It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.
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.
What was going on again? Oh, yeah - something completely preposterous. In a book full of preposterous plots, this one stands out because it isn't even a comedy. It reminds me of the daft goings on in Mediaeval romances.
An 11th Century Celtic (Irish) Divine Comedy by an unknown author. Visions of Heaven and Hell seem common in Mediaeval literature. Not really a surprise given the social context.
Darwin knew Charles Babbage! That said, I hope all this analysis of the characters of his acquaintances is over now.