What? Charles Darwin, in the news again? Right on the heels of that whole Georgia-schools-science-curriculum kerfuffle? The way this man has managed to stay in the spotlight, nearly 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, nearly 80 years after the Scopes Trial...I just gotta ask—who's his publicist?
By all accounts, it seems that the last thing Darwin would have wanted is this kind of status as a misbegotten icon and lightning rod. You can almost imagine him, bent over some object of intense study, blissfully--or deliberately--oblivious to all the shouting around him. Yet there's something about his story that draws us in, to want to get inside his head, and to understand and explain the man.
Of course, what's got me thinking about all this is Amy Stewart's The Earth Moved (pub. info here), in which Darwin's life and his work on nightcrawlers (link via Stewart's Worms of Endearment blog) serve as fertile inspiration for the book's themes and musings. It spurred me to go back and re-read other writing, similarly inspired.
So here's Loren Eiseley, from The Unexpected Universe:
Darwin had been gazing backward upon the ways of pigeons, apes, and earthworms in extravagant profusion. Upon these creatures and their origins he had expended a sizable proportion of his life. Nature he loved, but by his own words he had become a hermit. Man he achingly endured, as he endured the visitors at Down. He was looking back upon an increasingly remote and violent past, through spectacles few men had raised to their eyes before, and none before him so effectively. Though he occasionally rendered lip service to the idea of human progress toward perfection, cultural man was really a disturbing element in his system, an obstruction difficult to account for, and introducing strange vagaries into Darwin's own version of the Newtonian world machine. In spite of a vast world journey, enormous reading, and a wonderful glimpse, as through the mosaic of a stained-glass window, at the imperfect changing quality of life, Darwin remained an observer held in the bonds of the European social system of his day, and overimpressed by Malthusian struggle. The oncoming world of the indeterminate and the possible that he had helped to initiate he never fully grasped. He looked, and his spectacles brought him light, but it was sometimes the half-light with which Oz has so frequently chosen to shade the eyes of men.And Henry Mitchell, from One Man's Garden (pub. info. here):
I have again been reading a book I find fascinating, Darwin and His Flowers, by Mea Allan (New York: Taplinger, 1977). I can hardly believe the wonders that Darwin discovered simply by close observation. Anyone could have seen the same things, conducted the same simple experiments that he did. He had no computers, no fancy laboratory, no laboratory of any kind. He just took time and he asked questions. How do vines climb? That was one of his questions, and he found the answer. The rest of us never dream there is an answer, we just go plodding nicely along admiring our wisterias, never thinking to ask, never dreaming we might learn something.
Really, it is hilarious to think of it—thousands of years, and nobody bothered to ask questions or bothered to examine plants carefully, not as Darwin did. He was a great lover of plants; he caressed flowers, and he knew nothing of botany at first. And yet he became the most important botanist of the world. Beyond that, plants, not birds or mammals or insects, were the impetus for Darwin's view of life on the planet, culminating with the Origin of Species.
The man had a brilliant intelligence, but the things he learned about plants did not require more than ordinary intelligence. He asked the questions that we might have asked as children (how do vines climb?) but no longer ask once we grow up and become stupid. What terrible chaos, what grief, sprang from Darwin's simple experiments and endless careful notetaking. And, of course, what miracles of new freedom, new knowledge, and old truth that nobody before him had bothered to discover.
Now, whither Lamarck? Indulging in a life-after-life flight of fancy, we might just wonder: is he glowering at having been overshadowed and overlooked...or relieved at having dodged the bullet of infamy?
The Unexpected Universe. Loren Eiseley. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1969. ISBN 0-15-692850-7.
Update (April 19, 2004):
And from "Darwin in 1881", by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (pub. info here):
He'd quite by chance beheld the universe:
A disregarded game of chess
Between two love-dazed heirs
Who fiddle with the tiny pairs
Of statues in their hands, while numberless
Combinings on the silent board remain
Unplayed forever when they leave the game
To turn, themselves, into a king and queen.