Writing From Below | Autobiologies - Will Abberley
Writing From Below


Will Abberley

Alexis Harley

Autobiologies: Charles Darwin and the Natural History of the Self

Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2015


In recent decades, the scientific writings of Charles Darwin have undergone forensic literary analysis, as critics such as Gillian Beer, George Levine and Gowan Dawson have highlighted the roles of language, form and metaphor in his work and thought. While critics have frequently noted the reciprocity between evolutionary concepts and visions of personal development, inheritance and affinity in the novel, less attention has been given to the links between evolutionary theory and autobiography. Harley’s book starts from the premise that British evolutionists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were interested in writing their own lives to an extent unparalleled among evolutionary thinkers of our own times. Her efforts to explain why offer fertile new ways of understanding the cultural imbrications of evolutionary thought in the long nineteenth century.

Harley observes that Victorian evolutionists were steeped in ‘the traditions of spiritual autobiography’ and ‘the uses of autobiography as a vehicle for proselytizing and apologia’ (viii). It was, therefore, only natural that figures such as Darwin, Herbert Spencer and the Comtean Harriet Martineau would seek to adapt the stories of their own lives into arguments for their theories. Their life-writing appropriated the form of the conversion narrative to produce narratives of de-conversion, reassuring the reader of their sincerity through rigorous self-examination. Further, Harley suggests, autobiography offered a vehicle for these authors to experiment with the implications of evolution for free will, identity, mind and individuality. Such literary experiments aimed to challenge the traditional dualist assumption that human subjectivity existed somehow above the physical processes of the universe. However, Harley argues that this experimental effort was obstructed and derailed by the conventions of autobiography, which were heavily invested in older views of the self as autonomous, free-willed and self-knowing. In this way, evolutionists’ autobiographies testify to ‘the difficulty they experienced in assimilating the full implications of their own ideas’ (4). Further, Harley rightly problematizes evolutionism as a category, pointing out the great diversity of opinion among evolutionary thinkers, from Spencer’s totalizing model of ‘progress’ in society and all human arts to Francis Galton’s biologically essentialist view of character and ability as largely predetermined by heredity. 

One fascinating tension which Harley highlights between the generic tendencies of life-writing and the logic of at least Darwinian evolution is their contrasting emphases on continuity and discontinuity. While evolution by natural selection proceeded by endless incremental changes (often individually so minor as to be practically imperceptible), the life-writing model developed by Romantics like Jean-Jacques Rousseau frequently focussed on turning-points and dramatic epiphanies. As Harley reflects, Darwin’s efforts to narrate his life abrogate the model of autobiography, producing a series of recollections rather than a developmental plot, because his gradualism 'does not dispose itself to storying the individual’ (8). Similarly, the non-teleological nature of specifically Darwinian evolution, unfolding through chance variation and environmental pressures, clashed with the implicit teleology in writers tracking their personal development towards the end-point of the writing itself. Furthermore, evolution tended to downplay the significance of the individual life, assimilating behaviour and character into long-running, intergenerational continuities, be they hereditary or environmental. Such discussion of the disjunctions between evolutionary thought and literary form is a welcome corrective to the all-too-common assumption that, because evolution is a narrative, it therefore unproblematically segues into forms of literary narrative. As Anne DeWitt has recently argued, rhetoric of science and literature as ‘oneculture’, while intellectually liberating, must not be allowed to obscure the many disjunctions and incompatibilities between the two activities.

Nevertheless, Harley’s study still excavates imaginatively productive relationships between evolutionary thought and autobiographical self-scrutiny. Like David Amigoni’s recent work on ideas of inheritance in evolutionists’ life-writing, Harley interrogates Darwin’s interest in his apparently shared personal characteristics with his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, whom he never met. The older Darwin’s tentative thoughts on the possibility of species transmutation seem to resemble a kind of intellectual prefiguration of his grandson’s theory, suggesting that ideas might be passed down as readily as the shape of a nose or the timbre of a voice. Yet Darwin was reluctant to cede much credit for his theory to this (or, indeed, any) ancestor, inclining instead towards a narrative of personal intellectual development that was in keeping with Victorian ideals of the self-made man. Yet Darwin also insisted on the fundamental innateness and immutability of his character through the course of his life, exhibiting an equally Victorian uncertainty over the boundaries between nature and nurture (a division coined, of course, by Galton). Harley further argues that an essentially autobiographic impulse and practice underlay Darwin’s long-term rethinking of humans’ relations to other species. Through close readings of Darwin’s diary during his Beagle voyage, and his later works on human evolution, Harley argues that Darwin used his own subjectivity as a resource for imagining a monistic evolution of mind.

Looking beyond Darwin, Harley’s later chapters offer instructive analyses of how other Victorians tried to adapt the autobiographical form to reflect evolutionary thinking. In his vast ‘natural history of myself’, Herbert Spencer claims to find the history of the race recapitulated in his childhood, and imagines his decidedly idiosyncratic character as the culmination of centuries of individuation (101). Harley contends that the imprisoned Oscar Wilde conceptualized his homosexuality as a form of degeneration, this evolutionary paradigm causing him to slip ‘between professions of his agency and his passivity’ (135). In different ways, Edmund Gosse and Alfred Tennyson are also found to appropriate versions of evolution to make sense of their experiences, both as individuals and artists. Although some of these author studies are more extensive than others, all together they illustrate the rich diversity of responses which evolutionism provoked in writing of and about the self.

Harley’s book offers critics interested in the intersections between evolution and literature some promising potential new points of departure. The argument could be complicated further through discussion of Samuel Butler, not only as an evolutionary thinker, as Harley mentions him, but as an innovative life-writer as well. Butler’s posthumously published The Way of All Flesh (1904) adapted the actions and words (sometimes verbatim) of his parents to produce what is, in some ways, a family memoir disguised as a novel. His intergenerational view of identity worked to counter the individualistic tendencies of life-writing (and the Bildungsroman) noted by Harley, and thus, perhaps, represents a more radical ‘autobiology’ (despite its fictiveness) than Darwin could manage. It is also significant that Butler, of all people, should publically criticize Darwin for insufficiently acknowledging his intellectual precursors. Further, scholars might consider the impact of evolutionary selfhood upon notions of originality and influence in the context of turn-of-the-century authorship. Robert Macfarlane has drawn attention to the growing assumption in late-Victorian culture that literature was not so much a matter of original creation ex nihilo than judicious appropriation and recombination of pre-existing materials. Harley’s study refracts upon such scholarship, suggesting grounds for future research into the complex interweavings of evolutionary discourse and visions of the creative process.



Amigoni, D. (2010). ‘Narrating Darwinian Inheritances: Fields, Life Stories and the Literature-Science Relation’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 11: n. p.

DeWitt, A. (2013). Moral Authority: Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macfarlane, R. (2007). Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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