DARWIN DAY ESSAY III: Happy Birthday Charles! Email Print

In honor of Charles Darwin's birthday on February 12th, I am posting a series of diaries on Darwin and his theory. My first entry in this miniseries covered the basics of Darwin's theory of evolution. My second essay addressed some of the objections that have been made to Darwinian evolution and showed how year after year we find more evidence to support the theory of evolution. Today, I want to finish this miniseries by describing something about Darwin himself.

Since I will be busy herding a group of pre-teens to pizza, a movie and a party on the 12th, I will finish this series of essays one day early. Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin. This one's for you!

Charles Darwin is of course best known for his theory of evolution. But Darwin was a famous naturalist even before he published Origin of Species. He had written many essays before that, covering diverse topics: from a travelogue on his voyage as naturalist on the HMS Beagle around the world to an essay on coral reefs. Later in life he wrote essays and books on human evolution, insectivorous plants, the phenomenon of hybrid vigor, orchids, motility in plants, and the ecological contributions of earthworms. Many of these essays and books were best sellers in their own right and were highly regarded by the scientific community completely separate from his theory of evolution. Charles Darwin would have been a scientific celebrity of his day even if he had never written about evolution. His earlier writings, including Voyage of the Beagle, also made him a popular figure outside of scientific circles.

But it was the publication of Origin of the Species that in a very real way made Darwin a superstar. I use that word intentionally. Charles Darwin is almost unique in the history of science in being, in addition to an eminent scientist, a popular celebrity and major part of popular culture. About the only other scientist to reach the same level of popular recognition and near worship was Einstein. More cartoons have been made of Darwin than most other celebrities in history. His face was recognized throughout Europe and America in his day and ever since. People made pilgrimages to his house and struggled to catch glimpses of him. And, yes, young women showed undue interest in him, though there is no record of his sleeping with the 19th century equivalent of a roadie.

Darwin came from a typical 19th century English country gentleman's family. He was rich. And he had investment savvy. He preferred playing around with family finances to even his scientific work. He suffered from many of the prejudices of his time and place, including a sense of "inferior" and "superior" groups of people. But his prejudices were mitigated, unlike many of his day, with a sense of justice. He was appalled by American slavery and proud that England had banned the slave trade. He was even more horrified by his first hand observation of slavery in Brazil. His prejudices were also malleable so that he could change his views of a group of people based on his own observations of those people. He loved his family and suffered terribly at the death of two of his children. Very few people ever disliked him...even his enemies.

Darwin, of course, did not originate the theory of evolution. Many had previously come up with various ideas for evolution before, most notably Lamarck, whose highly flawed theory was often lumped in with Darwin's, much to Darwin's distress. Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was an early proponent of a theory of evolution. Darwin was not the first. But he was one of two people who were first to get it right and to really nail down how the grand scheme of life on earth works.

Darwin did his best to acknowledge the previous contributions to the field of evolution. Most important was the contribution of Alfred Wallace. Wallace pretty much nearly scooped Darwin and it was only the intervention of Darwin's friends, the most notable scientists of the time, that prevented Darwin from publishing second. Instead Wallace and Darwin published their preliminary essays simultaneously. However, there is good evidence to show that Darwin came up with the idea first and had worked it to a far greater sophistication than Wallace ever did. Darwin went on to publish his massive work, Origin of the Species, which elaborated greatly on the Wallace/Darwin theory. And Darwin's version was based on far more data gathered by correspondents all over the world.

Darwin and Wallace never resented each other's role in the establishment of the theory of evolution and became lifelong friends, though Wallace was always in the subordinate role. Darwin's supporters also included many of the most eminent scientists of the time who, together, founded a journal with the express purpose of pushing evolutionary theory as well as dominating all fields of science. This was the journal Nature, which remains one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world covering all fields of science. Publication in Nature is the Holy Grail of a scientist's life right up to this day. Well, one of them, any way.

But Darwin's supporters were an aggressive, irritable lot, for the most part. T.H. Huxley, called "Darwin's bulldog" for his aggressive advocacy of Darwin's theory, was the most aggressive and irritable of the lot. Darwin's opponents were equally aggressive and irritable, and huge debates raged in public over Darwin's theory. These were popular events, with common laborers pooling their money so they could buy tickets to see the sparks fly. The competition was as fierce as any sporting event, and almost as popular. But usually Darwin did not take part.

Darwin was a writer, not a debater, and was something of a recluse. His ill health and his reclusiveness have been over stated. He was indeed often ill, possibly with a stress-related, irritable bowel syndrome-like chronic illness. But he also, at least in his youth, climbed mountains and he was active even in old age. At his peak, in the days of the Voyage of the Beagle he would easily qualify as an adventurer as well as a naturalist, venturing into war-torn areas just to study the geology, flora and fauna of the area. Voyage of the Beagle includes gales at sea, Indian raids, bandit attacks, civil wars, massive earthquakes, tsunamis, weeks of hiking in remote wilderness areas, exotic Polynesian adventures, as well as tons of scientific observations.

Darwin was always sociable, never turning away even the most irritating uninvited guest...but he did often use his ill health as an excuse to cut a social event short. He preferred to avoid confrontation. It was well known that if Darwin ever did show up to a debate on evolution, both sides would be more subdued and polite than if he had not come. The sparks did not fly if Darwin participated because Darwin was always polite and was well liked even by many of his theories fiercest enemies.

What strikes me most reading Darwin's works is that he would not be considered a specialist by today's standards. His interests and skills were wide ranging, meaning that he excelled in few. Despite this, he did make very detailed studies of orchids and of insectivorous plants. He did this with little previous experience, made himself an expert by talking to everyone and reading everything, then doing his own experiments. His writings on these subjects astonished the experts of the day with their insights. He would then move on to other, largely unrelated topics. This means in some ways his work is always just a little naïve, often relying on the word of other researchers and naturalists based on letters he would exchange with scientists and observers around the world. I suspect that this means that some of the data he used was dubious. When he did his own experiments it was also naïve, with amateur equipment and testing almost absurd hypotheses. But when he was done with years and years of careful, if naïve, experimentation, his conclusions were well thought out and insightful...and more often than not have been proven right by more modern research.

I will end by quoting Richard Dawkins from his introduction to the 2003 Everyman's Library edition of Darwin's Origin of Species and Voyage of the Beagle:

"Consider where we would be without Darwin's idea. We'd presumably have some sort of science of biology...We would know that the a human body is a teeming army of cells, a thousand times more numerous than the people in the world; we'd know that every one of these cells is a mass-production molecule-factory packed with the membranous equivalent of miles of sophisticated conveyor belt. We'd know a great deal about how our bodies work, and how the bodies of shrimps, elephants and redwood tress work. We'd be compelled to recognize how complicatedly organisms are fitted to survive in their particular worlds. But we wouldn't have the foggiest idea why. We'd read volumes about living things but wouldn't have a clue about where they came from originally or why they work so efficiently and purposefully. It would undoubtedly be the most baffling problem in biology--probably in the whole of science and philosophy. This was the problem that Darwin decisively solved. We are now as certain as one can ever be in science that a version of Darwin's solution is the correct one.

"The Darwinian solution to the riddle of existence is so powerfully simple, so felicitous to the modern mind, that it is hard for us to understand why it had to wait until the mid-nineteenth century before anyone thought of it...Darwin and Wallace. They alone thought of it."

I hope some folks have found my Darwin Day essays interesting and helpful. And have a happy Darwin Day on Feb. 12th!


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