Autobiography

1.     What were Charles Darwin’s intended audiences for this autobiography? How might these audiences have differed in their expectations? Can you see ways in which the need to appeal to alternate tastes may have affected his remarks?

2.     With what topics would his fellow scientists have been most concerned? His Victorian audience? His family?

3.     What is revealed by the nature of the passages which his wife wished omitted?

4.     With what aspects of his childhood is Darwin most concerned? How does he describe his earlier self? (love of hunting, collecting)

5.     What account does he give of his father, teacher, and mentors? His sisters? His extended family, including the Wedgewoods? Which aspects of their character or conduct is emphasized in each case?

6.     How may his father have influenced his interests and ambitions?

7.     What seems to be the principle of selection for many of his anecdotes?

8.     What account does Darwin give of his response to formal education both as a boy and as a university student?

9.     In his view what were the limitations of his early training? Of the universities he attended? Why may he not have wished to become a doctor? 

10.     Of what value to him were his residences in Edinburgh and Cambridge?

11.     What did he gain from his experiences as a naturalist on the Beagle? Does he describe what he sees in aesthetic terms?

12.     What account does he give of the Captain of the vessel? What does he mean when he describes Fitz-Roy as “noble”?

13.     What views does Darwin express on the topics of religion and moral feeling? On what religious/moral subjects does he seem ambivalent?

14.     What experiences impressed him with the importance of explanatory theories for scientific discovery?

15.     What attitudes does he express toward animals? Toward plants? What do you think he means in referring to the great suffering of animals?

16.     What were some of Darwin’s early cultural interests? (poetry, music) Why does he believe he is less able to enjoy these in later life? Do you think this is a common phenomenon?

17.     In old age, what kind of literature does he prefer? (light fiction with happy endings) Why do you think he was attracted to the latter?

18.     What do we learn about his health? His personal preferences regarding his mode of life? His social contacts?

19.     Does the Autobiography indicate any political views? On which social issues does Darwin seem to feel most strongly?

20.     What circumstances have enabled him to devote himself entirely to his writings? What topics have these covered, and on which does he look back most fondly?

21.     What does Darwin indicate about his habits of study and composition?

22.     As he looks back, what experiences have most affected him? What intellectual self-estimate does he give?

23.     What are some features of Darwin’s prose style?

24.     Would you describe the narrator of this autobiography as competitive? Fair in his judgments? To what extent is he a reliable narrator?

25.     How would you compare Darwin’s autobiography to those by fellow Victorians such as Martineau, Oliphant, Trollope, or John Stuart Mill? How may his autobiography have been influenced by the fact that he was a scientist rather than critic or creative writer?

Conclusion to The Descent of Man:

What conclusion does Darwin reach in viewing the structural relationship between man and other animals? The difference between human races and sexes?

What does Darwin find to be the determining element in human development? Is further development possible?

What effect has the development of language produced on human intelligence?

What conclusion does he reach about the factors which should be desirable in human selection? Are these entirely consistent with his examples of the decorated peacocks, etc.?

What is the relationship of moral qualities to human development? In his view, what motivates humans toward good behavior? Do you find his explanations of the relationship of morality to evolution convincing?

According to Darwin, may moral traits be inherited? (“It is not improbably that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited.”) What may have prompted him to this opinion? Would present-day scientists share these views?

What seems his attitude toward contemporary discussions of eugenics?

What attitudes does he express toward non-European races? Towards non-“civilized” forms of social organization? (“lowly progenitors”)

What does he make of the argument that a belief in a deity is inherent in all human beings? (it’s not; and notions of gods, spirits, etc. may differ)

Which sex most nearly approaches to permanent childhood? (“the female somewhat resembles her young offspring throughout life”) Would this have been a common view at the time? From what misperceptions may it result?

What do you make of the argument that “variations arising late in life are commonly transmitted to one and the same sex”? What may he have had in mind?

What does he feel about limitations on population, such as birth control? (opposes strongly; competition will produce a better species; the able should produce more offspring) Did Darwin’s life follow the trajectory of competition for economic survival? (independently wealthy)

What scene does he evoke in his final peroration? Why should humans not feel shame at their descent from lower animals?

What may be limits on human development? (“Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”) Is his final view of the effects of evolution an optimistic one?