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The Tree of Life

Peter Sís

A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

A Scientific Hero For All Seasons

Parents and teachers have few greater responsibilities than inculcating in our children the basic ideas of Western Civilization. In the realm of science, one way of accomplishing this is through biographies. Among the list of prospects, Charles Darwin is probably the most difficult to approach since his ideas have been, and remain even now, controversial. Peter Sís has undertaken a brave and ambitious project, a children’s biography of Charles Darwin. In the The Tree of Life, Sís completes his task brilliantly and sensitively with a beautifully illustrated text based largely in Darwin’s own words.


Although he came from a well-known English family, Charles didn’t exactly fit in from the very start. His father hoped to make him into a medical doctor. That failing, he thought Charles might be a good minister. Charles would have none of it. He preferred shooting, riding and collecting bugs.


His studies completed, he was offered a position as a naturalist on the Beagle. Not only was this an unpaid position, but Charles had to provide for himself and pay “tuition” as well. Daddy Darwin, thinking this kid wouldn’t ever settle down or amount to squat, objected in no uncertain terms. Others in the Darwin-Wedgwood clan defended the project, and Charles was off on his great life-adventure.


There follows a tale of fever, seasickness, homesickness, bug bites, death on the high seas and some on land as well, not to mention a reckoning with humankind’s appalling conditions. Slavery. Spanish governors who hunt Indians for fun. There is also humor. To the great glee of the gauchos, Charles trips his own horse while trying to use a bolas and splatters himself all over Patagonia. There are also many moments where he contemplates the sublime.


And in the Galápagos there is the moment of realization. He writes, “... Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”


Back in England, Charles divides his life into the public Darwin, the private Darwin and the secret Darwin. Publicly, Charles is a rising star in English geology and something of a celebrity. Privately, he marries his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and becomes a father. Some of his children live, others don’t. He delights in the former and is tormented by the latter. He also takes to breeding pigeons, birds that will eventually perform great service in the interests of science.


Secretly, he suspects that species are not “immutable” and starts working on a theory to explain their “transmutation.” This idea, he realizes, is so “presumptuous” that he dares share it only with Emma and Joseph Hooker.


If his secret musings are ever to see the light of day and be taken at all seriously, he must establish his credentials as a “naturalist.” So, he takes a little time off (about eight years) to write about barnacles. By then, Alfred Wallace sends a paper to the Linnaean Society that argues exactly the proposition Charles has been contemplating. His friends warn Charles that he’s about to be bested and a joint Darwin/Wallace presentation is developed. Everyone is bored. For awhile anyway. Then, all hell breaks loose. Wallace, himself a brilliant star in the scientific heavens, is content to study birds in the nether reaches of the British Empire. He stays out of the fray in England.


Darwin didn’t invent evolution out of thin air. Folks had been playing with the idea ever since Aristotle first brought it up. But Charles defined for the first time an evolutionary process on the basis of immense and meticulous evidence. On its surface, it’s pretty simple. Critters produce more offspring than they need. Those offspring vary. The most successful offspring contribute most to the next generation. That’s all, folks.


Sís also makes the point that Darwin never reflected on God’s role in all this. What scared us is a world that is nothing but change and a creation so long-term that we have to start thinking in terms of billions of years. And that, children, is pretty miraculous, too.


Now, parents, get this. Evolution IS the central unifying idea in biology. Your children can dissect frogs till they drop, but until they confront evolution, they’ve not studied biology.


Children need heroes. Science has many. Unfortunately, few of them have lived lives as adventuresome as Robin Hood or whomever. In looking for scientific heroes, Charles Darwin is the model. He couldn’t fit into the mold his parents chose for him, but his filial piety was dutiful almost to a fault, particularly by today’s standards. At sea, he was a loyal crewman and colleague who kept to his duties in true Victorian fashion. He was devoted to his family. He was an ambitious scientist, but tempered his ambition by being meticulous, careful and exacting.


Intellectually, he worried about the social, moral and religious implications of what he was doing. Daddy Darwin, listen! Chuck might not have become the medical doctor or minister you wanted, but he reshaped our vision of the world and did so with honor and dignity. A father could hardly ask more of a child. Even if you don’t buy the ideas, Chuck’s life is a model of decorum.


Of course, there is more to the story than this. The origin and evolution of Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism is a complex story full of many obscure trails and blind alleys. But your children can tackle those complexities in Intellectual History 201 when they go to state university. Between now and then, this is a solid, reasonable and beautiful initial approach to the Theory of Evolution, one of our civilization’s most elegant ideas. Even if you’re not a parent, but only a person who loves the natural world, you’ll want a copy of this book on your shelf. It’s a great book to admire on a cold winter’s night when the spiders and the birds are all off doing secretive, obscure, incomprehensible things.

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