In his lifetime, Charles Darwin wrote and revised a total of nineteen books. Essentially, he produced a new work or significantly updated text every two to three years. Starting in 1839 and ending in 1881, a year prior to his death, his publications spanned more than forty years. In his seventy-three years of life, perhaps his three most famous works were The Journal of Researches, aka The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), the Origin of Species (1859), and Descent of Man (1871). Darwin’s observations of nature and the interactions between plants and animals is a case study in both tenacity and the careful study of life on the planet.
Darwin’s earliest work had an immediate impact on our understanding of nature and his later writings continue to bolster and give rise to whole new branches of science. Darwin didn’t just “kill god” as the saying goes (often first attributed to T.H. Huxley). What he did was liberate and breathe life into the imaginations of generations of lay people, teachers, and scientists, who continue in their life and work and, perhaps without saying it, do it in Darwin’s name as well.
I often think about where the world would be without this one man who grew up well into and as a result of the European Enlightenment. A child of a doctor who came from a financially well-to-do and connected family, but not an aristocratic one. A person who tried to follow in his father’s footsteps in terms of career but could not, and who graduated college with a degree in theology but who was never a practicing theologian. A man whose childhood curiosity about nature would lead to a lifetime of adventure at sea, on land, and in voluminous correspondence with friends, as well as other scientists and naturalists.
Certainly, there were many on the trail to unlock nature’s secrets just as Darwin did. Alfred Russel Wallace, for one, did so most directly, and rightfully should be considered the co-discoverer of natural selection. A generation just slightly before found explorer Alexander von Humbolte, who along with other scientists like geologist Charles Lyell, helped light the imagination of Darwin and his many contemporaries in Europe and the Americas.
Indeed, contemporary acolytes and adversaries of Darwin were themselves stars in their respective burgeoning fields. Scientists and naturalists including Richard Owen, Mary Elizabeth Barber, Herbert Spencer, John Muir, Joseph Hooker, and many dozens of others filled out the ecology of nineteenth-century biology and natural history, uncovering and describing the world around us in amazing detail.
As it stands though, it was Darwin’s key insights and the support of his friends that made the science and truth of natural selection stand out well beyond what most of his peers could only slightly glimpse. Darwin’s perseverance and observations along with a keen curiosity and imagination held a light to a darkened space of nature’s processes and mechanisms. Illuminating facts while extrapolating and synthesizing ideas and artifacts, beaks and shells, worms and other animal body parts, fitting them into both biological context, history, and ultimately into the law of natural selection.
Darwin’s ability to extrapolate and synthesize is, perhaps more than anything, his greatest virtue as a naturalist and scientist. Remember, in Darwin’s time there was no science of genes or genetics. That would happen a half-century after Origin was published in 1909. There was no technology like scanning electron microscopes. No carbon-14 or potassium-argon dating of rocks and fossils. In some ways, there were no words or systems to describe the science being developed until Darwin (and Wallace) invented those words and concepts for others. Darwin and Wallace unlocked nature’s mechanics, not only without the keys we take for granted today but through exuberance and working from the outside in, rather than seeing the inside out.
However, I know as a rational nonbeliever, educator, and scientist, that I could not do my own work– my writing, lectures, public speaking, and research — without the vast information and lessons learned from Darwin’s life, research and writings. Perhaps like natural selection itself, evolution and our social lives are all about links in a chain. Sometimes those links break or go extinct or split into new connections. Or perhaps they change over time and bridge us to a point that we don’t even resemble the original links any longer. This is the subjective beauty and majesty of all organic life and our constructed civilizations.
But for me, knowing Darwin’s work enlightens and enlivens my world. It helps grow my humanity and also keeps me deeply humbled. It provides me insight into life’s complexity, beauty, and frailty, not only for a particular ecology or entire species but for the individual as well. We are all but brief flitters of light—embers on the bonfire of human origins that dissolve in space and through time too quickly. What matters is the conscious acknowledgement of these facts, to face them without fear but with dignity and secular humanist purpose.
Such purpose is rooted in trying to understand nature and knowing, without having a background in physics and engineering, that paleontology and the study of human origins indeed allow us to time travel. We can use our overpowering knowledge and overwhelming evidence to go backward in time. We can look into the past by hundreds, thousands, millions, and billions of years using science tools and the scientific methods available to all of us today. Folding backward the veneer of both time and biology, while also proving what Darwin knew then with the abundant luxury of 21st Century facts and technologies.
What, then, for a humanist can be more humbling than to know that we are part of nature? Not just knowing that we are connected to one another, but to the planet and cosmos as well. If natural selection is indeed a law as described and defined by science, then how it operates here on earth, with all its various stops and starts, its dead ends and diversification, will indeed and in equal parts randomly operate across the universe the same way.
If that is true, then Darwin’s insights mean more to us today, an Earth-bound, relatively new primate slowing advancing and exploring the cosmos, than it could have ever meant to Darwin and his contemporaries in their own time.
The question for us now is, what then do we do with this knowledge to benefit humankind and all the other species with which we co-exist on this very fragile planet?
David Orenstein reflects on the life and work of Charles Darwin.
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