier-lake theory.)  It took him over twenty years after he returned to finish The Origin of the Species.

Darwin (in a controversial passage that was originally omitted) notes that he slowly came to disbelieve Christianity, noting in particular that faith-based salvation is a “damnable doctrine.”  He continues with a discussion of religion, stating that the arguments in favor of it seem to be rationalization rather than rational.

Fun quote on page 84 on  status quo bias /  culture /  ideology – “what a good thing it would be, if every scientific man was to die when sixty years old, as afterwards he would be sure to oppose all new doctrines.”  – Why is this?  (See also Lessons of History, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, etc – why do people become set in their ways…?)

Darwin eventually moved out to the country and his health prevented him from socializing too much; however, he managed to be productive, not only writing Origin of the Species but several other well-regarded scientific works.

The appendix contains various and sundry supplements; one useful quote:

it is a fatal fault to reason whilst observing, though so necessary beforehand and so useful afterwards.”  

I didn’t read the Darwin-Butler section.


First Read: summer 2017

Last Read: summer 2017

Number of Times Read: 1


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: summer 2017