Happy birthday, Charles

>> Thursday, February 12, 2009

If you took more than a glance at this month's header for Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets, you noticed that this year marks the Darwin bicentennial: on this date, in 1809, Charles Robert Darwin entered into the world. As did Abraham Lincoln, as I'm sure many of you already know.

I like Lincoln a helluva lot, but you know, I love Darwin. Maybe it's the fact Darwin never had a chance to suspend habeas corpus. Maybe it's that part of me that never quit being a science nerd even after I realized I didn't like and really couldn't hack math well enough to be more than a science fanboy. Part of it, I have no doubt, is that Darwin represents a classical scientific ideal: while much of the popular imagination has Darwin looking at a finch and having a "Eureka!" moment, the truth is that Darwin spent decades mustering data, testing hypotheses, and considering alternatives before publishing The Origin Of Species (the conventional wisdom that Darwin was shy or afraid of fundamentalist backlash is only partially correct--Darwin also wanted to make sure he was right before he publicly committed himself). Another element of my admiration, too, I think, is that Darwin was (from all accounts) a gentle, shy man who adored his children and abandoned medicine because he couldn't stand the sight of suffering,1 a man who felt a deep and lifelong sense of empathy that made him a staunch abolitionist.2

This will seem like silly hero worship, but I will write it anyway: Darwin, in short, was a gentle, compassionate, logical, patient, thorough, diligent, philosophical man. He had faults, to be sure, but the list of his qualities are qualities I admire in any person and frequently wish I could emulate more often.3

All of this goes beyond the fact that Darwin was essentially right, though I have to admit it's hard to tell how far beyond. Would Darwin's essential goodness as a person (which is hardly unique, after all--there are many good people in the history of the world, believe it or not) be as significant if it weren't combined with his importance to science? He might have been an unusually kind Victorian father or on the right side of history in the matter of slavery or a decent, gentle man respected by his peers--but would anyone care if he'd been mundane in his professional achievements, if he hadn't set the world on its collective ear with natural selection? I don't know the answer to that, I suppose. History records those who impacted it, not merely those who were kind or noble in spirit. But I suppose you can also take it the other way, too: far too few of our heroes, when you peer in closely, can survive the scrutiny--Darwin, I think, does remarkably well under the magnifying glass.

I wonder if I should stop here or go on about the science; I think I will stop, because this month--two hundred years since Darwin was born--will see plenty of articles and essays and blog posts and books and television shows and whatever about the science, and most of it will be produced by people far smarter than I am who have spent far more time than I could ever hope to working on the intricate problems4 that remain in biology. So I'll leave the science to others, and on Darwin's two-hundredth birthday I'll speak to what I know of his character as it has been passed down to others, and hopefully add something to the collective worldwide celebration of not merely his accomplishments, but his life.

Happy Darwin Day.





1These things go together in my mind because one of my favorite anecdotes about Darwin is that his children were afraid to go to him when they cut themselves because how upset he'd get seeing them hurt. In his The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Darwin's son Francis reproduced this letter from one of his sisters (which I started to excerpt, but it's worth reading in full; the mention of how he had trouble giving his kids sticking-plaster for their cuts is in the fourth paragraph):

My first remembrances of my father are of the delights of his playing with us. He was passionately attached to his own children, although he was not an indiscriminate child-lover. To all of us he was the most delightful play-fellow, and the most perfect sympathiser. Indeed it is impossible adequately to describe how delightful a relation his was to his family, whether as children or in their later life.

It is a proof of the terms on which we were, and also of how much he was valued as a play-fellow, that one of his sons when about four years old tried to bribe him with sixpence to come and play in working hours. We all knew the sacredness of working-time, but that any one should resist sixpence seemed an impossibility.

He must have been the most patient and delightful of nurses. I remember the haven of peace and comfort it seemed to me when I was unwell, to be tucked up on the study sofa, idly considering the old geological map hung on the wall. This must have been in his working hours, for I always picture him sitting in the horsehair arm-chair by the corner of the fire.

Another mark of his unbounded patience was the way in which we were suffered to make raids into the study when we had an absolute need of sticking-plaster, string, pins, scissors, stamps, foot-rule, or hammer. These and other such necessaries were always to be found in the study, and it was the only place where this was a certainty. We used to feel it wrong to go in during work-time; still, when the necessity was great we did so. I remember his patient look when he said once, "Don't you think you could not come in again, I have been interrupted very often." We used to dread going in for sticking-plaster, because he disliked to see that we had cut ourselves, both for our sakes and on account of his acute sensitiveness to the sight of blood. I well remember lurking about the passage till he was safe away, and then stealing in for the plaster.

Life seems to me, as I look back upon it, to have been very regular in those early days, and except relations (and a few intimate friends), I do not think any one came to the house. After lessons, we were always free to go where we would, and that was chiefly in the drawing-room and about the garden, so that we were very much with both my father and mother. We used to think it most delightful when he told us any stories about the "Beagle", or about early Shrewsbury days--little bits about school-life and his boyish tastes. Sometimes too he read aloud to his children such books as Scott's novels, and I remember a few little lectures on the steam-engine.

I was more or less ill during the five years between my thirteenth and eighteenth years, and for a long time (years it seems to me) he used to play a couple of games of backgammon with me every afternoon. He played them with the greatest spirit, and I remember we used at one time to keep account of the games, and as this record came out in favour of him, we kept a list of the doublets thrown by each, as I was convinced that he threw better than myself.

His patience and sympathy were boundless during this weary illness, and sometimes when most miserable I felt his sympathy to be almost too keen. When at my worst, we went to my aunt's house at Hartfield, in Sussex, and as soon as we had made the move safely he went on to Moor Park for a fortnight's water-cure. I can recall now how on his return I could hardly bear to have him in the room, the expression of tender sympathy and emotion in his face was too agitating, coming fresh upon me after his little absence.

He cared for all our pursuits and interests, and lived our lives with us in a way that very few fathers do. But I am certain that none of us felt that this intimacy interfered the least with our respect or obedience. Whatever he said was absolute truth and law to us. He always put his whole mind into answering any of our questions. One trifling instance makes me feel how he cared for what we cared for. He had no special taste for cats, though he admired the pretty ways of a kitten. But yet he knew and remembered the individualities of my many cats, and would talk about the habits and characters of the more remarkable ones years after they had died.

Another characteristic of his treatment of his children was his respect for their liberty, and for their personality. Even as quite a girl, I remember rejoicing in this sense of freedom. Our father and mother would not even wish to know what we were doing or thinking unless we wished to tell. He always made us feel that we were each of us creatures whose opinions and thoughts were valuable to him, so that whatever there was best in us came out in the sunshine of his presence.

I do not think his exaggerated sense of our good qualities, intellectual or moral, made us conceited, as might perhaps have been expected, but rather more humble and grateful to him. The reason being no doubt that the influence of his character, of his sincerity and greatness of nature, had a much deeper and more lasting effect than any small exaltation which his praises or admiration may have caused to our vanity.

The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume I,
Francis Darwin, ed., 57-58 (1887).


2While I'm pleased to see Darwin's views on slavery given publicity--particularly given some of the recent grotesque attempts by creationists to characterize Darwin as a racist or to hold him somehow responsible for Nazism--Darwin's views on slavery and his shock at what he saw practiced in the New World while on the Beagle is hardly a new discovery and has to be well-known to anyone who's read even one decent biography of the man.

Nonetheless, if Messrs. Desmond and Moore can help repudiate some of the slanders that continue to be leveled against the great naturalist and it makes the newspapers, it's all to the good.

3I'm afraid that since I'm not as good a man as Darwin was, I also get a great deal of joy out of watching his bulldog bite.

4In science, if you don't already know, problems are a good thing. They're things to be worked on, things that make us wiser in the ways of the universe. There aren't any problems in astrology or alchemy--those are dead fields and there are no problems because there is nothing left to be solved, they are intellectual dead-ends unworthy of inquiry. The day there is nothing left to learn is the day the mind ceases to exist.



20 comments:

Nathan Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 11:25:00 AM EST  

Eric is wrong, wrong, wrong.

If that Darwin guy didn't invent Eeevolution 'til the 19th century, how's all that stuff supposed to have happened back in the dinosaur and caveman days?

Jeez! Any idiot could figure that out!

mattw Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 11:57:00 AM EST  

Careful Nathan, the ghost of Darwin might turn you into a monkey!

Leanright,  Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 1:03:00 PM EST  

If Darwin is right, the who CREATED evolution?

Eric Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 1:56:00 PM EST  

Leanright, I don't even know how to parse your question.

I think maybe what you mean is who initiated the process of evolution by natural selection. Darwin's great insight, of course, was that speciation occurs through the mechanism natural selection. The idea that animal speciess evolve was, as I assume my readers already know, proposed well before Charles Darwin was even born--it failed to gain traction merely because nobody could offer a mechanism for the process. Darwin offered a mechanism, the mechanism continues to be validated with some refinements, and so we Darwin's proposal of speciation through natural selection is now accepted by biologists as a theory in what Wikipedia refers to as the pedagogical definition, i.e. "A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment." Darwin's theory of speciation by natural selection is frequently but misleadingly called "Darwin's Theory Of Evolution" because that is shorter and rolls off the tongue better than "Darwin's Theory Of Speciation By Means Of Natural Selection Of Suitable Organisms Competing For Limited Resources."

Darwin makes no comment as to what initiated this process--it is merely something we observe occurring in nature. It is largely irrelevant to the field of biology as to whether this process simply started to occur as an inevitable result of chemistry and physics (chemicals combining by weight and charge giving rise to proteins which in turn become capable of self-replication and altering their immediate environment to encourage replication, e.g. by forming a crude "cell wall" from stable peptides to create an isolated environment in which to thrive) or whether this process was kicked off by some benign, intelligent supernatural force.

In other words, evolution doesn't care one way or another whether God exists, since a supernatural force is definitionally incapable of being measured by science.

If the above fails to address the question I think you might have been attempting to ask, Leanright, feel free to try again. I will note, however, that informed questions will be dealt with more patiently than uninformed pokes--you might find Panda's Thumb to be an excellent place to start if you don't have the time to dive into Darwin directly; the works of the late Stephen Jay Gould are an excellent starting-point as well (although Gould has his quirks and legitimate critics, he was a damn fine popularizer of science).

Eric Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 1:58:00 PM EST  

(I notice a few grammatical quirks in my previous comment due to rushed writing and no editing; I am too lazy to make corrections right now. Too bad.)

Leanright,  Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 2:00:00 PM EST  

You're not going to fix them? You have flaws? I'm shocked and stunned. I love this human side of you.

Leanright,  Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 2:02:00 PM EST  

I was being tounge-in-cheek with my comment. My apologies.

Eric Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 3:31:00 PM EST  

Yes, Leanright, I have flaws, including a difficult-to-rationalize inability to affect the color yellow. Supposedly it has something to do with an impurity in the power source on Oa, but I think that's a cruddy retcon and really the Guardians just don't want to admit they should have paid for the extended warranty after all.

mattw Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 3:59:00 PM EST  

Are you sure your ring is fully charged? You might also want to watch out for a skinny purplish guy with really dramatic eyebrows.

Jim Wright Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 6:04:00 PM EST  

Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but Darwin or no Darwin I personally refuse to evolve.

Cro-Magnon Men Unite!

Who's with me?

Hello?

Anybody?

Damn.

:::wanders off to see if the Neanderthals want to play some Gameboy:::

ScottE Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 6:51:00 PM EST  

"Cro-Magnon Men Unite!"

Man, this joke would almost be funnier if Cro-Magnon weren't, in fact, modern H. sapiens.

Jim Wright Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 7:07:00 PM EST  

Who are you calling a Cro-Magnon, Scott?

And truthfully I actually feel more like Piltdown man today - yeah, assembled from mismatched parts.

Random Michelle K Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 7:41:00 PM EST  

Apropos of not much, whilst I was relaxing today, I heard some mention of the fact that Neanderthals may well have had language.

Pretty cool.

I don't have anything to say about Cro-Magnon man though. Sorry Jim.

Eric Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 7:51:00 PM EST  

DATELINE: APRIL 12, 2009
ALASKA BUREAU

BLOGGER JIM WRIGHT ADMITS HE'S A HOAX

In a stunning Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets, blogger Jim Wright as admitted he is, in fact, a hoax.

Regular readers and admirers of Mr. Wright's blog, Stonekettle Station, were stunned to discover that Jim Wright is not, as was previously believed, a real creature but rather an assembly involving a jawbone and cranial cap assembled from two unrelated species.

None of Mr. Wright's supporters were available for comment, but the late Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was, according to one anonymous source, observed slinking around Mr. Wright's parents' home shortly before Mr. Wright was born.

Reached for comment, the late Father Teilhard was asked by this reporter if he knew anything at all about Mr. Wright's unexpected announcement. "Maaaaaaybeee," Father Teilhard replied, dragging out his vowels in a suspicious fashion that appeared to have nothing to do with his French accent, "and maaaaaaaybeeee non." (This reporter was able to confirm that "non" is the French word for "no" after several hours spent with an English-French dictionary.)

Pressed for further comment, Father Teilhard's shade would only reply, "Perhaps, m'sieur, you should find out what that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was doing that day." While Sir Arthur's actual whereabouts that day were impossible to determine, there is no evidence that Sir Arthur was anywhere near the site Mr. Wright was discovered before the time of his discovery and the idea seems far-fetched on its face.

"Sir Arthur is still dead," the mystery-writer's publicist said when reached via phone, "although the popular demand for additional stories by Sir Arthur has made him realize that his death may have been a hasty and ill-advised decision, and he has not ruled out the possibility of a return."

Asked if he had any involvement at all, the late Charles Dawson (discoverer of the original "Piltdown Man") denied that he had anything to do with the forgery of Mr. Wright and then asked if I wanted to see his manticore skeleton. This impressive find of the late naturalist consists of a human skull, what is obviously the skeleton of a large cat, and a long, whiplike tail similar to that possessed by some dinosaurs: this writer is pleased to be the first media source to announce this stunning discovery, which is certain to completely revise our understanding of the ancient relationships between reptiles and mammals.

Leanright,  Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 11:15:00 PM EST  

How interesting Eric...It seems I am about to visit NC for the first time ever. One of my oldest friends is the assistant news director at WCNC.

Where should a righty go for a fine, hoppy brew? and, please warn me if you intend on showing up to put your fist in my teeth.

Eric Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 11:29:00 PM EST  

Leanright, I'm basically a pacifist. I haven't hit anyone since I was a little kid and I don't intend to again. Besides which, if I was inclined to violence, why would I?

I'm afraid I'm not especially into the bar scene. Ri Ra's downtown is a decent Irish-style pub with some pretty good food. Normally if I'm going to a bar, I just walk up to the local bars up on the corner in NoDa--Solstice being one and Sanctuary being the other. Given that NoDa is a pretty liberal arts district where a lefty like me feels at home, I might be concerned that all the Obama bumper stickers might give you an aneurysm or something.

Like I said, I'm not really in the bar scene. If I'm at a bar, it's usually because I want bar food, not for a drink. I'm the kind of guy you're likely to see in a sports bar with his face in a book if he's alone, or bitching about George Lucas with my equally-nerdy friends if I'm not.

Enjoy your visit if you make it out this way.

Leanright,  Friday, February 13, 2009 at 12:01:00 AM EST  

Really? Do you think I worry about Obama bumper stickers? I live in California, and often visit my friend in Berkeley and San Francisco. I just love good-hearted debate, and a well crafted micro-brew to go along with it.

I love differences in people and diverse opinions. I actually really appreciate YOU, Eric. you are a well thought and well written individual. Although I rarely, if ever agree, your passion is commendable.

Janiece Murphy Friday, February 13, 2009 at 12:48:00 PM EST  

I think Jim Wright really IS a transitional form.

I will now take bets on which two forms he transitions...

mattw Friday, February 13, 2009 at 1:24:00 PM EST  

If Jim Wright = Asshole, wouldn't he transition between puckered and relaxed?

*runs far, far away*

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