- LAST REVIEWED: 11 March 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0056
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 March 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0056
Anyone beginning to learn about Charles Darwin (b. 1809–d. 1882) will sooner or later need to reckon with the vast body of writings by him and about him. This bibliographic guide aims to help newcomers find their way to the best of classic and recent scholarship. As the major episodes and achievements of Darwin’s life organize the main part of this guide, it is well to start with a brief biographical sketch. Born and educated in the English town of Shrewsbury, Darwin attended Edinburgh University medical school and then Cambridge University, where he received clerical-scientific training. Next came five years traveling around the world aboard HMS Beagle (1831–1836), followed by several years of intense geological publishing and private theorizing from a base in London. It was in this period that Darwin developed many of his distinctive ideas about the evolution or, to use the vocabulary of the day, “transmutation” of species, including the two most important: that living and fossil species belong to a branching “tree of life;” and that much of the evolutionary change propelling the gradual growth of this tree is due to a process that Darwin called “natural selection.” The decades from 1842 to 1882, spent largely at Down House in Kent with his wife Emma and their ever more numerous children, were immensely productive, domestically contented, physically trying (due to a mysterious illness), and—after the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859—scientifically controversial. From start to finish, it was a life of great privilege. Darwin’s grandfathers were the pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood and the physician, poet, and scientific (indeed evolutionary) thinker Erasmus Darwin. In an era when no one in Britain could study for a university science degree, young Charles received the best scientific education available, especially from the naturalist Robert Grant at Edinburgh and the geologist Adam Sedgwick and botanist John Stevens Henslow at Cambridge. Darwin’s costs on the Beagle voyage were covered courtesy of his wealthy father, Robert. On returning from the voyage, Darwin moved easily among the London scientific elite, becoming close with Charles Lyell, whose books on gradualist geology Darwin had absorbed. Nor did it hurt that, between Darwin family money and the Wedgwood family money that came with marriage to Emma (his first cousin), Darwin was very rich, leaving him free—when not undone by illness—to devote himself fully to his scientific pursuits.
The best overview of Darwin’s life and work currently available is the long Oxford Dictionary of National Biography essay on him, including a comprehensive bibliography, by the outstanding Darwin biographers of our time, Desmond, et al. 2004. On a larger scale, their great cradle-to-grave biographies remain indispensable and offer complementary emphases. Where the Darwin of Browne 1995‒2002 moves through the genteel worlds of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, the Darwin of Desmond and Moore 1991 is the product of a society in the throes of unprecedented capitalist expansion and strife, whose most brilliant observer was Karl Marx. Without repudiating that interpretation, Desmond and Moore 2009 offers a new and different one, stressing the Darwin family’s position in the anti-slavery campaigns of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as formative for Darwin and, in complex ways, informing his later evolutionary theorizing. More recently still, Bowler 2013 distills a lifetime’s scholarship on post-Darwinian evolutionary biology and its impact into a highly original “counterfactual” historical study, looking at what science and the world would have been like had Darwin not lived to publish the Origin of Species. As for what actually did happen historically, Depew and Weber 1995, Gayon 1998, and Gould 2002 should be consulted for extraordinarily good, and different, reconstructions of the origins, development, and subsequent history of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Readers interested in understanding Darwin psychologically can still profit from Bowlby 1990, though psychologizing Darwin has its pitfalls. On the case against a standard view of Darwin’s reaction to the death of his daughter Annie, see van Wyhe and Pallen 2012.
Bowlby, John. 1990. Charles Darwin: A new biography. London: Hutchinson.
A psychiatrist best remembered for his emphasis on the importance to children of close, loving relationships with their mothers, Bowlby in this biography explored sensitively the consequences for Darwin of the early death of his mother Susannah.
Bowler, Peter J. 2013. Darwin deleted: Imagining a world without Darwin. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Without Darwin’s Origin, biology would have gone evolutionist anyway but, among other differences, without all the regrettable religious commotion: or so this innovative and invaluable book argues.
Browne, Janet. 1995‒2002. Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. 2 vols. London: Jonathan Cape.
The biography to read if one can manage a two-volume treatment; the pace is stately, and the genteel sociability of Darwin’s class is brought to the fore, from Shrewsbury to London clubland to Down House and (thanks to Darwin’s extensive correspondence network) far beyond.
Depew, David J., and Bruce H. Weber. 1995. Darwinism evolving: Systems dynamics and the genealogy of natural selection. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
A big-picture study, philosophically and sociological acute, dividing natural-selection theorizing into three eras, Newtonian (Darwin), Boltzmannian (Galton to Fisher), and complexitarian (no champion yet).
Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. 1991. Darwin. London: Michael Joseph.
The biography to read if one can manage only a one-volume treatment; the pace is fast, and the Whig politics of Darwin’s class are brought to the fore, linked to his theory’s emphases on competition and gradual, upward change.
Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. 2009. Darwin’s sacred cause: Race, slavery and the quest for human origins. London: Allen Lane.
A brilliant if controversial development of the Whig-political reading of Darwin’s science, connecting his defense of a common ancestry for all life to the abolitionists’ defense of a common ancestry for the human races.
Desmond, Adrian, James Moore, and Janet Browne. 2004. Darwin, Charles Robert. In Oxford dictionary of national biography. Vol. 15. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 177‒202. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
A concise but comprehensive and state-of-the-art summary of Darwin’s life at long-article length, with a rich discussion near the end of the development of Darwin scholarship. Also published as a separate volume, entitled Darwin, in the Very Interesting People series.
Gayon, Jean. 1998. Darwinism’s struggle for survival: Heredity and the hypothesis of natural selection. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
With immense scholarship, this book examines attempts to integrate the theory of natural selection with the changing scientific understanding of heredity between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
A paleontologist famous both for his innovative biological theorizing and for his superb popular books and essays, Gould here offered a striking analysis of the logical structure of Darwin’s theory and its role in organizing subsequent thinking and debate.
van Wyhe, John, and Mark J. Pallen. 2012. The “Annie hypothesis”: Did the death of his daughter cause Darwin to “give up Christianity”? Centaurus 54:1–19.
There is more to be said about why the death of Annie Darwin probably did not induce a loss of faith in her father; this article nevertheless says enough to ensure that readers will not treat the “Annie hypothesis” as established fact.
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