Dangerous Darwin

On November 24th, 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species (originally (as in, pre-editors and publishers) titled An Abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties Through Natural Selection). In “On and On… the Origin of Species: 150 Years Old and Still Dangerous, Still Great,” David Quammen and a packed lecture hall celebrated a man and an idea that, a century and a half later, are still hot—both within and beyond the scientific community.

As bold as his idea became, Darwin was a shy man, a “reclusive gentleman who wrote books.” The celebrated diligence and logic in Darwin’s research infused his life; I like to think he found refuge in them. He even worked through marriage logically, comparing its pros and cons in his journal and deciding, finally, that a wife would be a “companion in old age who would be better than a dog anyhow”—not that he didn’t love his wife very, very much. Darwin was a “sweet-spirited nerd.” Please tell me you find this as cute as I do.

The Origin cultivated for decades, hidden from Darwin’s comfortable world in his “transmutation notebooks.” Starting in 1836 Darwin scribbled observations and thought experiments: “If species evolved, how?”; if you isolate a pair of cats on an island, how would its offspring compare to that of mainland cats?; and, ten pages later, “Each species changes; does it progress?” He experimented with the tree of life and pondered why men have nipples. More notably, he struggled with the traditional and then-accepted idea that man was “Godlike,” finally deciding that “humans are no more Godlike than other species.”

This was shocking. It, along with his daughter’s death, shook Darwin’s religion. It created a “painful void” between him and his pious wife. It jeopardized the Christian creation myths and with them the world Darwin grew up in. It was dangerous.

Darwin did not jump to publish his theory. First he probably wasn’t open to the consequences of a godless theory of creation; second he knew that evolution by natural selection would not be happily accepted by a deeply religious society—especially after the “flaky” 1844 Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation made evolution famous to the public but hated by the scientific community. He wrote for years, filling page after page with heavy data. 250,000 words later he was only a third done.

It was a young scientist and his letter from Indonesia that triggered The Origin as we know it today. Independently of Darwin, Alfred Wallace had also unearthed evolution by natural selection, though not nearly as meticulously. Darwin responded by presenting Wallace’s manuscript along with a sample of his own research at a 30-person conference on July 1st, 1858. It’s (almost) funny that afterward, the leader of the conference reported that nothing important had been discovered.

Recognizing the threat to his research, Darwin started over. He set aside “the big book” and began an abstract that grew into The Origin. He “wrote with passion, with nervousness, with excitement.” By summer it was written, by fall it was revised, and by October it was finished. Just weeks later it was published.

Darwin’s story reminds me of Bilbo’s in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Both Bilbo and Darwin seemed like individuals made for quiet lives of quiet speculation, not adventure. Like Bilbo, Darwin was forced out of his comfort zone, seemingly by fate, and, like Bilbo, Darwin returned to it, turning to the “less controversial” topic of the “movement and habits of plants” ten years after he published The Origin.

Darwin’s story is a real-life example of what can happen when you abandon comfort and dive into the most terrifying risks. Though the mechanism of natural selection was not accepted, the idea that “evolution had occurred” was. Today, Darwin’s theory of evolution has grown into something truly remarkable, extending into biochemistry, molecular biology, population genetics, and (my favorite) what Quammen calls “the whiz-bang field of machine-driven genetic sequencing known as genomics.” The theory of evolution pervades literature, politics, and religion—areas that too often steer clear of science. Better yet, every day “further pieces [are] added to the puzzle” as we learn more and more about ourselves and the world around us.

(David Quammen is a science and nature writer, author of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and a dozen other books in both non-fiction and fiction (though he hasn’t published fiction since 1988), as well as articles in some of my favorite magazines (such as National Geographic and Harper’s).

His greatest strength lies in bridging the gap between the pure sciences and the humanities. I’ve never before had an event flyer forwarded to me by both my English teacher and my research mentor, and while of course everyone from the lab I work at was at the lecture, so were humanities majors from my English class. Darwin was “a science writer that is getting science to the general public”; Quammen is a nature writer that is getting Darwin to the general public.

If you couldn’t make it to Quammen’s lecture, his article in the November 2004 issue of National Geographic traverses much of Darwin’s theory and its importance today, sans the lecture’s focus on Darwin’s personal life. If you’d like to learn about Darwin’s life, Creation is finally hitting US theaters this January. (I’ll be at the midnight showing.))

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~ by science cow on December 14, 2009.

2 Responses to “Dangerous Darwin”

  1. Thanks for such an enlightening “review” of the Quammen event. Makes me wish I could have gone…. I’ll keep my eyes out for “Creation”–I’m sure my science son will love it (me, too).

    • Why is “review” in quotations? Thank you for the comment! Creation will be out on the 22nd (just 11 days left!).

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