Happy Birthday Darwin!

Portrait of Charles Darwin and may I just say…dat beard. I mean the beard on this fella makes a head of hair redundant, fortunately for him. (Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

I got so moody about dickheads being stupid about fatness that this nearly slipped me by!

There’s little I can say or do, historically or scientifically, to better other communicators on their thoughts on Darwin. On what he achieved, his pioneering spirit, his indomitable determination, his seeming respectability and his love of worms.

I’m fairly certain everyone from his Grandfather Erasmus Darwin through to our own darling of the Darwinian Sir David Attenborough have had their say and frankly I am neither a good enough biologist, nor a good enough historian of Darwin, to outdo them.

 So instead I will be personal and talk about who Darwin is to me.

You see my mum, bless her cotton socks, will admit to not being the brightest of people but she wasn’t stupid either, especially not where animals were concerned. Not because she studied her biology when in school, but because her parents had a habit for keeping all sorts of creatures around the house; her mother’s guard goose being a wonderful example of that. As such my mother loves a nature documentary and given that the television was my third parent I would often find myself watching them too.

I found them fascinating. The natural world around us, with its cycles, its movements and migrations equally met with its static, stoic and steadfast populations. The varieties, the colours of the birds, the shapes of the cats, the cries of the monkeys, the different ways animals use their bodies to spring, to jump, to leap, to grab, to swing, to run – it all caught my eye. It must have been like watching a stoner at a laser-light show watching me watching a nature documentary as a kid.

I fell in love, although it took me some years to realise it. I was in my early 20s before I was even going to study my undergraduate degree in Natural Science (with a focus on biology and ecology) and as I have mentioned in other articles it…didn’t work out.

My key reason for dropping out was effectively an autistic burnout but in the run up to it all sorts of events, all sorts of cues, starting making me less happy with it. I had a love/hate relationship with presentations but…I’m like a pair of comedy chattering teeth, wind me up and then try and stop me – I’ve never felt more like I’ve had a crowd in the palm of my hand than whilst giving my presentation on cheetah behaviour. I loved getting hands on with animals, creatures, bugs (even though I don’t like them) and had great fun with that. Going out into the field was an unmeasurable joy. Counter that with endless hours in the lab repeating the same task over, and over, and over, and over…repeat ad nauseum, or ethics lectures in which we discuss intellectual property rights of our discoveries, as if my first thought when discovering a vaccine for AIDS is how to stamp a TM on it so my university or lab can make money off of it rather than give it to humanity, as Volvo did with the patent to the inertia reel seatbelt. One of the things I realised at this time is I would never be a natural historian.

That’s what Darwin was, you see. We hold him up as an evolutionary biologist or a geneticist, a naturalist or an ecologist but he was sort of all of those things. He was a natural historian. It’s somewhat of an extinct academic species now. They weren’t about long nights in the lab, or the nitty-gritty of number-crunching. Although Darwin did his share of that with barnacles before ‘On the Origin…’ and earthworms afterwards! They were about the bigger picture, and travelling and adventuring to see that bigger picture.

Over the years different pieces of the evolutionary puzzle have been filled in, after Darwin, people trawled the records and eventually found the earlier work of monk Gregor Mendel, whose pea-plant cross-breeding experiment gave us an idea for a unit of inheritance, also proposed by Darwin, and the fundamentals of gene theory; Watson, Crick and Franklin gave us that unit of inheritance, the structure of the DNA molecule, Richard Dawkins would provide his selfish-gene theory, turning our eye away from species and populations and to individuals and genes within individuals. Along the road so many people have filled in puzzle pieces.

Photo 51 – X-ray crystallography photograph taken by Raymond Gosling, a graduate student of Rosalind Franklin, that shows the infamous helical structure of DNA (Credit: Raymond Gosling/King’s College London – Used without permission – Contact the site if you wish for it to be removed)

So why is the picture still so empty?

We still don’t know why sex. We still don’t know why death. We still don’t know why some species don’t have sex (rotifers). And we still don’t know why some species don’t die much. Why particular colours, temperatures, lands, terrains, pH of soils, why bees and flowers, what happens when no bees, how did it start, where does it end, what’s the fucking point?

It is my opinion that biology still needs natural historians like Charles Darwin. People to make long voyages with little else to do but observe, think and massively overindulge in Galapagos turtle meat. Maybe not that last one, but the other two. I think life is a ‘big picture’ kind of deal. I think the deeper we delve into the genome, the more reductionist we get with it, the more we see the same structures we saw 100, 1,000, 10,000 magnifications ago.

I made a post the other day about consciousness and the role that could play in the potential future of life, but much of our research about consciousness is coming from increased research in animals. I could frame this next thought as “we are finding out animals are smarter than we thought,” but I am choosing “We are finding out we are dumber than we wanted to believe.” Animals are smart, smarter than we’ve given them credit for and the language barriers, the communication barriers, have been the biggest hurdles to jump to realise that. As we get ethologists analysing animal behaviours through news lenses and with new techniques we are discovering cultures in species we never imagined could form them, skills with tools in animals we never could have dreamed would use them and intelligence, on levels we never expected, from species that are a total shock.

It is my personal belief that there are cetaceans (sea-mammals like whales and dolphins) as well as elephants, and cephalopods (sea-molluscs like octopus and squid) that possess if not consciousness as we know it, something very similar.

It’s in my image library and I like octopodes. I also want them know I am an ally when they outsmart us and take over the world (Credit: Martijn Klijnstra)

What would this mean for the big picture? I don’t know. I’ll be honest, I’m a mortal man and I’m not expecting to be around to see it. Life moves fast, but research moves slow and we will know things in 100 years’ time I’d shed tears over.

What I do know is Darwin’s theory still holds. Evolution by natural selection works, and sometimes species overreach. Sometimes they are too good at what they do, so good they put themselves in danger. Overhunting their preferred prey, over-exploiting their resources, there’s a decent amount of evidence that certain dinosaur habitats and species were experiencing trouble before the massive space-rock smash-banged into current day Mexico and began the K/T (or K-Pg) extinction event.

Humans should be smart enough to avoid their own catastrophe but they are also one of the few species smart enough to manufacturer it, or paradoxically so smart they’re smart enough to stupid themselves to ignore it. When Darwin’s crews sailed on the Beagle they also didn’t know the impacts they would have, so many crews have been ignorant and lacking in foresight and led to the near extinction of the Galapagos tortoise or actual extinctions like Stellar’s Sea Cow, the dodo and many of New Zealand’s flightless birds.

We know now, and, were he alive today I think Darwin would see the same misery people like myself and Sir David Attenborough do. A species capable of being their own devils, or the saviours of an entire planet – they merely have to make a choice between selfishness and something greater, a love, a compassion such that nature does not innately posses, but that we can be its agent of.

Nowadays a modern day Darwin needs to travel the world to see the devastation, see the problems, see the plastics and pollution – to predict a future where that is left unchecked and devise a model not only of how to slow it down but how to stop it, and repair the damage done. Yes, businesses, lab-scientists, reductionists, theorists, they are all important too. One person, though, of commanding stature, regardless of gender or background, burdening their own eyes, body and mind with the mighty forces of nature, going on a fearless pilgrimage of discovery, making records along the way, summing it up eloquently and giving us the big picture as they see it – A new Darwin – that may be enough for us to start to take it seriously.

Happy Birthday, mate. Thanks for calling my great-great-great-great-great…etc. granddad an ape, but you likely needn’t have gone back that far.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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