The Wrack

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The Peculiar Creature Darwin

Posted by | February 7, 2016

Uncle Chuck

Shhh... don't tell anyone about my grand idea...

 

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition of 2/7/16 and Making It At Home Thursday edition, 2/11/2016.

 

On February 12, 1809, two boys were born, one in England, one in Kentucky. Though separated by an ocean they were, by the end of their lives, united in genius, vision, and courage.

One we know well in this country: Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, quite possibly America’s finest president, and certainly a hero for the ages.

The other son of February 12 lives on in the international pantheon of scientists that includes Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. A careful naturalist and the originator of the most powerfully explanatory theory in biology — evolution by natural selection — Charles Darwin was a giant in his own right. To me, he is on par with Lincoln.

Darwin was also, as they say, an odd duck, as his autobiography and collected letters (now available online at darwin-online.org.uk) clearly attest.

A precocious child, he invented codes and fanciful stories and collected shells, coins, and minerals. By the time he went to college in Cambridge, Charles Darwin was a particularly avid collector of beetles. In the spring of 1828, he chanced upon two beetles beneath the peeled back bark of a rotting log. Having captured one in each hand, he then, in his own words, “saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

Upon hearing that story, my eight-year-old son asked me, “why didn’t he just put two of the beetles in one hand?” From now on, I’ll be bragging that my son is smarter than Charles Darwin.

My son is also kinder to animals. In his accounts of his trans-Pacific surveying adventure on the HMS Beagle, the 24-year-old Darwin tells of an afternoon spent in the Galapagos Islands throwing a three-foot-long marine iguana repeatedly off a cliff. Even after being twirled by the tail into the surf, the “hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements,” would swim back to shore and the annoying human; it would never flee from Darwin into the water. Apparently, it was more afraid of sharks than the English.

What this proves about evolution, I’ve never been quite certain, but I do marvel at the image of Darwin hucking that iguana, over and over, into the sea to see what would happen. It’s so systematic, so cold, so imperially British. He could be a real jerk sometimes.

Perhaps karma caught up with Darwin after his lizard bullying. Once he returned in 1836 from his voyage on the Beagle, he never left England again, settling down for a quiet life on an estate south of London, surrounded by his books, his specimens, and his correspondence. Indeed, he became somewhat of a recluse. Traveling and visitors terrified him; he suffered from a nervous stomach and anxiety attacks for most of his adult life. Whenever I see a double-crested cormorant at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, I think of Darwin: both share the unfortunate habit of vomiting when surprised or disturbed. (Some think Darwin contracted a tropical disease on his South Seas trip; cormorants, meanwhile, just have hair triggers.)

But in between bouts of sickness, Darwin was at work, doggedly so. Only other naturalists, collectors, and birders can understand the passion with which he classified and scrutinized. Instead of immediately publishing his far-reaching and world-changing theory of natural selection, the meticulous Mr. Darwin took an eight-year side trip into his laboratory to write a 700-page monograph on barnacles. Perhaps he was scared of his great idea and its ramifications. Perhaps he felt a kinship to creatures which spent their entire existences anchored to rocks, surrounded by armor, impervious to currents. Or maybe he just liked to marvel at their penises, which in some species of barnacle can extend to eight times their body length.

Darwin’s barnacle studies did confirm, observationally, a number of his ideas and helped him solve some problems within his theory of natural selection. When he finally did publish his masterwork On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, his fame was assured and his scientific legacy [eventually] secured. Darwin had put in the time, done his homework, and the rest is history.

The theory of evolution by natural selection, and Darwin’s complementary mechanism of sexual selection, has been an extraordinarily successful theory. As the evolutionary biologist and geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” idea has been extended to many fields and phenomena, from physics to linguistics to eugenics. One can only assume that this would dismay the nervous, stubborn, curious naturalist who was born on the same day, in the same year, as President Lincoln.

Happy Presidents Day, and just as much, happy Darwin Day.

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His biweekly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, salty and fresh. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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