Thursday, 12 February 2009
This post is to celebrate Charles Darwin who was born two hundred years ago today and whose book On The Origin Of Species changed the way we understand nature and our place in it. I can’t remember when I first heard of Darwin or natural selection and the theory of evolution. They seem to have been part of my life forever. Probably though it was when I was ten or eleven as that is when I started to study natural history, reading books on rocks, plants and animals, watching birds, dabbling in ponds and collecting shells, rocks, insects and anything else I found. My bedroom window shelf was covered with old glass sweet jars containing pond life – tadpoles, great diving beetle larvae, water scorpions, whirligig beetles, ramshorn snails and more while my cupboards were full of cardboard boxes containing neatly labelled sea shells and insects and on my desk were notebooks detailing what I saw and collected in neat lists. On television I watched programmes with David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell, Hans and Lotte Hass and other TV naturalists. From my first readings I grasped that all life is related and has evolved from common ancestors. I also understood that human beings were animals too and just as much part of nature as frogs or woodlice. Being interested in history as well as nature I’ve always liked knowing where ideas come from and how they develop so I read the stories of how our knowledge of the natural world came about and learnt of the importance of Darwin and evolution.
Since those days I have continued my interest in nature, though my boyhood desires to be a scientist died long ago, crushed by the boring science lessons of secondary school, dull chemistry and physics that seemed to bear no relation to the real world and taught by teachers whose only interest appeared to be exam results. For years I didn’t even realise that there was any connection between school science lessons and the natural history I continued to study. Over the years I’ve read many books on evolution and Darwin and those who followed him and amassed the overwhelming evidence, still growing daily, that proves he was correct but I never attempted to read Darwin’s major work itself, the closest being Steve Jones’s modern (and excellent) reworking Almost Like A Whale. I read the eloquent and literary essays of Stephen Jay Gould, the books of Richard Dawkins (The Ancestor’s Tale is a wonderful conceit that works well) and Richard Fortey (whose Life: An Unauthorised Biography is superb) and articles in New Scientist but not On The Origin Of Species. This year I intend to put that right.
The idea that we are part of nature, part of the world and not some superior being planted on it by an outside force has always seemed to me both obvious and wonderful. Perhaps it is why I have never felt lonely when spending weeks by myself in wild country. Instead I feel I am at home, where I belong. Darwin put it beautifully in the famous and stirring last lines of The Origin of Species:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved”.