Darwin as Biographer

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.1 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.”2 Rediscovered by Konrad Lorenz in the 1930s, such evidence about “imprinting” was to become a cornerstone of modern ethology.

Darwinism and Attachment Theory

These preliminary considerations raise the intriguing question of what psychobiography would be like if it had been developed by Darwin rather than by Sigmund Freud and his followers. John Bowlby’s Charles Darwin: A New Life offers us a tantalizing glimpse of such an alternative and potentially revolutionary biographical approach, and it does so in two fundamental ways. Bowlby, who died in 1990 after this biography was completed, was a distinguished British psychologist. His theory of human development, based on the “attachments” that people form in early life, particularly to parents, was inspired by Lorenz’s work on imprinting in ethology, and involved an explicit repudiation of Freud’s theory of psycho-sexual development Bowlby rejected Freud’s theories because of their fundamentally non-Darwinian tendencies. Although he was originally trained as a psychoanalyst in the 1930s, Bowlby recognized early in his career that much of psycho-analysis was based on outmoded nineteenth-century biological assumptions, such as the inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarckian theory) and the biogenetic law (the notion that the child is destined to recapitulate the adult stages and experiences of our ancestors). As Stephen Jay Gould has shown in Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Lamarck’s faulty theory of inheritance was a necessary mechanism for the functioning of the biogenetic law, allowing it to compress (through a sort of inherited practice) all of the ancestors’ adult stages into the much briefer recapitulation of ontogeny.

In Bowlby’s monumental life’s achievement, his three-volume series Attachment and Loss, he concentrated upon the urgent need to “recast [psychoanalysis] in terms of modern evolutionary theory” or have it otherwise remain “permanently beyond the fringe of the scientific world.”3 In place of what he termed the “jungle of psychoanalysis,” he spent his life attempting to construct a theory of human development that was wholly consistent with Darwinian theory. From a Darwinian perspective, Bowlby argued, the behavior of children who become attached to their parents and others could be seen as eminently normal and adaptive, and primary, rather than as neurotic or “dependent,” and secondarily motivated by other instinctual considerations such as feeding at the breast. In taking this theoretical step, he turned psychoanalytic theory on its head and demoted the libidinal theory of psychosexual development to the trash bin of failed scientific theories.


In rejecting much of psychoanalytic theory, John Bowlby became a Darwinian in a second and equally important way. In place of the speculative inferences drawn from analysis of adult memories, he substituted direct observation of children. In his work on the various psychological disorders deriving from disturbed attachment relationships, he also introduced controlled epidemiological methods, which involved statistical comparisons of thousands of people who did, or did not, lose parents at an early age. Although Bowlby’s novel techniques were severely criticized by many psychoanalysts, including Anna Freud, his research findings—unlike those of psychoanalysis—have become widely accepted by academic psychologists and have spawned an entire subdiscipline within current developmental psychology.

Darwin’s Enigmatic Illness

Nothing could be more fitting, then, that John Bowlby should have turned his attention in the last decade of his life to a biography of Charles Darwin, the scientist whom he revered above all others. The choice of subject was not dictated merely by admiration. Thirty years before, Bowlby had become interested in Darwin’s life after learning from his Autobiography that he had lost his mother at the age of eight and that he had subsequently developed a lifelong affliction of seemingly psychosomatic origins. Intrigued, Bowlby began to investigate the subject, and for nearly three decades he followed the developing literature on the nature of Darwin’s puzzling illness. The more he studied the subject, the more he concluded that Darwin’s life and scientific work were closely interwoven with his illness, and so he was drawn into a fullfledged biography of the man, albeit “a biography with a special slant and inevitable limitations.”

In spite of Bowlby’s own caveat about the limitations of his new book, the result is a remarkably sensitive and revealing portrait of Darwin by a self-trained admirer who come to know more about the man than many Darwin scholars do. Some of these scholars will perhaps not find this biography of particular value, but that may well reflect their professional myopia. As Roy Porter has commented about the profession of the history of science: “Academic history of science has increasingly, in the name of scientific and professional standards, disparaged the personal focus. Its goals have become to study problems not people, issues not individuals, ideologies not inspiration.”4 Darwin scholars, then, have tended to find little place for Darwin as a human being in their accounts of his life. He has remained a kind of mild-mannered thinking machine, a superman of science. Bowlby’s Darwin helps to redress this imbalance and is perhaps an ideal introduction to Darwin’s life and work for the nonspecialist. Moreover, even though as a Darwin scholar I was familiar with most of the manuscript sources used by Bowlby, I found myself appreciating them in a new setting. It was like having stumbled upon previously isolated phrases from a musical score, only to suddenly see them combined by a Mozart into a harmonious whole.

Theories about Darwin’s Illness

I used to think that the problem of Darwin’s illness, being seemingly unsolvable, was a waste of scholars’ time. But no longer. Not only has Bowlby provided a highly convincing explanation for Darwin’s illness, but he has done so in a way that illuminates the creative patterns of Darwin’s scientific work as well as the general style of his emotional life.

Following Darwin’s return from the Beagle voyage (during which he exhibited mostly robust health and tireless energy), he developed “violent shivering and vomiting attacks” that were typically brought on by overwork or by the excitement of conversing with people. For most of the remainder of his life, symptoms of dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and occasional hysterical crying often prostrated him. In 1841, at the age of thirty-two, he wrote to a friend that he was “forced to live…very quietly and am able to see scarcely anybody and cannot even talk long with my nearest relations.” He was, as he commented pathetically on another occasion, “confined to a living grave.” Superficially, he has long appeared to be a Victorian hypochondriac, and the lack of a convincing diagnosis from modern medicine has only reinforced this general suspicion.

In 1959, the year of the centennial of the Origin of Species, an Israeli parasitologist proposed the novel hypothesis that Darwin was the victim of Chagas’s disease, which is caused by a trypanosome carried by the Benchuca, or “great black bug of the Pampas.” Darwin had reported being badly bitten by these nasty little creatures during his overland trip to Mendoza, Argentina, in 1835. Although other medical diagnoses have been offered for Darwin’s illness, such as hiatus hernia and arsenic poisoning, Chagas’s disease (which is responsible for many of the same symptoms displayed by Darwin) has remained by far the most plausible alternative.


Hyperventilation Syndrome

Following the lead of two other physicians who had also wandered into the controversy over Darwin’s illness, Bowlby has endorsed another intriguing diagnosis, namely, hyperventilation syndrome. Sufferers from hyperventilation experience excessive arousal of the autonomic nervous system, which then triggers an increase in breathing. Without a simultaneous increase in energetic action, the victim’s carbon dioxide level drops, precipitating the symptoms, which typically include faintness, tingling, a sense of weakness, and nausea. Anyone can experience these symptoms simply by overbreathing for several minutes. The syndrome is particularly common among city dwellers and sedentary persons, as Darwin became after the Beagle voyage, when his own symptoms first became chronic. Once in the grip of the syndrome, patients often hover just above the level of symptom formation, only to be plunged into a symptomatic state by seemingly trivial causes, such as the increased excitement from conversations that so plagued Darwin. Bad medical advice typically adds to the sufferer’s anxieties, creating a vicious cycle from which the patient often finds it difficult to escape.

The superiority of Bowlby’s diagnosis of hyperventilation syndrome over all of the other medical contenders, including Chagas’s disease, is that it accounts for important features of Darwin’s illness that the others fail to do while also avoiding problematic aspects of these other diagnoses. In particular, Darwin and his family were well aware that his symptoms tended to worsen whenever he was anxious or overworked and that he was, as his wife, Emma, once expressed it, “too much given to anxiety.” Three times in his life Darwin was largely incapacitated by his illness, becoming unable to work for more than an hour or two a day without bringing on symptoms of nausea and vomiting. The first of these episodes occurred just before the birth of his first child and lasted nearly two years. The second began during his father’s terminal illness and continued for several months after his father’s death—in all, about a year. The third occurrence took place in the mid-1860s after he was deeply disappointed by a senior colleague.

Yet Darwin’s symptoms could quickly vanish under a regimen of long walks—sometimes as far as eleven miles—prescribed by his doctors at hydropathic establishments. Similarly, a strenuous trip to Glen Roy, in Scotland, for geological research in 1838 brought about a complete remission of the symptoms he had recently experienced while leading a sedentary life in London, just as his very active youth was largely free of illness. During the last decade of his life Darwin enjoyed surprisingly improved health. This can be attributed to a marked reduction in the reasons for psychological stress that tended to set off his symptoms, namely, the threat of losing his wife during childbirth, frequent ill health among his children, and anticipated or actual opposition to his theories. These various circumstances, it should be noted, tend to rule out a strictly organic complaint such as Chagas’s disease, which increasingly debilitates its victims and would also have made strenuous physical exercise difficult.

So far, Bowlby’s argument is not particularly original, although he does add a great deal of convincing evidence to the hypothesis that Darwin suffered from hyperventilation syndrome. For Bowlby, however, the interesting question is why was Darwin vulnerable to this syndrome in the first place. What is unique about his new biography is the way in which he establishes the intimate connections between the Darwin family’s emotional life (going back two generations), the psychological consequences of Darwin’s loss of his mother at the age of eight, and the eventual manifestation of his illness. The argument is like a Chinese puzzle with numerous carefully interlocking pieces. Moreover, it is a far more convincing “case history” than any ever offered by Sigmund Freud, whose own alluring clinical histories suffer from a mixture of exaggerated claims, highly speculative inferences, and occasional downright distortions of fact.5

Darwin’s Early Life

According to Bowlby, three main factors conspired to create in Darwin a “vulnerable personality.” The first was his mother’s death when he was eight—but this circumstance, by itself, is not considered to be the determining factor. What was unusual, however, about the death of Darwin’s mother was that he had no opportunity to mourn her loss. After her death, Darwin’s sisters and father, owing to their grief, refused ever to talk about her or to speak her name. To this “wall of silence” Darwin later attributed the rather odd circumstance that he could remember almost nothing about his mother—not even what she looked like.

So great was this block that he seems almost to have forgotten that he had ever had a mother. To a cousin who had lost his wife in 1842, Darwin wrote a letter of consolation in which he made the remarkable statement:

Your affecting account of the loss of your poor wife was forwarded to me yesterday…; I truly sympathise with you though never in my life having lost one near relation, I daresay I cannot imagine how severe grief such as yours must be.

Another equally striking episode reinforces the conclusion that Darwin had largely repressed the memory of his mother. The Darwin family used to play a word game in which words could be stolen from another player by adding a letter and creating a new word. After observing someone add the letter M to OTHER to create the word MOTHER, Darwin stared at it for a long time and then objected: “MOETHER; there’s no such word MOETHER.”

The second factor to which Bowlby draws attention is Darwin’s “subsequent difficult, though far from bad,” relationship with his father. Dr. Darwin, a huge man standing six feet two inches in height and weighing more than three hundred pounds, had been reared in a family tradition that considered hard work and determined efforts to forget to be the universal cure for all painful experience. Having lost his own mother at the age of four and a much loved brother at the age of twelve, Dr. Darwin had developed a remarkably retentive memory for painful experiences, which he continually did his best to ward off by overwork and other means. When Darwin once asked his father why he did not drive out of town for a change of scene, his father replied, “Every road out of Shrewsbury is associated in my mind with some painful event.” Dr. Darwin reacted to the death of his wife by turning to “sarcasm and bullying,” and he also became chronically depressed. As a child, Darwin stood in awe of his father, who once castigated him with the angry remark: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”6 Only as an adult did Darwin finally become a favorite of his father’s, but even then he seems never to have been quite certain of his father’s love and respect.

The last factor that Bowlby identifies as undermining Darwin’s self-esteem was his relationship with his two closest older sisters, especially Caroline, who was nine years his senior and who undertook to be a second mother to him. Unfortunately, these sisters were much too dedicated in their efforts to improve their young charge. In his Autobiography Darwin recalls how, when about to enter a room where his sister Caroline was, he would say to himself: “‘What will she blame me for now?’ and I made myself dogged so as not to care what she might say.”7 Darwin never outgrew this subordinate relationship with his older sisters, to whom he wrote during the last year of the Beagle voyage, “You must undertake the task [upon my return] of scolding as in years long gone past, and civilizing me.” In short, what was remarkably absent in Darwin’s childhood was a feeling of secure and unambivalent attachment to anyone.

According to Bowlby, these three factors (Darwin’s lack of opportunity to discuss his mother’s loss, his difficult childhood relationship with his father, and his ambivalent feelings toward his overzealous sisters) combined to make him vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and ultimately the protean symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome. Moreover, recent and carefully designed epidemiological studies, have indeed shown that individuals who have lost a parent in early childhood are two to three times more likely to develop depression and related anxiety disorders, a claim that Bowlby long ago made based on his own clinical observations.8

Darwin’s Patterns of Work

None of these details about Darwin’s ambivalent childhood attachments and his illness as an adult would merit the extreme attention that Bowlby has given them unless he were able to show that they somehow affected Darwin’s scientific work. Bowlby indeed does do this, although it is here that the biography falters by not making its own best case. According to Bowlby’s general argument, the “realistic hopes of today often live alongside obsolete fears deriving from times past.” It was Darwin’s fate to try to overcome these fears by compensatory behavior which, while it indeed fostered his scientific work, at the same time continually undermined his health. Darwin, maintains Bowlby, was plagued by an exaggerated respect for authority and an oversensitivity to criticism, and he became a workaholic in his efforts to defend himself from his ever anticipated shortcomings. “The word ‘holiday,”‘ Darwin confided to his friend Joseph Hooker, “is written in a dead language for me, and much do I grieve it.” His scientific work became the “only thing which makes life endurable to me,” as he confessed to his cousin. Bowlby concludes:

Darwin’s scientific work, from which biology and other sciences have benefited so hugely, served also as an indispensable refuge from the troubles that beset him. Small wonder he overworked. He was a workaholic who pursued his studies according to a daily routine, week in and week out until he could continue no longer.

Just as Bowlby obliterates the image of Darwin as a Victorian hypochondriac, he also resuscitates the image of Emma Darwin, who has been described as “the perfect nurse [who] had married the perfect patient.” Bowlby creates a lively and fascinating portrait of Emma as an untidy, unfussy, large-minded woman, whose childhood nickname (“Little Miss Slip-Slop”) says a great deal about her easygoing ways. She was not, in Bowlby’s view, a “compulsive care-giver,” an assessment that he sees as asserting “a grave misjudgement of Emma’s character and a total neglect of the situation she found herself in.” In Bowlby’s own account, Emma emerges from the historical shadows as a real companion to Darwin, who helped to correct the proofs of the Origin and assisted him in many other ways. As her daughter Henrietta later commented about her mother: “The number of books she read and her original way of looking at them, her interest in contemporary politics and her power of entering into other people’s lives, made her company refreshing and exhilarating.” Much of this revision of Emma’s character is in rebuttal to the thesis that she was in some way responsible for Darwin’s illness, either by pampering him or because of the divergence in their religious views (unlike Darwin, Emma was a believer).

Darwin’s Genius

Bowlby is persuasive in arguing that Darwin’s persistent anxiety and self-doubts, although devastating to his health, underlay his compulsion for “endless diversionary study” and therefore his magnificent contributions to natural science. Still, this is a purely quantitative explanation of Darwin’s achievements, and one must seriously doubt whether the extra motivation and literary output that Darwin gained from his chronic anxiety made up for the considerable time that he lost as a result of illness. What Bowlby does not do in his biography is to take his own thesis seriously enough to tackle the problem of Darwin’s genius, a shortcoming that probably stems from his own cautious nature and his status as a relative amateur in Darwin scholarship.9

Bowlby’s general argument leaves us with a major paradox, namely, why was Darwin so courageous in formulating new concepts and so consistently successful in his radical style of thought? “Since most theories prove to be untenable,” Bowlby points out, “advancing them is a hazardous business and requires courage, a courage that Darwin never lacked.” Although Bowlby duly recognizes this feature in Darwin’s thought, he seems oblivious to the fact that Darwin’s radicalism is inconsistent with his own general biographical thesis about a vulnerable personality. For how was a man who combined an “exaggerated respect for authority and the opinions of others” with a marked “tendency to disparage his own contributions” nevertheless able to be so consistently daring in his scientific thinking? This is a crucial problem in Bowlby’s biography that remains unresolved, yet its solution was seemingly within Bowlby’s grasp, for it is implicit in much of the reasoning that he presents. In what follows, I will offer the kind of argument that I think Bowlby could have made in response to this biographical paradox.

Three important features of Darwin’s intellectual style are put in a wholly new light by Bowlby’s analysis of Darwin’s personality. First, although Darwin indeed had unusual reverence for the opinions of others, he was obviously quite capable of challenging authority and thinking for himself. One explanation for this seeming contradiction is the fact that his childhood attachments were virtually all ambivalent. That is to say (in Bowlby’s terms), Darwin yearned excessively for love and respect, but he also never really trusted in such feelings. The interesting phrase he used in his Autobiography to describe his conflicted relationship with his sister Caroline was of making himself “dogged so as not to care what she might say.” Curiously, Darwin’s favorite explanation of genius was a similar phrase from one of Trollope’s novels, namely, “It’s dogged is as does it.” Thus Darwin himself saw his tenaciousness, which included a strong element of indifference to the opinions of others, as central to his success. From Bowlby’s perspective, these valuable qualities as a scientist can be seen as part of Darwin’s response to his intimidating father and to his overzealous older sisters.

Darwin was also unusual as a scientist in his extreme respect for, and attention to, negative evidence. In the Origin of Species he devoted a whole chapter to “Difficulties on Theory,” which in later editions was expanded into two chapters. As a result of this strategy there were few objections to his theory that he had not already anticipated and attempted to answer. In his Autobiography, he commented on how he followed, throughout most of his life, “a golden rule” of immediately making a memorandum on any fact that came to his attention that was opposed to his theories. He did this because he knew how easy it was to forget such negative instances. From Bowlby’s point of view, it seems reasonable to argue that a moderate degree of lowered self-esteem, which in Darwin was coupled with dogged persistence and unflagging industry, is actually a valuable attribute in science by helping to prevent an overestimation of one’s own theories. Constant self-doubt, then, is a methodological hallmark of good science, even if it is not especially congenial to good psychological health. Once again, Darwin’s lack of any really secure attachment relationships in childhood seems to have allowed him to challenge his own and other people’s theories and therefore “to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved.”10

A third feature of Darwin’s genius was his ability to tap the collective resources of the scientific community and to enlist other scientists as fellow collaborators in his own research projects. He maintained an enormous scientific correspondence, which is only now being published in full and which will run to nearly thirty volumes. Darwin was also remarkable for the elaborate questionnaires that he devised to obtain information, for example, from breeders on patterns of hereditary transmission and from foreign travelers on the nature of facial expressions in non-Western peoples. When he met with scientific friends, he frequently prepared long lists of questions regarding problems in his current scientific work and then “pumped” his colleagues for the answers. In terms of Bowlby’s analysis one can see a connection between Darwin’s ability to turn his colleagues into collaborators and his experiences as a child. What Darwin did as an adult was to institutionalize, in his correspondence and other research activities, a method of constant self-improvement by dutifully listening to others—a proclivity that his sisters had encouraged throughout his childhood.

Implicit in these three qualitative aspects of Darwin’s genius is his ability to tolerate an unusual degree of what Thomas Kuhn has called “the essential tension” that is necessary for doing good scientific research. That tension involves a willingness to trust authority (and hence to be guided by the accepted theoretical beliefs of one’s age) and a simultaneous ability to engage, whenever necessary, in revolutionary science.11 Usually, it is the scientific community as a whole that displays this essential tension between tradition and change, since most people have a preference for one or the other way of thinking. What is relatively rare in the history of science is to find these contradictory qualities combined in such a successful manner in one individual. It is to Bowlby’s considerable credit that his psychobiography of Darwin, which places patterns of childhood attachment at the center of his narrative account, helps to illuminate precisely this exceptional aspect of Darwin’s scientific style.

This discussion brings me back to the contrast between psychobiography the Darwinian way and psychobiography done the way that Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts have typically tried to carry it out. Freud once commented, based on his own personal experience, that people who have been “favoured by their mother[s] give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshakable optimism.”12 If it is true that styles of scientific thinking are even loosely tied to styles of childhood attachment, then Darwin and Freud could not have been more different. Although both were revolutionary personalities, Darwin was unusually concerned about personal error and was modest to a fault. He also erected a new scientific theory that has successfully stood the test of time. Freud, in contrast, was tremendously ambitious and highly self-confident—a self-styled “conquistador” of science. Yet he developed an approach to human nature that was largely a collection of nineteenth-century psychobiological fantasies masquerading as real science. He also oversaw the development of a highly protected institutional mechanism for perpetuating his ideas that succeeded in doing just that—at the expense of open peer criticism and error correction. Freud’s legacy to the discipline of history has been at best questionable and at worst a disaster.13 John Bowlby, as a good Darwinian, has shown us both theoretically and methodologically how psychobiography can be done in a much more responsible manner. His biography is a triumph of the Darwinian method, and it shows us that this method and set of theories, rather than psychoanalysis, is the real handmaiden of good psychobiography.

This Issue

October 10, 1991