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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin

Today is Charles Darwin’s birthday, and hardly anyone has done more for the true understanding of us humans and our world than this good Victorian gentleman. He completed the revolution begun by Copernicus centuries earlier, by establishing clearly that in addition to our planet not being the center of the cosmos, we humans are merely one species of many on the planet, formed by the same processes that form the other species, and in no way exceptional. He established this not by any stroke of genius, but “the old fashioned way,” as the old Smith Barney ad goes. Consider:

Darwin was a lousy student, partly from lack of motivation to learn, and partly from the dull curricula he had to endure. In his Autobiography he describes his two years at medical school in Edinburgh: “Dr. Duncan’s lectures on materia medica at eight o’clock on a winter’s morning are something fearful to remember. Dr. _____ made his lectures on human anatomy as dull as he was himself, and the subject disgusted me.” Darwin’s father transfered young Darwin to Cambridge, with the prospect of his entering the clergy in the Church of England. “During the three years which I spent at Cambridge, my time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh,” recalls Darwin.

What was Darwin doing all these wasted years of schooling? He lived for collecting minerals and beetles, and for hunting birds, becoming quite a crack shot. Exasperated, his father told Darwin that “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” But his professors saw something in young Darwin, and he was invited to join many field expeditions, long walks, and family dinners by a series of learned gentlemen, and here Darwin was picking up their habits of approaching the study of the natural world. One of these professors at Cambridge, John Henslow, secured for Darwin a position as naturalist on H.M.S. Beagle, which was about to circle the globe charting coastlines. The voyage of the Beagle set the arc of Darwin’s life. Clutching a copy of Charles Lyell’s new Principles of Geology, Darwin began the close observation of the exotic places he saw, and the close examination of what could bring about his observations—a process that would lead, in time, to The Origin of Species.

He was on the Beagle from 1831 to 1836. In 1837 he began his notebook devoted to thoughts about the “transmutation of species.” In 1838 he read, “for amusement” he tells us, Malthus’ essay on population growth in humans and the factors constraining it. He had the insight to realize that the pruning of overly-large populations by forces at work in the natural world was the engine that powered evolution, and in 1842 he wrote in pencil a 35-page summary of his ideas, which in 1844 he expanded to a 230-page version. Close friends –the geologist Lyell, the botanist Joseph Hooker, the American botanist Asa Gray—were aware of his ideas and constantly criticized them, and Darwin honed his reasoning. Hastened by a Malaysian letter from the naturalist Wallace, Darwin published an “abstract” of his work in 1859: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In this dense work, Darwin gave us the key to the processes at work in the natural world shaping why the world is as it is. That is, he shows us how the reality of our planet is generated. No pressure, eh?

Darwin is one of my “great men,” to borrow Emerson’s phrase (along with John Muir), and I have a series of photographs on my study wall showing him as a young man on the Beagle, as a middle-aged man in his own study with Lyell and Hooker, and finally the old, black-caped figure looking somberly upon the world. I like his modesty. This from his Autobiography: “My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such modest abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.”

So genuinely modest was Darwin that his fame during his lifetime always puzzled him. In one of his rare trips from his home at Downs into London, he attended a lecture by B.W. Richardson to the Royal Institution at St. George’s Hall in October of 1882. As the old man hobbled into the room, “the whole assembly rose to their feet to welcome him.” Darwin was bewildered, “scarcely conscious that such an outburst of applause could possibly be intended for himself.”

All Darwin accomplished—his co-discovery with Wallace of the processes generating evolutionary change, his seminal monograph on the taxonomy of barnacles, his ground-breaking work on heterostyly in flowers, on pollination in orchids, on the role of earthworms in soil science—all this was achieved despite a debilitating illness (Chagas disease from South America on the Beagle?) which laid him low for weeks and months on end, scarcely able to get out of his bed, beset by dizzyness and vomiting. Yet he soldiered on, and changed the world.

We share some things in our personal lives, Darwin and myself. He loved “scenery” throughout his life, from his adventures throughout South America on “shore-leave” from the Beagle, to jaunts around England and Wales, such as his health permitted. I indulge in something of the same love, in my trips to sacred mountains in China and my backpacking in the Sierra Nevada high country. Like me, Darwin was a devoted family man, playing an active and large part in the lives of his six sons and three daughters, always ready with a quip and a shared game. He lost his beloved daughter Annie to a fever when she was ten, just as I lost my beloved daughter Holly to cancer when she was twenty-three, watershed events in both our personal lives.

So today I pause, think fondly of a great man, and how he has enriched not just our understanding of our world and how we humans are an integral part of it, but how he has enriched my own life. Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin.
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