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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

28 AUGUST, 2014

Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

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A posthumous diagnosis of the paralyzing mental malady that afflicted one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh — a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library | IndieBound) — his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety — something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 — six years after the completion of The Origin of Species — a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children — a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian's 'Darwin: A Graphic Biography.' Click image for more.

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades — during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.

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12 FEBRUARY, 2014

Charles Darwin on Family, Work, and Happiness

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“Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.”

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) may be best-remembered as the father of evolution, but he was also a man of great dimension and extraordinary capacity for reflection. In his prolific correspondence, he contemplated everything from the pros and cons of marriage to the downturns of mental health. But having married the love of his life and fathered ten children with her, he also frequently pondered questions of fatherhood and family as a backdrop for his broader meditations on love, work, and happiness.

After weighing the benefits of marriage above its costs, Darwin writes to his bride-to-be, Emma, a few days before their wedding in early 1839:

I was thinking this morning how on earth it came, that I, who am fond of talking & am scarcely ever out of spirits, should so entirely rest my notions of happiness on quietness & a good deal of solitude; but I believe the explanation is very simple, & I mention it, because it will give you hopes, that I shall gradually grow less of a brute, — it is that during the five years of my voyage (& indeed I may add these two last) which from the active manner in which they have been passed, may be said to be the commencement of my real life, the whole of my pleasure was derived, from what passed in my mind, whilst admiring views by myself, travelling across the wild desserts or glorious forests, or pacing the deck of the poor little Beagle at night. — Excuse this much egotism, — I give it you, because, I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you.

Darwin’s children relaxing at Down House (Cambridge University Library)

Darwin intuited the “humanizing” capacities of a stable family early on — he was himself the product of loving parenting. In a March 1826 letter, his father writes to 15-year-old Charles:

It made me feel quite melancholy the other day looking at your old garden, & the flowers… I think the time when you & Catherine were little children & I was always with you or thinking about you was the happiest part of my life & I dare say always will be.

But Darwin, a man of rigorous daily routine, was also keenly aware of the tradeoffs between family life and work life, which he lamented facetiously in a letter to a scientist friend about to get married:

I hope that your marriage will not make you idle: happiness, I fear is not good for work.

Still, Darwin knew that science and personal happiness were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. (He wrote in The Descent of Man in 1871: “Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, &c., when playing together, like our own children.”) In a July 1862 letter to his botanist friend Asa Gray, Darwin observes this false choice with equal part wry wit and earnestness:

Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none, — perhaps not a wife; for then there would be nothing in this wide world worth caring for & a man might (whether he would is another question) work away like a Trojan.

Darwin with his eldest son, William Erasmus Darwin, in 1842

Complement with this charming graphic biography of Darwin and the story of how his photos of human emotions revolutionized visual culture.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Emma Darwin’s Stirring Love Letter to Charles

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“I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards.”

Given my soft spot for exquisite love letters, particularly those exchanged between yesteryear’s greats — including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, E. B. White and Katharine White — I was hopelessly heartened to discover a missive addressed to Charles Darwin from Emma Wedgwood, with whom the father of evolution spent the remaining forty years of his life and raised ten children. Found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9 (public library), the letter comes nearly thirty years into their marriage, long after young Darwin penned his famous and timelessly endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage.

In June of 1861, shortly after Darwin faced a major confrontation with the British clergy over their accusations that his theory of evolution was heresy, Emma sends Charles this exquisite testament to love’s power of spiritual elevation:

I cannot tell you the compassion I have felt for all your sufferings for these weeks past that you have had so many drawbacks. Nor the gratitude I have felt for the cheerful & affectionate looks you have given me when I know you have been miserably uncomfortable.

My heart has often been too full to speak or take any notice I am sure you know I love you well enough to believe that I mind your sufferings nearly as much as I should my own & I find the only relief to my own mind is to take it as from God’s hand, & to try to believe that all suffering & illness is meant to help us to exalt our minds & to look forward with hope to a future state. When I see your patience, deep compassion for others self command & above all gratitude for the smallest thing done to help you I cannot help longing that these precious feelings should be offered to Heaven for the sake of your daily happiness. But I find it difficult enough in my own case. I often think of the words “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.” It is feeling & not reasoning that drives one to prayer. I feel presumptuous in writing thus to you.

I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards, as well as to one who values them above every thing in the world. I shall keep this by me till I feel cheerful & comfortable again about you but it has passed through my mind often lately so I thought I would write it partly to relieve my own mind.

To further celebrate the intersection of science and romance, see Darwin’s life adapted in poems by his great-granddaughter, then revisit Richard Dawkins’s beautiful letter to his daughter on the importance of evidence in science and in love.

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28 JUNE, 2013

Scandal, Censorship, Science: How Darwin Shaped Our Understanding of Why Language Exists

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What The Origin of Species and the love of dogs reveal about comprehension and cognition.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf memorably proclaimed in the only surviving recording of her voice. But even in this beautifully aphoristic observation lies an unsolvable chicken-or-egg mystery: Where did words come from in the first place?

Charles Darwinman of routine, graphic novel hero, upbeat evaluator of marriage, occasional grump, poetry muse, rap muse, frequent literary jukeboxer — may have carved his place in history as the father of evolutionary theory, but he also demonstrated that science and the humanities need each other as he made major contributions to our understanding of why language emerged and how it shaped the course of our species.

In The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (public library) — the fascinating chronicle of two intertwined stories, of how language evolved long ago and of what spurred a handful of modern scientists, including Darwin, to explore that mystery at the specific time they did — science writer Christine Kenneally traces Darwin’s linguistic legacy:

Although Darwin mentioned language very little in On the Origin of Species, the book is a keystone for every discussion about language evolution that has followed it. In fact, all debate about who we are and how we came to be on this planet can be divided into conversations that took place before the publication of Origin and those that have taken place after it. Origin was printed six times during Darwin’s lifetime, and many times since. Not only did it introduce the concept of evolution … but it initiated the modern study of evolutionary biology. The flow of books published about Darwin every year seems endless.

Darwin focused more on language in The Descent of Man (1871) than in Origin. Language was not a conscious invention, he said, but “it has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps.” At the same time, he noted, humans don’t speak unless they are taught to do so … because language is “not a true instinct.”

Darwin believed that language was half art, half instinct, and he made the case that using sound to express thoughts and be understood by others was not an activity unique to humans. He cited the examples of monkeys that uttered at least six different cries, of dogs that barked in four or five different tones, and of domesticated fowl that had “at least a dozen significant sounds.” He noted that parrots can sound exactly like humans and described a South American parrot that was the only living creature that could utter the words of an extinct tribe. Darwin included gesture and facial expressions under the rubric of language: “The movements of the features and gestures of monkeys are understood by us, and they partly understand ours.”

In fact, the father of evolution, known for his experiments on emotional expression in humans and animals, was also one of history’s most significant dog-lovers and, at a time when the question of what it means to be human stripped most other sentient beings of comprehension and cognition, he believed dogs were capable of both:

“As everyone knows,” he wrote, “dogs understand many words and sentences.” He likened them to small babies who comprehend a great deal of speech but can’t utter it themselves. Darwin quoted his fellow scholar Leslie Stephen: “A dog frames a general concept of cats or sheep, and knows the corresponding words as well as a philosopher [does].”

He also explored the question of why birds sing with a surprisingly humanistic lens:

Darwin also pointed out compelling parallels between human language and birdsong. All birds, like all humans, utter spontaneous cries of emotion that are very similar. And both also learn how to arrange sound in particular ways from their parents. “The instinctive tendency to acquire an art,” said Darwin, “is not peculiar to man.”

What set us apart from animals, he argued, was a matter of degree, not kind — a greater ability to produce sounds and ideas, an expression of our higher mental powers. Where humans differ from other animals, Darwin believed, is simply in our greater capacity to put together sounds with ideas, which is a function of our higher mental powers.

But as the era’s linguists enthusiastically embraced the perfect parallel biological evolution offered a for the emergence of language, they remained skeptical about how scientific a problem speculating about the origin of language was and were thus ambivalent about adopting Darwin’s theory as fact. Perhaps ironically, given we now know that ignorance is what drives rather than hinders science and Richard Feynman has wisely advised that allowing for uncertainty and doubt is scientists’ chief responsibility, this inability to remain speculative resulted in one of the most profound instances of censorship in scientific history:

The distaste for speculation about language origins culminated in an extraordinary move by the Société de Linguistique of Paris in the nineteenth century: it banned any discussion of the subject, even though it was attracting more and more attention. Its pronouncement read: “The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.” In 1872 the London Philological Society followed suit.

This act of academic censorship, Kenneally writes, had strikingly enduring consequences. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that a handful of modern linguistic heroes — scientists like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker — picked up the vetoed inquiry, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, which is spectacularly stimulating, goes on to explore the enduring mystery of how our vehicle of communication evolved. Kenneally frames the journey with precisely the blend of poetic reflection and rigorous scientific inquiry that underpins the fascinating story she unravels:

For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is little more than air. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere.

[…]

Only very recently have scientists begun to work out how language evolved. But in the same way that no single fossil can provide an answer, no one researcher can solve this problem, which is fundamentally awesome and multifaceted. There will be no Einstein of linguistic evolution, no single grand theory of the emergence of language. Unearthing the earliest origins of words and sentences requires the combined knowledge of half a dozen different disciplines, hundreds of intelligent, dedicated researchers, and a handful of visionary individuals. Finding out how language started requires technology that was invented last week and experiments that were conducted yesterday. It also needs simple basic experiments that have never been done before.

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