It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.
Kinda just want this last chapter to be over, now; the current topic bores me and is in many respects very out of date.
Darwin's follow-up to Origin of Species, about variation in form through domestic selective breeding, was twice as long as his more famous and ground-breaking work! Anyone who's read OoS must surely be daunted by the prospect of reading something twice as long on a much narrower topic.
Even though papers on the theory of natural selection by Wallace and Darwin were read at the same meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858, there is no doubt Darwin has precedence; Darwin's paper was an extract of a document he wrote in 1844 that had been seen by others. The earliest evidence that Wallace was even thinking about evolution is from 1854 and in his paper of 1857 natural selection is not mentioned. Darwin had, in fact, first hypothesised natural selection twenty years previous to the 1858 formal publication.
Further evidence that Darwin had social anxiety with people outside his immediate family. We now have: powers of concentration and detailed observation, "special interests" and collecting, bullied at school and formal education in general a struggle despite great ability, prone to severe anxiety, social and otherwise (GAD), depression, preference for quiet environment/privacy/working alone, preference for written communication, "zero or lecture" style communication (wrote a 2500 word letter to a newspaper!) and more...pretty much case closed - Darwin had some form of autism.
Hilarious contradictory couple of pages about how sociable Darwin was: He "withdrew from society" shortly after moving to the country from London. He "had many friends" but only one was local and the others were all scientists that he mainly corresponded with. "Had many visitors" - again mainly fellow scientists - but would only meet them for 1/2hr per day because doing so provoked stomach pains (probably caused by anxiety driven hyperventilation). This is the area where I was doubtful Darwin met the criteria for an autism diagnosis - I am nearly convinced he was autistic, now. More evidence of social difficulties will be decisive in my mind.
During the nearly 5 years of the Beagle expedition, Darwin went from intending to join the Clergy to planning a life as a scientist. He'd never been enthusiastic about the religious aspect of Church life, seeming keener on the country lifestyle than giving sermons. In the end he got what was, for him, the best of both worlds; a life in science, lived in the country, being as his family was, independently wealthy.
The author suggests that Darwin was more concerned with geology than biology during the Beagle journey. From my recollections of The Voyage of the Beagle, both featured strongly in the published Journal, but in terms of theorising, geology hugely outweighs zoology or botany. Evolution is not mentioned in the contemporary writings about the voyage and only appears briefly in the Journal as a later interpolation.
This book has problems that made it nowhere near as worthwhile as I'd hoped:
First, it's full of fragments, except where the wholes are very short, anyway. Excerpts just make me want to see the full thing, to get the context and story properly. Second, there's poetry in here, but it's translated as prose. Whenever someone says, "It's not possible to translate poetry," they really mean, "I'm not up to the task but my ego won't allow me to admit it."
One does get a flavour of the literatures (all six Celtic languages) but it forever left me wanting more or better.
So far there is little to suggest Darwin suffered the social difficulties that form an important part of an autism diagnosis. It might be necessary to go directly to his letters to get a better idea about this. The fact that Darwin clearly had what are referred to as "special interests" from a young age still gives autism more explanatory power than the bereavement/difficult father theory. I have arrived at no firm conclusion either way, yet. This is in contrast to Einstein and Dirac where the evidence seems to me overwhelmingly in favour of an autism diagnosis.
For my purposes I need 3 extremely influential scientists who were probably autistic; I have two. If I conclude Darwin probably wasn't or at least the evidence is inconclusive, I can fall back on the suggestion of Newton and see how that turns out - but I do have a deadline - the talk is to be given during the first week of July.
Reading this feels a bit voyeuristic, in that it was intended as a family document rather than a public one. It's short and not a very good biography; it talks in little detail about Darwin's life or character, whilst rambling about the personalities of various other contemporary scientists, Darwin's religious views and his own books. It's nevertheless of some interest and so short as to hardly allow for getting bogged down. It's nowhere near as fun as The Voyage of the Beagle or as important as On the Origin of Species, however.
It is probably most useful for the section on how developing his theory of evolution eroded his faith in literal interpretation of the Bible and eventually in Christianity altogether.
Darwin was ill for extensive periods of his adult life. There is convincing reason to believe that he was prone to anxiety and that many of his physical symptoms were caused by chronic hyperventilation. The author argues that the anxiety (and rarer bouts of depression) are a result of childhood trauma, vis, bereavement and trouble with his father. The hypothesis of autism, however, not only explains all of the above but also the kind of single minded focus that leads one to spend 8 years classifying every know living and fossil species of barnacle and 20 years developing a theory of evolution, as well as apparent aspects of his interactions with others. It also explains the specific triggers of Darwin's anxiety. The two theories aren't mutually exclusive, but since autism explains more, I am currently convinced by it, though I gather that the idea remains controversial. Still a very long distance to go, though, and I particularly want to check if the social interaction ideas stand up to closer examination.
I go into this monster biography a little warily, because the author admits to having a bit of an axe to grind in respect to the causes of Darwin's adult bouts of protracted illness. The entire biography resulted from a hypothesis that the illnesses were psychological/psychosomatic and heavily influenced by a Freudian notion that it's all down to the death of his mother and a difficult relationship with his father.
We arrived at the physics of MOSFET transistors and the like; this is a topic I found dull as an undergrad, despite liking other solid-state physics topics, such as phonon transport, band theory and even crystallography. This, it appears, is down to the fact that how semi-conductor devices work is really engineering, not physics.