Reef Madness 10: Darwin’s Earthquake

Cathedral at Conception, Chile, ruined in 1835 earthquake that shook Darwin deep.

This is the 10th installment of an abridged version of my book Reef Madness: Alexander Agassiz, Charles Darwin, and the Meaning of Coral. (Earlier installments are listed at bottom.) Here a quake in Chile rearranges Darwin’s thinking about the earth — and lays the foundation for his coral reef theory.

© David Dobbs, 2011. All rights reserved.


Darwin found geology in the Andes so enthralling, he wrote his sister, that he “could hardly sleep at night for thinking over my days work.” Through much of 1834 and most of 1835 he took long horseback expeditions all over the still-rising Cordillera and its flanking ranges. Ignoring the ocean almost completely and leaving most zoological collecting to his assistant, he paused in his travels only when he had to reboard the Beagle to travel up the coast or, twice, when gastrointestinal torments laid him out. (Though these illnesses were apparently genuine, probably due to intestinal parasites, they seem to have laid the mental seed for the psychosomatic gastric distresses of his later life.)

Roaming the Andes in clear light, he found they beautifully demonstrated Lyell’s long, incremental view of the earth’s construction. “The stratification in all the mountains is beautifully distinct and from a variety in the colour can be seen at great distances,” he wrote Henslow; they lay like the page-edges of a book. “I cannot imagine any part of the world presenting a more extraordinary scene of the breaking up of the crust of the globe.”

He was not there long before witnessing this breaking up directly. On February 20, 1835, he was camping in the dense forest of southern Chile when a massive earthquake struck. Though Darwin was some twenty miles from the epicenter, the quake rearranged his visceral sense of the earth as thoroughly as Lyell had rearranged his theoretical conception of it.

An earthquake like this at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, moves beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid; a second of time conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never create.

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The VA Fails at PTSD Treatment – Again

HicksSoldier.jpgA few days ago the Times ran a story wondering why antipsychotics aren’t helping American combat vets with PTSD. The Times calls this finding ‘surprising.’ Yet it should surprise no one. For one thing, antipsychotics haven’t worked very well for off-label treatments in general. But the real problem is that almost nothing the US Veterans Administration (VA) tries works for American vets with PTSD.

Here’s the story:

Antipsychotic Doesn’t Ease Veterans’ Post-Traumatic Stress, Study Finds –

Drugs widely prescribed to treat severe post-traumatic stress symptoms for veterans are no more effective than placebos and come with serious side effects, including weight gain and fatigue, researchers reported on Tuesday.

The surprising finding, from the largest study of its kind in veterans, challenges current treatment standards so directly that it could alter practice soon, some experts said.

Ten percent to 20 percent of those who see heavy combat develop lasting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and about a fifth of those who get treatment receive a prescription for a so-called antipsychotic medication, according to government numbers.

I haven’t seen the paper yet, for this study, though done with taxpayer money on tax-funded soldiers who are treated with taxpayer dollars, is not open to public view. However, I’m not at all surprised with these results, for a) antipsychotics are a weird choice for PTSD to start with, since they’re aimed at psychoses, not mood disorders, and, more especially, b) almost nothing the VA aims at PTSD works, because their absurd treatment regime includes paying veterans to get sick but not to get better. This is why few VA programs work — and why PTSD rates in US vets are 2 to 5 times that of rates in UK and other veterans of the same conflicts.

If you want to know why these treatments aren’t working, you can get much of it from a feature I wrote three years ago, but which remains painfully relevant because of the resistance of both the VA and wider US society to questioning the VA’s unproductive approach to PTSD. [Note: I added this excerpt on Aug 19, 2011]: Here’s the passage about how the VA’s benefits package undermines its treatment efforts:

[W]hat does a veteran gain with a PTSD diagnosis? One would hope, of course, that it grants access to effective treatment and support. This is not happening. In civilian populations, two thirds of PTSD patients respond to treatment. But as psychologist Christopher Frueh, who researched and treated PTSD for the VA from the early 1990s until 2006, notes, “In the two largest VA studies of combat veterans, neither showed a treatment effect. Vets getting PTSD treatment from the VA are no more likely to get better than they would on their own.”

The reason, Frueh says, is the collision of the PTSD construct’s vagaries with the VA’s disability system, in which every benefit seems structured to discourage recovery.

The first benefit is health care. PTSD is by far the easiest mental health diagnosis to have declared “service-connected,” a designation that often means the difference between little or no care and broad, lasting health coverage. Service connection also makes a vet eligible for monthly disability payments of up to $3,000. That link may explain why most veterans getting PTSD treatment from the VA report worsening symptoms until they are designated 100 percent disabled—at which point their use of VA mental health services drops by 82 percent. It may also help explain why, although the risk of PTSD from a traumatic event drops as time passes, the number of Vietnam veterans applying for PTSD disability almost doubled between 1999 and 2004, driving total PTSD disability payments to more than $4 billion annually.

Perhaps most disastrously, these payments continue only if you are sick. For unlike a vet who has lost a leg, a vet with PTSD loses disabil- ity benefits as soon as he recovers or starts work- ing. The entire system seems designed to encour- age chronic disability. “In the several years I spent in VA PTSD clinics,” Frueh says, “I can’t think of a single PTSD patient who left treatment because he got better. But the problem is not the veterans. The problem is that the VA’s disability system, which is 60 years old now, ig- nores all the intervening research we have on re- silience, on the power of expectancy, and on the effects of incentives and disincentives. Som times I think they should just blow it up and start over.” But with what?

Richard A. Bryant, an Australian PTSD re- searcher and clinician, suggests a disability system more like that in place Down Under. An Australian soldier injured in combat receives a lifelong “noneconomic” disability payment of $300 to $1,200 monthly. If the injury keeps him from working, he also gets an “incapacity” payment, as well as job training and help finding work. Finally—a crucial feature—he retains all these benefits for two years once he goes back to work. After that, incapacity payments taper to zero over five years. But noneconomic payments—a kind of financial Purple Heart—continue forever. And like all Australians, the soldier gets free lifetime health care. Australian vets come home to an utterly different support system from ours: Theirs is a scaffold they can climb. Ours is a low-hanging “safety net” liable to trap anyone who falls in.

Someone will accuse me of questioning the honesty of veterans. I’m not. Pay any group of people to stay sick, and you’ll have a hard time making them better. I’m questioning the way the VA diagnoses and treats PTSD. It’s one of the great fails in psychiatry of the last 40 years — and that’s saying a lot.


  • How questioning PTSD makes me an apologist for imperialist violence
  • The combat veteran as sheepdog turned wolf: PTSD and medicalization
  • Doug Bremner’s ‘strike’ at me and the PTSD establishment (not)
  • What if you could predict PTSD in combat troops? Oh, who cares …
  • PTSD: Two new programs; two big ignored questions
  • Veterans’ suicides, PTSD, and old thinking: Or why we need a “surge” at the VA
  • NEJM study finds post-event morphine cuts combat PTSD rates in half
  • Richard McNally on PTSD rates in Vietnam Veterans – PTSD, Vietnam …

Photo: Tyler Hicks for NY Times

Reef Madness 9: Charles Darwin & the Pleasure of Gambling


This is the ninth installment of an abridged version of my book Reef Madness: Alexander Agassiz, Charles Darwin, and the Meaning of Coral.  Here we see, with some surprise, that the world’s most famous zoologist thought of himself, in his most crucial formative stage, as a geologist.

© David Dobbs, 2011. All rights reserved.


The Beagle trip made Darwin, forming his mind and giving him the material for most of his major works. He later called the journey (which took five years rather than two) “by far the most important event in my life.…  I owe to the voyage [my] first real training or education” as well as the “habit of energetic industry and … concentrated attention.” He began the trip an unfocused idler and finished it a hard worker and penetrating theorist.

His wistful recollections of the journey also suggest that he later saw this period as the time he was most completely alive — still physically adventurous even as he first experienced the exaltation of deep intellectual engagement. His physical and mental exertions were linked more seamlessly than they ever would be again, for his fieldwork sparked an ongoing interplay of observation and abstraction. “Everything about which I thought or read,” he said of that time, “was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see.” This sentence describes precisely the loop of thought, observation, speculation, and reshaped thought that marks Darwin’s mature method. It is a method that puts thought first — ideation inspiring examination, rather than vice-versa — and weighs reasonable conjecture (“what I … was likely to see”) as heavily as actual observation (“what I had seen”). Every outing both shaped and was shaped by the theoretical framework taking shape in his head.

Darwin was introduced to this sort of thinking early in the Beagle voyage by another book that changed his life and thinking, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Reading the freshly published Volume One (of an eventual three) in his first days at sea, he thrilled to find an intellectual world opening in his head even as a new, corresponding physical world opened beyond the ship’s rail. “The Principles,” Darwin would write a decade later, “… altered the whole tone of one’s mind and thence when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes.” The influence was so great that “I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyell’s brain.”

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Reef Madness 8: A Dissipated, Low-Minded Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin in the late 1830s

This is the eighth installment of an abridged version of my book Reef Madness: Alexander Agassiz, Charles Darwin, and the Meaning of Coral. (Earlier installments are listed at bottom.) Here we meet Charles Darwin — first he experiences the thrilling geology of Chile, and then, in a flashback, as a young man who showed little promise of becoming the century’s most influential scientist.


The Beagle, having spent much of the preceding few months in dismal weather off Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, reached the sunny Chilean port of Valparaiso on July 23, 1834. “After Tierra del Fuego,” wrote Darwin, the dry, clear climate “felt delicious.” He was entranced with the sight of the mountains, some as high as 23,000 feet, dozens of miles away. Securing horses and a guide, he rode into the foothills. His interest rose with the landscape. As Alex would later, Darwin found fascinating the uplift suggested by the steep terrain. “Who can avoid wondering at the force which has upheaved these mountains, and even more so at the countless ages which it must have required to have broken through, removed, and leveled whole masses of them?” he wrote in the Voyage of the Beagle.

In his first trip he headed north along the coast to Quintero “to see the beds of shells, which stand some yards above the level of the sea.” — almost certainly the same shells, blanketing seaside terraces several hundred yards high, that Alex would examine four decades later. To both men these benches spoke of remarkable, repeated rises in the land. For Alex it was these “ancient Sea beaches,” along with coral he found several thousand feet up in the Andes, that made him “wish I could have time to remain here to study the uprising of the land; there is a good deal to do and quite interesting work…. I believe however Darwin has already done something in this line.”

Darwin indeed had, for he spent the sort of extended time in the Andes that Alex didn’t allow himself. For much of 1834 and 1835, while the Beagle mapped the coasts of Chile and Peru, Darwin explored the Andes, climbing and riding up their peaks and cutting across their valleys, “geologizing,” as he called it, to his heart’s content. These landlocked months in the Andes contributed as much to his coral reef theory as the Galapagos visit did to his evolutionary theory. In fact they probably shaped his scientific approach as much as anything on the voyage. For it was here, studying uplift, that he began to indulge the broad-scale, speculative theorizing that characterized both his spectacular successes, like the theory of evolution, and his embarrassing mistakes, such as at Glen Roy.

The young man who hammered rock in the Andes is unrecognizable as the sedentary, dyspeptic thinker who dominates our popular historical picture of Darwin. He was a healthy, insatiably curious man just twenty-four, younger by more than a decade than Alex was when he rode through the Andes and, during this time of his life, just as rugged if more innocent. The man who from his mid-thirties on would rarely travel (and then usually only to take a “water cure” or some other palliative for his gastric torments) was at this point strong and lithe, quick to travel amid real dangers posed by bandits, rebels, and deadly weather. While no Thoreau (he was less wild and irreverent; indeed, he hated rocking the boat), he was hardly untouched by the age’s Romantic vision of wild nature as a transformative place. He took a Wordsworthian pleasure in his rambles. “I cannot tell you how I enjoyed some of these views,” he wrote his Cambridge mentor John Henslow. “It is worth coming from England once to feel such intense delight. At an elevation from 10-12000 ft. there is a transparency in the air & a confusion of distances & a sort of stillness which gives the sensation of being in another world.” He also found exciting his own growing comfort in these distant heights, so remote and rarefied that even most animals forsook them. “We unsaddled our horses near the spring,” he wrote of one excursion he took into the mountains with two cowhands as guides,

and prepared to pass the night. The setting of the sun was glorious, the valleys being black whilst the snowy peaks of the Andes yet retained a ruby tint. When it was dark, we made a fire beneath a little arbour of bamboos, fried our charqui (or dried slips of beef), took our matte and were quite comfortable. There is an inexpressible charm in thus living in the open air. The evening was so calm and still; the shrill noise of the mountain bizcacha & the faint cry of the goatsucker were only occasionally to be heard. Besides these, few birds or even insects frequent these dry parched up mountains.

Though such wilderness was new to him, Darwin was no stranger to the outdoors. He had been an avid bird hunter and walker throughout his youth. Born in Shrewsbury in 1809 (a year before Louis Agassiz), he was the fifth of six children. He lost his mother when he was eight. His father, Robert Darwin, a doctor successful and rich, was a mercurial and sometimes harsh man. Yet he indulged a certain idleness in his youngest boy, whose namesake was the doctor’s older brother, whose death at twenty had devastated his entire family. The second Charles also had another, more reliably benevolent patriarch in his uncle Josiah Wedgwood, brother to Charles’s dead mother and founder of the Wedgwood china dynasty. Josiah lived 30 miles from the Darwins on a huge estate called Maer, where Charles was always welcome. There Charles spent much time hunting, riding, walking, and, in the waning light after a day outdoors, happily conversing with his uncle, aunt, cousins, and their friends.

He especially loved to hunt. Under the tutelage of his uncle, his own older brother, and Maer’s gamekeepers, he became a crack shot. He soon outhunted everyone, spending weeks each fall exercising a “zeal … so great,” he recalled in his charming and disarming Autobiography, that “I would place my shooting-boots open by my bedside so as not to lose a half-minute putting them on in the morning.” He was obsessed. In off-seasons he refined his upland bird technique by practicing his gun-raising before a mirror and shooting out the flames of moving candles with an airgun. In season, he carefully tallied each bird he shot. The seriousness with which he took this head-count led two hunting friends to conspire one day to claim, every time he downed a bird, to have fired also, faking a reload of their guns and telling him to please not count that last one, as they had shot at the same moment and it might have been one of them rather than he who downed the bird. After some hours, he recalled later (almost 50 years later, actually, and still with some pique), “they told me the joke, but it was no joke to me, for I had shot a large number of birds, but did not know how many, and could not add them to my list, which I used to do by making a knot in a piece of string tied to a button-hole. This my wicked friends had perceived.”

Shooting gripped him far more than school did. The man who would later eclipse Louis Agassiz (who, one year younger, was already energetically pursuing his career plan in Germany and Paris) was in his youth a decided underachiever. He was as distractible as Louis was focused. He had originally planned to follow his father’s profession, but when he showed no stomach for it while studying medicine at Edinburgh (witnessing his first surgery sickened him), his father pressed him to enroll at Cambridge so that he could become a country parson. Though Charles did not care for the dogma of the Church of England (he was raised a Unitarian), he went along gamely, for he recognized that otherwise he indeed might, as his father feared, “[turn] into an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination.”

“How I did enjoy shooting!” he confessed in his Autobiography. “But I think that I must have been half-consciously ashamed of my zeal, for I tried to persuade myself that shooting was almost an intellectual employment; it required so much skill to judge where to find most game and to hunt the dogs well.”

Cambridge did not immediately reverse this. When he arrived he had to take remedial Greek and Latin, for he found that he had forgotten almost every word he’d supposedly learned in earlier schooling. Almost immediately he fell into a “sporting set … [of] dissipated low-minded young men” with whom he “sadly wasted” much time — though apparently not too sadly.

We used often to dine together in the evening … and we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards. I know that I ought to feel ashamed of days and evenings thus spent, but as some of my friends were very pleasant, and we were all in the highest spirits, I cannot help looking back to these times with much pleasure.

Such was his later regret about his student indifference. He found boring almost every subject but geometry, so beautiful in its deductions, and chemistry. The one new thing that excited him as much as shooting and cards — the one new thing that engaged this bright young man surrounded by his culture’s greatest minds and libraries — was hunting beetles. By his own account, this beetle-gathering was “a mere passion for collecting,” with no real scientific discipline. It was certainly a passion. Once, having grabbed a rare beetle with each hand and seeing a third, he popped one of the hand-held beetles into his mouth so he could grab the new one. (It ejected a liquid so foul that he spat it out, losing it and the new one as well.) But he said later there was no rigor to it; it was mere accumulation, not study. He had no real curiosity about their function in the natural order.

However, chasing beetles did nudge Darwin nearer his final vocation, focusing his outdoorsmanship more toward biology. He moved closer yet when he began attending public lectures given by John Henslow, the Cambridge reverend-professor and a leading naturalist who became his primary mentor. Darwin so admired the clarity of Henslow’s thinking and the beauty of his illustrations that he began going on the weekly natural history walks Henslow led. Henslow was intrigued by some combination of energy and intelligence in this young underachiever. He took in Darwin much as Cuvier would take in Agassiz a year later. Almost daily they took long walks on which the lecture-leery but quick-eyed Darwin absorbed a field education in botany, entomology, and geology. Henslow also invited Darwin to weekly gatherings at his home, and frequently to dinner. The two spent so much time together in Darwin’s last year at Cambridge that the dons took to calling Darwin “the man who walks with Henslow.” Through Henslow, Darwin came to know many of Britain’s most prominent scientists, most notably the scientist-philosopher William Whewell, whose empiricist principles were then beginning to exert immense influence on British science, and Charles Lyell, whose work in geology Darwin would soon find so inspiring.

Henslow also introduced Darwin to a work that “stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science.. It was the great Alexander von Humboldt’s 1819 Personal Narrative, a six-volume account of his five years exploring South America. Darwin’s encounter with this book marked his birth as a serious student and scientist. He read it several times in his last year at Cambridge, reveling in this tale of geologizing and collecting in the Andes and the South American rainforest. He fantasized endlessly about taking such a trip. Thus Humboldt profoundly influenced Darwin even as he directly mentored Louis Agassiz 250 miles south in Paris.

Darwin had fantasies but no expectations of following Humboldt. He tried to organize a trip that summer to the Canary Islands, but it fell though for lack of funds and companions. Otherwise he had nothing going. Henslow and Humboldt had fired his enthusiasm for natural science, but the flame was hardly focused. As he neared graduation he was still noodling over whether to join the clergy, allowing his father to push him slowly closer. A quiet country parsonage, he rationalized, would allow him to do the sort of natural history that pastor-naturalist Gilbert White had described in yet another favorite book, A Natural History of Selbourne. Beyond that, he had no agenda other than paying off his school debts and enjoying the opening day of partridge season September 1.

Yet if Darwin lacked the drive of Humboldt’s more direct protégé, he shared Louis’s luck with mentors. Just before graduating in spring 1831, he was invited by one of Henslow’s friends and fellow reverend-professors, Adam Sedgwick, to go geologizing in Wales that August. He accepted, and after idling most of the summer he joined Sedgwick in August. The two walked for miles hunting fossils and mapping strata, having some fair luck and a good time — though they missed the glacial scarring that would leap into view for Darwin a decade later when he had learned of Louis Agassiz’s Ice Age theory. Still, the three weeks of geologizing did not exactly fire in Charles a calling. When he finished the trip with no other real plans, he could find direction only in the most literal way: “I left Sedgwick and went in a straight line by compass and map across the mountains to Barmouth [where he visited some old Cambridge friends], never following any track unless it coincided with my course. I thus came on some strange wild places, and enjoyed much this manner of traveling.” Then he headed home to collect his guns and hunting togs and go to his uncle’s estate. For it was two days short of September 1, and “at that time I should have thought myself mad to give up the first days of partridge-shooting for geology or any other science.”

Yet he would, quite soon. Arriving  home to collect his hunting things, he found a letter from Henslow informing him that Henslow had recommended him for a berth as naturalist on the round-the-world voyage of the HMS Beagle, a trip projected to take two to three years. To claim the spot he had only to happily impress the captain, Robert Fitzroy, who at twenty-six was only four years older than Darwin.

Had Darwin never read Humboldt’s Personal Narratives, he might have blanched at such a lengthy commitment. But coming on the heels of Humboldt and his own aborted Canary Island plans, the invitation inflamed his tropical travel lust. He told his father he would very much like to go.

His father forbid it. He feared the trip would stop forever his son’s halting walk toward the clergy. The son, disappointed but nonetheless happy enough to resume his shooting plans, wrote Henslow his regrets the day after receiving the invitation. The next morning he rode to his uncle’s, where he told Wedgwood of the vetoed invitation. Uncle Jos was not happy with this turn of events; he immediately wrote Dr. Darwin, answering each of the doctor’s objections and appealing his decision, and the next day, doubly determined that his nephew not miss such an opportunity, Wedgwood stopped Charles as he was heading off to the shooting fields, put him in a carriage, and rode with him the 30 miles to Dr. Darwin’s house. They arrived to find the doctor already convinced by Wedgwood’s letter. After all, he allowed, he had told Charles he would agree to the trip if he could find even one sensible man who thought it a good idea, and he could hardly call Wedgwood otherwise.

Thus Darwin, shoved back in the right direction by his uncle, decided to claim the job of naturalist on the Beagle. To console his still-doubting father, Charles told him that at least aboard the Beagle he would not be able to overspend his allowance, as he had so consistently at Cambridge, “unless I was deuced clever.”

His father responded, “But they tell me you are very clever.”


Prior excerpts:


Reef Madness Begins: Louis Agassiz, Creationist Magpie

Reef Madness 2: The One Darwin Really DID Get Wrong: Rumble at Glen Roy

Reef Madness 3: Louis Agassiz, TED Wet Dream, Conquers America

Reef Madness 4: Alexander Agassiz Comes of Age

Reef Madness 5: How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray

Reef Madness 6: The Death of Louis Agassiz

Reef Madness 7: Alex Finds a Future

Buy Reef Madness at your favorite US independent bookstore

or at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, or Google eBook Store.

Reef Madness 7: Alex Finds a Future

Anna Russell Agassiz

This is the seventh installment of an abridged version of my book Reef Madness: Alexander Agassiz, Charles Darwin, and the Meaning of Coral. (Earlier installments are listed at bottom.) This excerpt finds Alexander reeling from the deaths, within ten days of one another in December 1873, of his father and his wife, and being comforted by his best friend, Theo Lyman.

© David Dobbs, 2011. All rights reserved.


“I walked up and down the library with him till all was ready,” Theo Lyman wrote of Alex on Christmas Eve, the day they buried Anna.

She lay in parlor, hidden in roses and other white flowers. I turned my face to the wall and listened to the service by Dr. Peabody. It was a long way over to Forest Hills — a lovely, sunny day: her grave was … decked with branches and flowers. Alex stood at the brink, steadily, and with the tears rolling down his face, till I whispered to him to go and I would see everything finished….

The next day was only scarcely less pathetic. The three motherless boys opened their gifts amid likenesses of Annie that Alex had spread round the house, and they somehow bore up as Liz Cary, Theo, and Mimi tried to show some Christmas spirit. Alex was struck silent. The tears he shed at his wife’s grave were the only ones anyone had seen him allow. “[He] can sleep and eat; and can read and write,” reported Theo; “but we cannot tell what is going on within.”

In the weeks ahead Alex went to work most days, chipping away at the mountains of unfinished business his father left at the museum. At home at Quincy Street, where he and the boys stayed on with Liz Cary, he occupied himself rearranging bedrooms so as to have the boys’ nearer his. For a time he helped Cary with a “life and letters” biography of Louis, but he soon let her take that over; with Louis’s piles of unfinished correspondence, projects, and papers to deal with, his life already held too much of his father. He spent much of January returning letters to the many acquaintances and friends who had written to console him about Louis’s death. Most of them had written without knowing that Annie had died too. Among these were Ernst Haeckel, the Naturphilosopher and Darwin champion whom Alex had befriended in Europe two years before. A few months later, Haeckel would publish a vicious dismissal of Louis’s work, calling him a charlatan and a plagiarist, provoking Alex to break off relations permanently. But at this point Alex could still confide in the man with whom he had long corresponded about embryology.

Your kind note written soon after father’s death finds me overwhelmed by a still greater sorrow which has fallen upon me like a thunder-clap out of a clear sky. I had the misfortune a few days after father’s death to lose my wife…. [Now] all seems of little consequence and I am utterly unable to get reconciled to an existence which is well-nigh intolerable…; at present I can find no incentive for anything and I can only hope that in the course of time my interest in my children and in my work may ultimately reconcile me to a sort of passive life.

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War, Beauty, Balls, and Fraud

Neuron Culture’s Top 5 from July

1. Runaway most popular: The Toughest Plane Ever Built. This post about the plane in which my mother’s lover died spawned two amazing, entwined comment threads: one about tough planes; one about the morality of bombing cities. It also has pictures of B-17s that sustained unreal damage and flew home — and a few that didn’t make it.

2. Why Behold Beauty? Because It’s Sociable. And pretty to look at:Continue reading →

Sapolsky on Dopamine: Not About Pleasure, But Its Anticipation

It’s ridiculous how many things Robert Sapolsky talks about beautifully. Here he’s on a roll about how dopamine drives behavior: It’s not about reward, but its anticipation. And we humans have done well — we’ve developed these splendid executive skills and planning and so on — because these big ol’ brains can maintain that anticipation for decades.

“There’s no monkey out there willing to lever press because St. Peter is down the line.”

It’s just 5 minutes. Go with it.

Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of… by FORAtv

via The Dopamine Project.

Ancient Arab Medicine Goes Online

As Egypt hints at an Arabic spring in science, Western museums and institutions are highlighting the rich Arabic roots of science past. I wrote a few weeks ago about a new exhibit on Arabick roots at the Royal Society. Now comes a contribution from the Biblioteca Alexandrina and the  Wellcome Library:

The Wellcome Library is pleased to announce the launch of Wellcome Arabic Manuscripts Online, a digital manuscript library created in partnership with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and King’s College London Department of Digital Humanities.

Arabic medicine was once the most advanced in the world, and now digital facsimiles of some of its most important texts have been made freely available online. The unique online resource, based on the Wellcome Library’s Arabic manuscript collection, includes well-known medical texts by famous practitioners (such as Avicenna, Ibn al-Quff, and Ibn an-Nafis), lesser-known works by anonymous physicians and rare or unique copies, such as Averroes’ commentaries on Avicenna’s medical poetry…

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library, expressed his enthusiasm for the project: “Providing global access to our collections is at the heart of our mission to foster collaborative research, and we are delighted to see these particular treasures become freely accessible online. We are grateful to the Library of Alexandria and Kings College London, whose partnership in this project has enabled us to extend the availability of these rare materials to the countries of their origin.”

Funded by the JISC and the Wellcome Trust, the Wellcome Arabic Cataloguing Partnership (WAMCP) was initiated in 2009 with the aim to make the Wellcome’s Arabic manuscripts available and to establish a standard in Arabic manuscript cataloguing and display.

Some nice finds in there, worth checking out.

Reef Madness 6: The Death of Louis Agassiz

Alexander Agassiz, c 1860

This is the sixth installment of an abridged version of my book Reef Madness: Alexander Agassiz, Charles Darwin, and the Meaning of Coral.

The prior installment described how Charles Darwin seduced Harvard botanist Asa Gray, enlisting him in defeating Alexander’s father, the famous creationist zoologist Louis, in a series of debates about Darwin’s theory of evolution. The subsequent chapter in the book, Transmutation, which I’m skipping in this series,  found Alexander running Harvard’s Museum of  Comparative Zoology; investing in a copper mine in Calumet, Michigan, that would make him rich; visiting and befriending Charles Darwin in England; and moving quietly, during the 1860s, to Darwin’s camp in the epic dispute Darwin had with Louis over the origin of species. Alexander’s embrace of Darwin’s theory of evolution, along with the publication of his first major work, Revision of the Echini, established him as a substantial scientist in his own right. Yet as we’ll see in this excerpt, taken from the book’s eighth chapter, Selection, Alexander emerged from his father’s shadow only to have a much greater darkness descend upon him.

© David Dobbs, 2011. All rights reserved.


Having tackled Darwinism’s practical implications, Alex forged ahead dissecting, classifying, analyzing, and writing. Writing Revision of the Echini was a huge job that taxed his energies and intellect. Yet the three or four years on which he concentrated on the book were the happiest of his life, partly because he finally had the time and independence to simply work. Touring Europe had reinvigorated his health and scientific enthusiasm, and when he returned he found the museum running so smoothly that he had only to serve as advisor rather than day-to-day manager. The Calumet mine was also  “in apple pie order and running as smooth as clockwork.”

His only real negative distraction was Louis’s health. Louis had suffered a small stroke in 1869 before Alex left for Europe, and his energies were returning only gradually. When Alex returned, his father was coming to the museum each day for just an hour or two, after which he would return home to rest, sometimes getting more work done there. He was hardly the “steam engine,” as Alex and Theo so often called him, of former years. This naturally worried Alex. But as Louis gained strength over the following months, his reduced energy actually proved a bit of a blessing, for a less energetic Louis made less trouble. He now seemed to concentrate more on his main work, that of teaching and his latest investigations, and less on battling Darwin or launching projects that Theo and Alex would have to quell. He was less riotous.

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