- Autobiologies: Charles Darwin and the Natural History of the Self by Alexis Harley
“I was born a naturalist,” Charles Darwin wrote in 1838 (qtd. 34). This statement, with which Darwin defended his choice of a scientific career against his father’s skepticism, might be an offhand expression of either academic aspiration or puerile rebellion. But from the pen of the nineteenth century’s best-known evolutionist, this assertion of an inborn trait deviating from the parent type demands a second look. Could we read Darwin’s autobiography as an elaboration of modification and descent via natural selection applied to the man himself? What new insights into the particularly Victorian intersection of evolutionary theory and life writing would be gained if we did? Alexis Harley’s engaging and provocative Autobiologies: Charles Darwin and the Natural History of the Self investigates these questions, refreshingly extending its focus beyond Darwin to the autobiographical turn of other Victorian evolutionists like Herbert Spencer and authors like Oscar Wilde and Alfred Tennyson who deployed elements of evolutionary theory in forging their own philosophies of life, art, and death.
Reading Harley’s study illuminates how overdue her exploration into nineteenth-century evolutionists’ penchant for autobiography is. Her preface reminds us that not only Darwin and Spencer, but also Alfred Russel Wallace and Francis Galton, among others, dabbled in the genre. Though Gillian Beer’s landmark Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983) drew scholars’ attention to the metaphoric textures and ambivalences of Darwin’s scientific work more than thirty years ago, the interplay of life writing and the life sciences in Darwin’s and his naturalist colleagues’ collective adoption of autobiography remains little discussed. Harley’s book remedies this oversight and, in the tradition that Beer spearheaded, acknowledges that the flow of ideas went both ways. Autobiography becomes, in Harley’s analyses, not simply a theater for scientists to perform their life stories as instances of evolution. She shows that evolutionary theory also borrowed distinctly narrative definitions of selfhood and expectations about individual growth and heredity from autobiographical literature. The result is an ambitious attempt by Harley to disentangle the motley threads of scientific theory and literary form running through these personal explorations into the evolutionary self.
The first of Harley’s three sections focuses on Darwin’s scientific arguments, memoirs, and diaries: the last of which she convincingly reads as a hybrid of professional observation and personal reflection. She argues that, in his account of his innate scientific talents, Darwin’s autobiography reinforces the primacy of hard wiring over nurture. She suggests that his failure to acknowledge the cousin marriages within his family [End Page 155] constitutes a conscious dodge by a biologist concerned with the hereditary consequences of inbreeding. Through Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Harley continues to trace this project of self-fashioning. She maintains that, concentrating on the emotions of humans and animals and acknowledging his own mediated acts of observation, Darwin originated his theories about the development of sympathy in nature in tandem with his construction of himself as a sympathetic interpreter of nature’s processes.
Though Darwin invites extended attention, Harley next explores other evolutionists and the profuse permutations within evolutionary theory that shaped and were shaped by autobiographical forms. Because of his insistence on a causal connection between the evolution of species and the growth of the individual, Spencer’s personal writings might be expected to reveal the most visible overlaps with his biological theories. Though Harley recognizes Spencer’s distinct brand of evolution, her analysis of An Autobiography (1904) focuses on his anxieties about his own ill health, bachelorhood, and childlessness: factors that excluded him from the category of the so-called evolutionarily fit. A related antagonism between science and selfhood occurs in Harriet Martineau’s autobiographical efforts. Though Martineau’s autobiography is indebted to Auguste Comte, Harley detects in her meditations on suicide and...