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Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

Currently reading

Ack-Ack Macaque
Gareth L. Powell
Progress: 249/792 pages
Introduction to Topology
Bert Mendelson
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James Gleick
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Basics of Plasma Astrophysics
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The Complete Plays and Poems
E.D. Pendry, J.C. Maxwell, Christopher Marlowe
Gravitation (Physics Series)
Kip Thorne;Kip S. Thorne;Charles W. Misner;John Archibald Wheeler;John Wheeler
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Charles Darwin: A New Life, John Bowlby

Charles Darwin: A New Life - John Bowlby

This biography arose out of what was originally intended as a much shorter discussion of the causes of Darwin's chronic ill-health (stomach pains, vomiting) by an author trained in psychology. The thesis is that Darwin did not have any kind of "organic" illness but instead suffered from chronic hyperventilation due to anxiety. Bowlby attributes this anxiety in turn to repressed grieving for the death of Darwin's mother when he was 8 years old and a "difficult" relationship with his father until the Voyage of the Beagle. The "organic illness" theory arises from a notion that Darwin could have been infected with a parasitic illness whilst in South America. There are strong reasons for discounting the latter theory, the two most telling being that symptoms were first mentioned by Darwin in the run up to the departure of the Beagle, before he had ever set foot outside Britain and that symptoms had eased during his final years and he died of something unrelated.


All of this is convincing but it has been suggested that Darwin was autistic and autistic people are prone to anxiety and depression, just as Darwin was. They often show the obsessive focus on narrow topics, "special interests", that Darwin did first in relation to geology, then in relation to natural history, including his eight year definitive study of every living and fossil species of barnacle then known, which was merely part of his 20+ year campaign to justify the evolution of species by natural selection. Darwin also struggled in school (and was bullied) despite his enormous ability - this is not unusual for autistic people either. Nor is his childhood penchant for collecting things for their own sake.


Bowlby suggests Darwin was "sociable" which would counter an autism diagnosis but in fact goes on to say that he could only meet people for 1/2 hr max. before anxiety would overcome him and lead to a vomiting attack. Darwin also moved out of London to the country in Kent, attended few formal functions, including receipt of medals, memberships of learned societies and so forth and had only one real friend who was not also a scientific colleague. He much prefered to communicate by letter and wrote extensively to other scientists.


The idea that Darwin was traumatised in childhood and that this affected his later life is not mutually exclusive to the notion that he was autistic but the latter clearly explains more of the significant features of Darwin's life than the former and though the idea is currently controversial (much more so than for Einstein and Dirac) I am convinced he was.


As for the biography in general, it's good: the author expressly states that he is not competent to give a deep explanation of Darwin's science or how it is viewed now. You'll have to look elsewhere for that. If you accept that, then this is a good, detailed, look at Darwin's life. My one criticism is that Bowlby keeps on being dragged off on tangents; the coverage of Darwin's parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, wife and colleagues is excessive and probably would cut the book down by ~50p if reduced to a sensible level, without really impairing one's understanding of the real subject: Darwin.