Flora, Fauna, and Fame
In this year of Darwinophilia, there seems to be a bit of a “jump on the bandwagon” phenomenon. Right and left, institutions and publications are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the naturalist’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. But if you pause a moment to contemplate the profundity and reach of Darwin’s work, you’ll want a seat on that bandwagon, guaranteed.
What a guy. Beyond giving us the understanding that species are the modified descendants of earlier forms – a notion of such exquisite clarity and logic that it seems almost self-evident today – Darwin broke ground in botany, zoology, travel writing, and experimental psychology. Though his work caused almost a Copernican revolution in science and culture, Darwin comes across less as a radical than as a deep, unifying, acutely observant thinker whose theories were gradual – like evolution itself.
There is something charmingly understated about his personal journal entries. He is implacable when it comes to his own productivity. Over and over he laments days, weeks, months as “entirely wasted,” “lost” either to inactivity (“…nothing is so intolerable as idleness”) or poor health (“lost several weeks by Boils & unwellness”), all the while researching, writing, and revising some 25 tomes that helped change the way we think about life on earth.
It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before the aspiring fifth grade archaeologist that I was, who worshiped the Leakeys and made a stop-motion animation starring Australopithecus africanus, gave Charles Darwin his due. As much as his contributions to science, it is his eclecticism and apparent unpretentiousness that I admire. John Collier’s achingly beautiful 1883 portrait conveys an irresistible impression of what I hope truly were his essential qualities: gentlemanliness, open-mindedness, insight, and wisdom.