“You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”
These are clearly not the words of a doting parent nor were they possibly encouraging to a budding scholar and scientist. They are, however, the rantings of Charles Darwin’s father.
Charles Darwin’s beginnings might not be described as humble (being the son of a wealthy, and clearly demanding, English doctor); his accomplishments are impressive nevertheless. This week (Feb. 12 to be exact), we celebrate the birth of this scientist, naturalist and all-around overachiever.
As a child, young Charles was pushed toward a career in medicine. It was assumed that he wouldbe willing and able to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfatherinto this respectable family vocation. As he grew up and furthered his studies, however, it became clear that he would not become a successful physician because he was unable to stomach cadaver dis sections or even be present during surgeries.
Darwin’s father was disgusted in his fifth son, though he did relent and let Charles join the voyage of the HMS Beagle on what came to be a very important trip. Perhaps in a later answer to his disapproving father, Darwin observed that, “Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue.”
No matter his father’s displeasure, Charles Darwin went on to lead an accomplished life of inquiry, discovery and scholarly study, writing and developing one of the most important tenets of science: the theory of evolution.
He published many books, traveled worldwide and undertook extensive study of individual organisms and their collective populations. He both shared his studies with the world and applied them to his own life.
Though Darwin knew much of breeding and genetics, titling one chapter of his book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, “On the Good Effects of Crossing, and on the Evil Effects of Close Interbreeding,” he still chose to marry his cousin, Emma Wedgewood. All his life, Charles fretted over the effects of this decision, wondering if he and Emma “hadn’t passed constitutional weaknesses along to their children.”
On the week of his “origins,” it is interesting to consider how far we have come accepting and then rejecting his ideas. A few recent studies have found major changes in Americans’ acceptance of evolution and its place in our public schools. Highlights of studies reported in Science and National Geographic show that only about 14 per cent of Americans think that evolution is “definitely true.” A full 33 per cent of us completely reject the theory of evolution, calling it “absolutely false.” In our schools, its teaching simply hasn’t evolved. In another educator’s study, 13 per cent of teachers “strongly support” teaching creationism.
It is not surprising that we have become a nation of nonbelievers. The United States ranks 34th out of 35 developed countries on public acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey has more doubters. Most Europeans won’t be made a monkey out of, and claim an acceptance rate of evolution at 80 per cent.
Many groups undermine the teaching of evolution and provoke controversy and doubt about the origin of species. Stephen Jay Gould, one of the best writers about Darwin and evolution, wrote, “Why has Darwin been so hard to grasp? Within a decade, he convinced the thinking world that evolution had occurred, but his own theory of natural selection never achieved much popularity during his lifetime. It did not prevail until the 1940s, and even today, though it forms the core of our evolutionary theory, it is widely misunderstood, misquoted and misapplied.”
As was his way, Darwin had an answer for those doubters: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.