Before I get Darwin on you, I just want to apologize to the Auk Mom for worrying her by not blogging for so long. Sorry, Ma! And get well soon!
200 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. 50 years after that (slow and steady!) his most famous work was published, and he became the reluctant public face of one of the great key insights that humanity has ever gained into the way the world around us works.
Roughly 135 years after that, a me who was, as I recall, about 14 years old sat on a tired blue couch with my legs tucked up, reading a back issue of Newsweek with a trilobite on the cover. Across from me sat an acquaintance of my mother’s, who smiled at me and, in a lull, “Can you believe that people actually believe that?”
Time stopped while I considered the barn full of the products of artificial selection immediately to my south, and the creek-bed full of fossils south of that, and the woods and fields full of plainly evolved and interconnected species south of that; a microcosm of the evidence that Darwin himself had used to construct his theory. Then I sort of shrugged and went back to reading.
Fearless truth-speaker, yeah.
Evolution has always seemed pretty self-evident to me. And while self-evidence is not actually evidence, it always surprises me when people are confused by the concept. Angered, I get. The whole culture war thing, I get. But a lot of nice, genuine people like my mom’s friend seem nicely, genuinely confused by the whole thing. Nicely, genuinely confused by the concept, and also by the context, the sound and the fury that signify so much.
It’s sad, because evolutionary theory is neat. The things Darwin came up with are neat; the things we’ve figured out since Darwin are neat; and I feel confident that the things that have yet to be discovered about evolution will blow our socks off with their neatness.
What could be neater, for instance, than dinosaurs? When I was very little, dinosaurs were big, slow, lumbering, cold-blooded swamp lizards, at least in the dusty, cellophane-covered books I found in the local library. Then Robert Bakker came on PBS and suddenly dinosaurs were running around having roaring slap-fights and conducting family melodramas. And then, it turned out dinosaurs were birds. Or rather, birds were dinosaurs. Seriously, could anything be better than that? I think not!
As I’ve aged, my criteria for stuff which is neat has expanded and I now enjoy the more subtle joys of things, like, for instance, a fascinating (albeit outdated) taxonomic debates about juncos. As genetic analysis reveals new family trees and highlights the commonness of hybridization, the fuzzy edges of the entities we call species, birding becomes less like a sport and more like a Zen koan, or a particularly cunning crossword puzzle, depending on your inclination.
An understanding of evolution makes patch birding richer too, expanding the web of life that amateur naturalists study in time rather than merely space. With evolution in mind, ginkgo trees aren’t just the producers of annoying fruits and dubious herbal teas – they remind one, again, of dinosaurs! Scrub Jays and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers tell us about a history of fire and resiliency. Flowers craft Hummingbirds and Hummingbirds paint flowers. Crossbills and Skimmers slowly accumulate their idiosyncratic tool chests. The angriest critics of the theory claim that it makes life meaningless, but with evolution in mind the tiniest differences and the smallest events have implications. Those implications may be at cross-purposes, they may swamp each other or be pre-empted by a sudden environmental change or lead to something far different than the obvious, but they’re there. All the pieces matter.
So my birthday wish for Darwin is that everyone should at least get a fair chance – through good, honest science education in our schools and through the work of dedicated science writers, filmmakers, and other artists – to see just how neat the world can be. Just how neat it really is.