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Journalist and author discusses Charles Darwin

<rles Darwin is the man who just does not go away,” David Quammen, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Western American Studies at Montana State University, said last Friday. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection remains as essentially correct and as controversial as when it was first published one hundred and fifty years ago in “The Origin of Species.” A basic understanding of evolution pervades the public consciousness, and everything from professional football to Wall Street is described as “Darwinian,” even if many people are fuzzy on the scientific details of his theory.

Quammen’s convocation talk last Friday focused not on the scientific underpinnings of the theory of natural selection, with which the majority of his audience, having sat through at least one high school biology course, was probably already familiar. Rather, Quammen discussed Darwin as a human being: a fundamentally conventional, conservative man who nonetheless discovered a radical new way of understanding the natural world.

Quammen, whose book “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin,” was published in 2006, argued that the fundamental elements of Darwin’s character were his caution and his honesty.

Darwin’s caution was evident in abundance in the years after he returned to England following his voyage on the HMS Beagle, where he had first struck upon the concept of natural selection. He did not rush to make his ideas public. Rather, he carefully developed his theory, meticulously assembling new evidence to ensure that the theory accurately described the workings of the natural world.

Darwin’s caution also derived from the troubling philosophical and theological consequences of his theory. Quammen spoke of the notebooks that Darwin kept during this period. In one passage, Darwin wonders if the same mechanism that drove the evolution of animals also applied to humans. Were humans created by God and endowed with a heightened spiritual significance, or were we just another species of mammal?

Darwin concluded that human beings, like any other animal, were subject to the law of natural selection. “From that moment of blazing conviction and heresy, Darwin would never go back,” Quammen said.

Despite the controversial nature of his ideas, and the distance that those ideas put between him and Emma, his deeply religious wife, Darwin continued to work on his theory. As a fundamentally honest man, “he just couldn’t suppress what he thought,” said Quammen.

In fact, after twenty-one years of working on his theory, it was his honesty that almost cost him the credit for his discovery. A young scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent Darwin a copy of his manuscript that, by coincidence, proposed a theory of evolution almost identical to Darwin’s natural selection.

Darwin was “devastated,” Quammen said, because he believed he was ethically obligated to pass on Wallace’s manuscript for publication. A couple of Darwin’s scientist friends arranged for Wallace’s and Darwin’s ideas to be presented jointly, thus ensuring that Darwin would retain credit for the discovery.

In a letter to Wallace afterwards, Darwin claimed no influence in this plan to present their theories simultaneously. “If this wasn’t an outright lie,” Quammen said, “it was a pretty weaselly fib.” Quammen called this the low point in Darwin’s character.

After the Wallace episode, Darwin abandoned the lengthy encyclopedia of evolution he had been working at for so many years, and began writing a quick and concise summary of his theory for a general audience. It was published as On the Origin of Species, and though Darwin almost hated it as he worked feverishly to get it finished, he was tremendously proud afterwards.

Quammen pointed to the sixth chapter of Darwin’s book as a sign of his meticulous and scrupulous character. Chapter 6 presented evidence that seemed to contradict the theory of natural selection: for example, the existence of structures like the human eye that were apparently too complex to evolve gradually and by chance. By anticipating the criticisms that other scientists would make against natural selection, Darwin strengthened his theory.

But more than that, Quammen argued, Darwin’s willingness to include contrary evidence within his book demonstrated his desire to describe the natural world fully and accurately, and not just to promote a certain favored theory.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection, at the time of its publication as much as today, was often perceived as incompatible with a belief in an all-powerful God who shaped creation according to his will. Darwin read extensively on philosophy and religion and ultimately concluded that there was no such God. Quammen was careful to emphasize that though Darwin stopped believing, he did not criticize others for their beliefs.

Quammen concluded his speech by summarizing the “tensions and peculiarities” in Darwin’s life — the caution that held back publication of his theory for so long, and the honesty that ultimately compelled him to make his ideas public, no matter the controversy they would raise.

Darwin’s book was “like a new-born calf,” said Quammen, brought into the world bloody and anguished, but fresh.
After he concluded his speech, Quammen took questions from the audience, the last of which addressed the issue of intelligent design being taught in public school science classes on a par with the theory of evolution. Quammen said that it was “extremely important” that students learn about evolution early on, and that it was “completely destructive of science education” to teach intelligent design in science class alongside evolution.

If they wanted to teach intelligent design, Quammen said, then it should be taught in a comparative religions class, next to the belief that the Earth stands on the back of four giant elephants.

“I think we’d better stop there,” joked Kerry Raadt, who was conducting the question-and-answer session. The audience laughed, and students filed out of the Chapel with a better understanding of the life of the cautious, conservative man whose theory of natural selection presented a radical and enduring challenge to the conventional understanding of the natural world and mankind’s relation to it.

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