Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on February 12, 2019. I’m Steve Mirsky.
It’s Darwin Day. Charles Darwin was born 210 years ago today. Ten years ago I went to a Darwin Day event here in New York City. The program included some three hours of talks and tributes, some of which I turned into podcasts back then. For this episode, we’ll hear about 12 minutes of the event.
We’ll hear Darwin’s great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman, and former Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie, who read excerpts from the Origin of Species.
But we’ll start with an appearance by Darwin himself, in the person of writer and historian Richard Milner, performing a brief monolog from his one-man stage show about the British naturalist:
I was born a naturalist. My father Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, a prosperous physician, did not consider that a marketable attitude. When I was a boy, he told me, “You care for nothing but hunting beetles, bird shooting and rat catching and will bring disgrace upon yourself and the entire family.” And so at father’s insistence I entered Edinburgh’s famous school of medicine when I was 16 years old. How I loved to walk the rugged volcanic cliffs in the Scottish countryside; they were calling me to geologize. But Edinburgh holds dark memories too of medical training in those days before blessed anesthesia, I clearly remember running out of the University’s operating theater unable to bear the screams of a stuck down child in surgery. I was a medical student who could not bear the site of blood and thus abruptly ended my medical career. My father next persuaded me to study theology at Cambridge in preparation for a genteel life as a country vicar. My father said you could collect beetles and save souls at the same time. My great invention began in 1831 of course when Captain Robert Fitzroy invited me to join the HMS Beagles’ surveying voyage around the world as the ship’s naturalist, thus abruptly ending my ecclesiastical career. The Beagle was the beginning of my first real education. I collected thousands of specimens of marine creatures, shells, birds, fishes, plants and rocks for shipment back to England. My initial foray into a Brazilian rainforest made an impression that lasted the rest of my life. I felt like a blind man who was given his sight and was seeing for the first time wonders of the Arabian nights. Delight itself is a weak term to express the delight that a naturalist feels upon first being alone in the Brazilian rainforest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants and the luxuriance of the vegetation filled me with admiration. The delight that one experiences at such times bewilders the mind. If the eye attempts to follow a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by the still stranger flower that it is crawling on. The mind is a chaos of delight. Well Captain Fitzroy’s mission was to map the coastline of South America, and I looked at it through the eyes of Charles Lyell because just before I left on the voyage, my teacher gave me a copy of Lyell’s Principles of Geology that had just come out and Lyell said that you could explain all the features of the earth, not by the hand of the divine or by some catechisms, but by slow, steady processes observable today on the earth; wind and rain, the erosion, volcanoes, earthquakes, and I saw the volcanoes and earthquakes as we traveled around the world. Captain Fitzroy’s mission was to map the coastline of South America, well for the Admiralty an often perilous venture in the tempestuous waters of Tierra del Fuego where our little vessel nearly capsized in a storm at sea. Within two years after returning to England, I married my cousin, Emma Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer’s daughter—you know, the Wedgwoods were famous for two things, their piety and their crockery; and her brother who believed in spiritualism, the cracked pottery, as well. Now at our country estate, Down House, I set myself a task of discovering the laws of life. How did the plants and creatures I saw out on my voyage originate? And how did they disperse to the far flung regions of the earth? Well, around 1837, I took up the idea of transmutation or evolution, which my grandfather, Erasmus, had published shortly before I was born. Grandfather believed that species developed gradually over immense periods of time from common ancestors. After many years of experimentation in my garden and greenhouse, I arrived at a mechanism for evolution, which I called natural selection with favorable variations in organisms which tend to be preserved well; the others would be eliminated from the population.
Matthew Chapman reading from Origin of Species:
As man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not natural selection effect? Man can act only on external and visible characters. Nature, if I may be allowed to personify, the natural presentation of survival of the fittest, carries nothing for appearances except and so far as they are useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; nature only for that of the being which she tends; every selective characteristic fully exercised by her as is implied by the fact of their selection. Man keeps the natives of many climates in the same country. He seldom exercises each selected characteristic in some peculiar and fitting manner. He feeds a long- and a short-beaked pigeon on the same food. He does not exercise a long-backed or a long-legged quadruped in any particular manner. He exposes sheep with long and short wool to the same climate. He does not allow the most vigorous males to struggle for the females. He does not rigidly destroy all inferior animals; that protects during each varying season, as far as lies in his power, all his production. He often begins his selection by some half-monstrous form or at least by some modification prominent enough to catch the eye or be plainly useful to him. Under nature the slightest difference of structure or constitution may well turn the nicely balance scale in the struggle for life and so be preserved. How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man? How short his time? And consequently how poor will be his results compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. Can we wonder then that nature’s productions should be far true up in character than man’s productions that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life and should plainly bear the stamp of a higher workmanship. Thank you.
John Rennie reading from Origin of Species:
Well, thank you very much. It is a pleasure be here today with so many persons so illustrious and in some cases dead; but most especially, really, with all of you who are here in the crowd and who have taken the time to come here and celebrate not just Charles Darwin but the wonderful ideas of Charles Darwin and that really are a living legacy for all of us. That’s, it is stupendous to see the turnout of a crowd like this and let us go forth from this place and spread this good word. But I, as [the host] Derek mentioned, I am the editor in chief of a magazine, and as the editor in chief of a magazine, I am accustomed to getting the last word in [a] lot of things, and so it’s very appropriate then that Derek has allowed me to read the last words of The Origin of the Species.
Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind, it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the creator that the production and extinction of the past and the present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become numbered. Judging from the past, we may safely and further not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distinct futurity. And of the species now living, very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity, for the manner on which all organic beings are grouped shows that the greater number of species in each genus, and or the species in many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct. We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to [foretell] that it will be the common and widely spread species belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken and that no catechisms has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a securer future at great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection. It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank coded with many species of plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the trees, with various insects flitting about and with worms crawling through the damp earth and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other and dependent upon each other in sole complex of manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in a larger sense, being growth with reproduction; inheritance [which is] almost implied by reproduction; variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from the use and disuse, a ratio of increase so high as to lead to a struggle for life and as a consequence to natural selection entailing divergence in character and the extinction of less improved forms. Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved. Thank you.
That’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.scientificamerican.com. Where you can find much more from the three-hour 2009 Darwin even. Just go to the podcast page for this episode at scientificamerican.com and look in the transcript for the URLs for those past episodes:
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