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:  
Kindle:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…