Darwinian Psychobiography

Charles Darwin: A New Life

by John Bowlby
Norton, 511 pp., $24.95

Although not generally known for his contributions to biography, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was a biographer of considerable talents. He is also unusual as a biographer in having chronicled four generations in his own family history. Readers have delighted for more than a century in his Audiobiography (1887), with its charming modesty about his monumental achievements. Darwin’s Autobiography also contains a reverential discussion of his father’s life and thought, and, as such, is almost a dual biography. What is less well known about Darwin is that he also wrote a biography of his grandfather (1879), the poet, evolutionary theorist, and physician Erasmus Darwin. Darwin’s fourth contribution to biography was a sketch of the early development of his first child, William, which he published in 1877 in the new British journal Mind.

Why was Darwin so keenly’ interested in biography? Clearly what inspired a considerable part of his biographical interests was his theory of evolution by natural selection, which he first developed in 1838 shortly after his return from the Beagle voyage (1831–1836). This theory, which set off one of the most radical conceptual revolutions in Western scientific thought, raised the troubling question of whether mankind had evolved from lower animals by a slow process of natural selection. Already in 1838, Darwin had begun to look to his own family history for evidence bearing upon his biological theories. “My handwriting same as grandfather,” he commented in one of his notebooks on the transmutation of species that he kept during this period. Around this same time he began systematically looking to infancy and childhood for clues to man’s evolutionary past. For example, he studied the emergence of facial expressions and other forms of behavior in his son William, born in 1839, and he later followed up his Descent of Man (1871) with a closely related volume called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), in which he drew on these early researches.

As a biographer drawn to psychology and a pioneer in the study of human behavior, Darwin would have been sympathetic to the aims and assumptions of “psychobiography.” When someone once asked him which years in the child’s life were the most significant for later development, his answer was “without doubt, the first three.” Darwin added in justification of this rather bold claim that

the brain at that period is entirely formed—it is a virgin brain adapted to receive impressions, and although unable to formulate or memorize these, they none the less remain and can affect the whole future of the child recipient.

Darwin was also keenly interested in the pioneering experiments by Douglas Spaulding (1873) showing that young chickens undergo a sensitive learning period during which they receive the imprint of the appearance and sounds of the mother hen, and exhibit a “following” instinct. These findings were to have an influence upon Sigmund Freud’s own related doctrine of the “pertinacity of early impressions.” Rediscovered by Konrad Lorenz …

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