12 February 2007

Darwin "Go ahead, make my" Day

Today, February 12, 2007, is the 198th birthday of one Mr. Charles Darwin - Darwin Day. You may know him as a pioneering biologist, father of our current understanding of evolution and much beat upon whipping boy of religious nutjobs. All in all, he's handled all the abuse rather well, so today is a day we celebrate the great man.

But did you know that Darwin was a cold, calculating mass murderer?

Well, not exactly, but one thing that amazed me was, for someone so interested in studying wildlife, he certainly blew away a lot of it. Darwin was an avid hunter, spending the last few days in England before the Beagle voyage hunting partridges with his uncle. His first specimen recovered on the Beagle came when the ship was waiting in quarantine off the coast of the island of Tenerife, where he took his pistols on deck and blew away a black-backed gull to get at its stomach contents, eventually preserving a cuttlefish from the endeavor. During the Beagle's voyage, he enjoyed hunting a variety of new and exotic species, often revelling in discovering how each tasted (apparently, the dome-backed Galapagos tortoises tasted better than the saddle-backed ones). Oftentimes this was for survival - the ship needed meat for the crew - however, the impression was definitely gained that, while appreciating the beauty of life, he also appreciated being able to just up and whack it as well.

Darwin hunted rheas in Patagonia; slaughtered countless boobies and noddies on St. Paul's Rock; shot a large lizard in Bahia; shot bearded monkeys, a crotophaga, and some parrots and toucans in Rio; a condor near Port St. Julian; capybara in Montevideo; and various birds on the Galapagos, just to name a few.

Darwin was an interesting fellow. In addition to filling all manner of beasties full of lead, as a youth he also spent much time examining and collecting wildlife of all sorts. At 16, he took a microscope off with him to medical school - not for classes or labs, but for fun. During university he collected beetles. At 17, he was playing with cuttlefish. He would grab and torture sea mice just to see how they reacted. At 18, he was seriously studying zoophytes.

In fact, his somewhat sadistic bent resulted in this essay from the Institute for Creation Research (as loathe as I am to link to them). It is kinda funny. (They quickly go from the defensible position that Darwin was a little too gun-happy, even for his era, to the weird position that his eagerness to hunt things directly resulted in his theory of natural selection.)

I've been reading two books recently about Charles Darwin's life and adventures on the way to coming up with the theory of evolution through natural selection. The first is Fossils, Finches, and Feugians by Richard Darwin Keynes, about Darwin's time on the Beagle, and the second is Darwin and the Barnacle, about his zoological pursuits that helped come up with the common descent part, specifically the 8 or so years in which he became the world leader in barnacle research.

Dubious enjoyment of killing aside - society has changed such that gratuitous animal killings are no longer acceptable - these books give a sense of what's missing in our education and childhoods today. We're missing that hands on element - science is taught purely out of textbooks these days. How many of us as kids were encouraged to run around and torture little animals to see for ourselves how they worked? Darwin did a lot of it. Some kids still do it today but it's getting more rare; my niece will chase after little snakes, and it's a wonder to behold, but it's not too common. Inquisitiveness like that, like what Darwin showed, is the greatest gift a person can have.

Links: Darwin's account of the Voyage of the Beagle.

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