To my great surprise, teaching On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection is a fascinating process of watching students fall in love with nineteenth-century prose.
It certainly helps that it really is mind-blowing that Darwin in 1859 posits a theory that relies on what we now understand as the genetic heritability of certain traits. In writing a coherent theory of adaptation that depends on small changes in organisms to better suit their environments, Darwin argues that unless we discover that there is some kind of tiny structure, hitherto unknown, that is responsible for directing these changes, the only way that we would fully be able to mark every shift that happens through evolutionary change is if we had a perfect fossil record of the remains of each iteration of a species. (He does not think we have to be able to mark every shift, however, in order to be convinced by his argument.)
Modern genetics is widely considered to have been launched in 1866, with the discovery of genes–though DNA, chromosomes, and molecular genetics were not understood, even in their most basic forms, until the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In other words, nearly a hundred years before we understood how DNA functioned, Darwin hypothesized DNA.
He theorized (158 years ago) what has come to be known as “trophic cascades,” a phenomenon through which higher-order species can affect the behaviors and very existence of lower-order ones (instead of only the reverse), a phenomenon supposedly “discovered” approximately fifty years ago. It is a perhaps best exemplified in the astonishing effects the reintroduction of wolves had on the entire ecosystem of Yosemite National Park in the 1990s.
And yet, it is not the extraordinary fact that Darwin’s understanding of evolution not only gets the large-scale concepts right, but also is able to predict the nuances that his own technology makes impossible to prove, that ultimately most impresses students.
It is the fact that Darwin relies so heavily on imagination and wonder to accomplish the leaps that scientific evidence alone cannot complete, which gives his theory such power.
The consideration of these facts impresses my mind almost in the same manner as does the vain endeavor to grapple with the idea of eternity.
Darwin’s willingness to be at once rhapsodic and devout about the implications of his ideas is mesmerizing. For him, the natural world is as worthy of pious awe as is the incomprehensibility of God or an afterlife. His sense is that thoroughly understanding evolution requires both science and a willingness to embrace a scope that is almost miraculously beyond human comprehension.
Objectively, Darwin does not require the word “beautiful” to make his theory work. He need not represent evolution as growing gorgeous new forms out of the composted remains of those generations that are left behind. And yet, his reverence for the natural world, for its complexities and its efforts always to strive towards a perfection that is neither morally qualified nor hierarchically defined but is merely situationally accurate, depends so heavily on the magnificence of nature. He finds dazzling the scale of the world. And he loves that he finds it so dazzling.
He is, in short, a scientist who adores the exclamation mark.
What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years! Now turn to our richest geological museums, and what a paltry display we behold!
Combine an astonishingly forward-thinking theory with gushing over the breathtaking wonder of the natural world and you get, among many other endearing qualities, Darwin advocating for incessant collecting so that we will better understand the world that surrounds us.
And here, quite awfully, we are brought up short against the realities of now.
A little over a week ago, the University of Louisiana Monroe announced that it would close its natural history museum and destroy the millions of specimens it housed, unless alternative storage could be found for them. The museum was given 48-hours’ notice to locate such storage because, obviously, the campus needed the museum space to be leveled in order to provide a new practice track for the running teams.
This sense that the natural world must inevitably take the back seat to EVERYTHING–campus athletics, national and international policy under the current US administration, basic decency–is breathtakingly vast in scope. Over the course of approximately twenty-four hours, last week, the following happened:
- I am an arctic researcher. Donald Trump keeps deleting my citations.
- Senior White House official admits he is unfamiliar with arguments about the economic effects of climate change.
- ULM museum closure.
- Passage of HR 69, allowing killing of bears, wolves, and other hibernating animals while they are hibernating, including their cubs/pups. Every Republican in Congress voted for it.
Darwin’s science, as my students astutely noted, depended not only on the reams of meticulously collected and catalogued samples that became evidence. It also depended on the willingness to embrace the poetic notion of wonder.
Today, our policy-makers apparently have neither his reverence for nature nor a clear sense that big things can only be accomplished by a devotion to amassing small details. Lacking wonder, devotion, reverence, a preservationist instinct, or sympathy for the non-human, leaders sanction destruction of the climate, of species, of history.
Darwin, I suspect, would react with many exclamation points, as was his wont.
But this would take some adaptation on his part: for he would need to use them in glowering censure rather than as markers of enthusiasm. And that is not the prose my students adored.
How strange are these facts!
“How strange are these facts!” Darwin notes. Strange and so very sad.