Wild Neighbors: First Encounters with Charles Darwin

By Joe Eaton
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 06:52:00 PM

I don’t remember where I read this story, but here’s how I recall it: Charles Darwin, during his years at Down House, becomes obsessed with the behavior of ants. He hasn’t figured out how natural selection works among the social insects, and it bothers him. So he spends a couple of days observing the traffic at an anthill. He in turn is observed by two women from the village, one of whom says: “That poor Mr. Darwin. He really needs a hobby.” 

Today, of course, is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and he’s been all over the media, often in tandem with Abraham Lincoln. 2009 also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species. With all the biographies out there, all the magazine articles and web sites, all the lectures and special exhibits, what more is there to say about the man and his ideas? 

Fifty years ago, the old Life magazine ran a Darwin series inspired by the centenary of the Origin. I was about twelve, living in Thomasville, Georgia, which, if not the actual Buckle of the Bible Belt, was close enough. My parents were good Christian creationists. So, as far as I knew, were my teachers, and all of responsible adulthood. I didn’t know Darwin from Wilberforce, and I don’t think I had ever heard of natural selection. 

Then came the Life series. The first installment was innocuous enough: the Beagle voyage, appealing in a boys’-adventure-story kind of way; photos of Darwin’s cluttered study; re-enactments of his experiments with orchids and sundews. The e-word must have been in the text somewhere, but it snuck right past me. 

But the second segment was about the Galapagos Islands. I was going through a reptile phase at the time, and the giant land tortoises and marine iguanas were much cooler than our local box turtles and anole lizards. Then I got into the details. Each island with its own race of tortoise, with a distinctively shaped shell. Each island with its own variety of mockingbird. And the finches! All those variations in bill shape and function, derived from a generalized common ancestor! (I realize that Darwin himself didn’t figure out the finches until much later, but they remain a classic case of adaptive speciation.) 

And it all made sense. (Some years later, the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky would write: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”) It made sense of things that I hadn’t realized needed to make sense. It was scary and liberating at the same time. 

Further installments set the hook deeper. Darwin goes to Patagonia, excavates the bones of the giant ground sloth, and we get genealogical charts for all those odd lumpy South American mammals, not to mention the eight-foot-tall predatory birds. Heady stuff. 

It was a few more years before I got the classroom version. Even in the Deep South, things had loosened up a bit after Sputnik. My high school biology teacher, Miss Griffin, spent an hour on evolution, although she seemed nervous about it. What I recall is a bare-bones account of natural selection that stopped well short of human origins, the origin of life, or the other topics that school boards still get exercised about. Nothing I found startling or shocking; I was already there. 

Still later I finally read the Origin. What a book; what a piece of argument! I’ve reread it a couple of times since, and remain impressed with the way Darwin builds his case like a stonemason, each fact supporting a half-dozen others.  

Darwin the man has always engaged me in a way that Newton or Einstein never did. It could be the accessibility of his ideas, the breadth of his curiosity, his ability to communicate with working-class pigeon fanciers and the finest scientific minds of Europe and America. How can you not like a guy who has his family perform for earthworms—his wife at the piano, a son on the bassoon—to test their (the worms’) sense of hearing? 

And he found a way of demystifying the natural world without diminishing its wonder. From the Origin: “When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!” 

Amen to that. And thanks.