Skip to main content

The Autobiography – Charles Darwin ****

I have to confess to putting off reading this book until the last moment, as I expected it to be a typical piece of Victorian sentimental unreadable stodge. I was wrong.
Darwin’s little book (only 150 small pages with appendices) was originally written for his own children, and displays a very personal style of writing – though, as son Francis comments, his style was always more populist than was common then: “In writing he sometimes showed the same strong tendency to strong expressions that he did in conversation. Thus in the Origin, p440, there is a description of a larvel [sic] cirripede ‘with six pairs of beautifully constructed natatory legs, a pair of magnificent compound eyes and extremely complex antennae’. We used to laugh at him for this sentence, which we compared to an advertisement.”
The main book is delightful because it demonstrates Darwin’s self-depreciating modesty, and the fascinating path he took from enthusiastic shooter of game, to amateur geologist (still his main interest when he set out on the Beagle) and self-taught naturalist. He does not describe the voyage of the Beagle at all, leaving that to his published journal, but does describe how, on his return he attempted to apply the scientific rigour of Lyell in geology and Francis Bacon’s concept of collecting all the facts together without hypothesis before going any further, in the process of coming to his ideas on natural selection and evolution.
The main text is supported ably by a pair of appendices added by Francis (or Frank, as Darwin refers to him). The first is Francis’ recollections of life with Darwin, what Darwin was like (he as described as being so ruddy in the face that people thought him very healthy when he wasn’t), and what his days at Down involved.
The second appendix is equally fascinating as it deals with Darwin’s religious beliefs, which have been much misreported, and were important given the on-going clash between some churchgoers and those who support evolution. Early on Darwin was a Christian, but he ended up, in his own words, not an atheist but an agnostic. He says that he could not believe in a revealed religion like Christianity, but that religious beliefs were in no way incompatible with evolutionary theory – there was only a problem if you believed in direct divine design. He seemed to base his agnosticism more on the existence of human suffering than anything deduced from evolution – so creationists, please leave off!
All in all, a pleasant surprise.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Math Without Numbers - Milo Beckman *****

In some ways, this is the best book about pure mathematics for the general reader that I've ever seen.  At first sight, Milo Beckman's assertion that 'the only numbers in this book are the page numbers' seems like one of those testing limits some authors place on themselves, such as Roberto Trotter's interesting attempt to explain cosmology using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language, The Edge of the Sky . But in practice, Beckman's conceit is truly liberating. Dropping numbers enables him to present maths (I can't help but wince a bit at the 'math' in the title) in a far more comprehensible way. Counting and geometry may have been the historical origin of mathematics, but it has moved on. The book is divided into three primary sections - topology, analysis and algebra, plus a rather earnest dialogue on foundations of mathematics exploring the implications of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and a closing section on modelling (

The Ten Equations that Rule the World - David Sumpter ****

David Sumpter makes it clear in this book that a couple of handfuls of equations have a huge influence on our everyday lives. I needed an equation too to give this book a star rating - I’ve never had one where there was such a divergence of feeling about it. I wanted to give it five stars for the exposition of the power and importance of these equations and just two stars for an aspect of the way that Sumpter did it. The fact that the outcome of applying my star balancing equation was four stars emphasises how good the content is. What we have here is ten key equations from applied mathematics. (Strictly, nine, as the tenth isn’t really an equation, it’s the programmer’s favourite ‘If… then…’ - though as a programmer I was always more an ‘If… then… else…’ fan.) Those equations range from the magnificent one behind Bayesian statistics and the predictive power of logistic regression to the method of determining confidence intervals and the kind of influencer matrix so beloved of social m

Galllowglass (SF) - S. J. Morden ****

All fiction has to take liberties with the realities of space travel, but some handle it better than others, and S. J. Morden has gone further than anyone else I can remember in pinning down the detail to make this space-based thriller feel particularly gritty and realistic. The storyline has two key themes: the runaway and asteroid mining. The central character Jaap (Jack) Van der Veerden is an ultra-privileged young man who is determined to escape the clutches of his controlling parents, who through pretty much limitless expenditure intend to live forever, meaning he can apparently never escape their clutches and financial control. He gets away with the SF equivalent of running away to join the circus - running away to space. Luckily, although he has no practical experience, he does have the theoretical knowledge to be an astrogator and gets a position on a dodgy expedition to retrieve a mineral-rich asteroid. I find it impossible to believe that Morden wasn't inspired by the Rob