A watercolour by HMS Beagle’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens. Painted during the survey of Tierra del Fuego, it depicts the Beagle being hailed by native Fuegians.
My interest in Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory started when I began reading the late Stephen Jay Gould, invertebrate palaeontologist and professor at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His elegant essays, appearing monthly in Natural History, were gathered together on an annual basis and published in book form. My first Gould anthology was Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History, 1992, and perhaps because it was my first, it’s still my favourite.
I was already an amateur naturalist by the time I caught up with Gould’s popular and scientific writings — birding, wildflower identification, and nature photography were (and still are) among my favourite activities. You can’t become a naturalist and not be interested in evolution.
Gould introduced me to some of the more modern interpretations of ways evolution might have occurred, including the theory of punctuated equilibrium Gould co-proposed with his colleague Niles Eldredge. One thing that stood out for me in the discussions of modern evolutionary theory was the singular achievement of Charles Darwin, who provided the fundamental insight of how evolution occurred, without any knowledge of genetics or DNA. The concept of natural selection changed the world view and continues to right into the present. (I’ll leave aside its co-discovery by Alfred Russel Wallace — an interesting topic in itself.)
Eventually I bought a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I can’t say I’ve read it — more I’ve read at it, large chunks of it — but never cover to cover. What surprised me was how clear it was. Darwin, as I learned later from reading sections of Voyage of the Beagle, was an excellent writer. And knowing what he was proposing was going to have a profound impact on the Victorian world and beyond, he attempted to make his observations and arguments as logical, easy to follow, and convincing as he could.
The year 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin’s birthday, and sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species. I found a website called Darwin Year 2009 that is dedicated to the celebration. The site is sponsored by the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) and the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS).
Darwin is one of my heroes. I don’t have many, but this quiet, somewhat reclusive man living with his beloved family in Down, had the courage to look directly at the truth of the evidence and the courage to present it to the world, even though he anticipated the furor that would, and did, ensue.
It’s a pity that, after a century and a half of rigorous scientific investigation, religious fundamentalists still fight the teaching of evolution in the schools. Fundamentalists are welcome to their religious beliefs, as long as they keep them out of public policy, but they must not be allowed to introduce those fantasies into the school curricula, trying to disguise them as science.
Bless President Obama for stating “science will be restored to its rightful place.”
I’m tempted to add “Amen!”