16 October 2007

"Darwin's not a stuff-shirted Nigel Bruce"

This month 'tristero' on Digby's Hullabaloo gives us an 'intelligent design creationism' primer. It's a fine resource on that (manufactured) controversy, but the best part is tristero's vivid and incisive introduction, from which I can't resist quoting:
There are, I'm sure, many good intros to evolution, but, imo, the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species will do quite nicely. You may need to skip around a bit - there's a lot more information about pigeons in the beginning than most sane people need to know - but ...

... if you do take the time to read this book, or others by Darwin, you may come to the same conclusion that I did ...

that the more you learn about Darwin and his exemplary life, the more you realize what a terrible cultural loss it is that young people are denied the opportunity to meet this extraordinary person and learn who he was.

Darwin's not a stuff-shirted Nigel Bruce pip-pipping his way across the Empire. He is a young kid on a ship who once had the gall to grab a sailor's dinner from his plate because he (the sailor) was about to eat a very rare ostrich Darwin had been searching for in vain for months. He's a fellow who, when learning to use the bolas from Argentinian gauchos, managed to lasso his own horse, and he's willing to write about it.
That last bit exemplifies one of Darwin's most endearing quirks (from our 21st century point of view at least): that he wrote so freely of his most embarrassing moments. For example, from Voyage of the Beagle:
Instead of being nocturnal in its habits, as other toads are, and living in damp obscure recesses, it crawls during the heat of the day about the dry sand-hillocks and arid plains ... at Maldonado [I] found one in a situation nearly as dry as at Bahia Blanca, and thinking to give it a great treat, carried it to a pool of water; not only was the little animal unable to swim, but, I think, without help would soon have been drowned.
It's this Darwin--the sometimes awkward, sometimes uncertain, but always honest young man having the adventure of his life--that has the potential to touch people today, especially young people who are invariably turned off by the all-too-common bearded septuagenarian caricature of Darwin.

Which brings me to my point: wouldn't a real-life replica Beagle with young people aboard having their own bola mishaps whilst making their own biological discoveries bring this Darwin home in a way that no other bicentenary celebration of the wizened, fuzzy-faced, bowler-hatted caricature can?

Hat tip to PZ Myers for the link to tristero's post.

1 comment:

Sid Leavitt said...

A very interesting post, nunatak. It made me feel a little guilty about the septuagenarian portrait of Darwin we put up on our site, except there's something so sympathetic about that thoughtful bearded face. Now the portrait you present through tristero adds a new, real-life dimension to the man who has become a legend.