IN DARWIN S WAKE
By DAVID DENBY
The New Yorker, July 21, 1997
Two anecdotes, both concerning Charles Darwin’s mouth. When Darwin was a student at
Cambridge, he was interested less in books and laboratories than in mucking about in ponds and pokingat dead logs. During his three years at the university, from 1828 to 1831, he attended precisely onecourse of lectures in the natural sciences, botany, and spent the better part of his time in long walks orrides in the country. Among his circle of friends, naturalism was a popular hobby, rather like drinking atIvy League colleges in the nineteen-twenties: bravado was built into the sport. The young men filled theirrooms with stuffed swans and the pupae of moths, and they also created a rather peculiar eating club,the “Glutton” club, at whose meetings unspeakable meals were served, consisting of animals “unknownto human palate” – hawk and bittern and, most terrible of all, owl. Another of Darwin’sescapades, though unrelated to the proceedings of the glutton club, provided a kind of dessert. Some ofthe men collected insects – “entomologizing,” they called their jaunts – and Darwin wasquite competitive about this. “One day on tearing of some old bark,” he recalled in his autobiography, "Isaw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could notbear to lose, so that I popped the one that I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected someintensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, aswell as the third one.” No one would suggest that a mere willingness to put vile things into one’s mouthaccounts for greatness. But the two stories provide a hint to a rather large mystery: How could thisplacid, half educated, wealthy country boy, tall and strapping but rather ugly, and far from brilliant as ayoung man-- a little dense, even – have become the most radical and disruptive thinker of the nineteenthcentury? Karl Marx seems today a shadowed and limited historical figure, whereas Darwin is entirelycontemporary. What he learned may affect everything we desire and everything we forget, what we wishto do and what we do not wish to do.
In a hotel lounge last summer, clutching a pink-orange courtesy drink, I listened to some
gentlemen with yellow costumes and small guitars sing “Cielito Lindo.” What on earth was Idoing there? Our little group – mostly from the New York area, eighteen altogether, had gathered inGuayaquil, a dour industrial port city on the Ecuadorian coast. We were going to the Galapagos, inthe Pacific, about six hundred miles to the west. The young Darwin had visited the islands in 1835, latein his epochal five-year voyage as the naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle. He remained there for fiveweeks and collected impressions and specimens that eventually played a major role in his formulation ofthe theory of evolution by natural selection. The place has recently become a kind of eco-touristLourdes, visited by more than fifty thousand people a year. Sitting in the lounge, I wished with all myheart that I had not become one of them. My fellow travelers were lively, and giddy with anticipation,but I could barely say a word to them. Except for Mickey Cohen, the retired biology teacher and schooladministrator from Far Rockaway who organized the trip – an ebullient naturalist and born expeditionleader—they seemed too nice by half nature lovers. They came with guidebooks and copies of Darwinstuffed in their backpacks and with enough diving equipment and cameras to remake all of JacquesCousteau’s underwater documentaries. One of them, a doctor’s secretary, collected hermit crabs; shetook them out at home, she said, and let them run all over her arms. Another, an observant former real-estate agent and teacher from New Jersey – the sharp-eyed Joan – knew the names of small plants andshrubs. She could spot Chamaesyce,
a low, inconspicuous plant common to the islands, a mile away. Sheremembered the name. But how? It was beyond me, this cherishing of every dim bush and pebble.
Growing up in New York, I could never keep straight the names of trees and flowers. Early
every spring, taking a bus across Central Park on some chilly afternoon, I would stare in bewildered rageat the demure appearance of color in the budded but still brownish sections of the park. Narcissus?Hyacinth? What was needed, I eventually came to believe, wasn’t plants gussied up as classical deities,shedding metaphors like dead leaves, but the direct experience itself – the burn and shift of fine-grainedsand at the glittering edge of dry, unprepossessing island in the Caribbean.
Tamed, the country was a tolerable delight. A single patch of pleasant lawn – my mother-in-
law’s lawn in Westport would do – was all of nature. On either side, there were thick woods filled with
willow, maple, oak, and tulip trees (so I am told). Sitting on the lawn with a book, I was accompanied byants and bees, butterflies and dragonflies. Our city cats, transported to Connecticut, brought my wife andme pounded mice, sometimes leaving them in our bed. That was more than enough nature.
I was obviously not a good enough person to worship at the Galapogan shrine, consecrated as it
was by lizards, giant tortoises, and small finches with different-sized beaks. I had never longed to spendtime among briny creatures or to swim with “friendly” sharks, and I blanked out on nature writing—theboilerplate of proudly unreadable monthly magazines—after a few paragraphs. And hadn’t I seen thatGalapagos documentary in fifth grade? I could almost hear the whirr of the projector, the tail end of, thefilm slapping against the machine.
Anyway, there was an inescapable irony buried in the emergence of the Galapagos as shrine.
Darwin, when he was there, had little idea of the significance of what he was looking at. He certainly didnot think that he was searching for a general theory of the transmutation of species. In the Galapagos, hesat on the backs of giant tortoises and collected (rather negligently, he later admitted) some small birds.
The revelations came only later, back home, when he submitted his specimens – the finches and otheranimals – to a variety of specialists. We tourists now followed in Darwin’s footsteps all too knowingly.
The Galapagos Islands may be a weird kind of paradise, but the eco-tourists, I thought, were bound toturn it into a conceptual Disneyland – the artificially preserved showplace of evolution. Re-creatinganything like Darwin’s innocent and hungry experience was impossible.
I had wanted to go to Salzburg, to the music festival, which I had visited at twenty, sleeping in
immaculate student dorms and rushing to concerts in churches and small white-and-gold baroque palaces.
longing for Salzburg centered on an emblematic moment of happiness. Sitting in the little parkbehind the Mozarteum one afternoon, back in 1964, I heard a familiar voice pouring out of an openwindow: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was rehearsing the song recital she was to give the next night. No onepassing by seemed to recognize the voice or, if anyone did recognize it, to find anything unusual aboutthe gift of a free concert. Now, in the midst of “Cielito Lindo,” I tried to remember the sound ofSchwarzkopf’s voice and the magical calm in the park behind the Mozarteum.
It was my wife who had insisted on the Galapagos. She was writing a novel set in the islands.
Anyway, she was one of them –
a birder. Now and then, she rose from bed at 6 a.m. and headed off tomysterious wooded and sandy places in the outer boroughs. She had become a Darwin enthusiast too,joining the increasingly large number of people who had recently come to take an interest in evolution.
Just about everyone I knew, in fact, seemed to be reading about Darwin, arguing over him, boning up onhis contemporary followers, and debating the implications of evolutionary theory. For a fair number ofpeople, Darwinism appeared to be replacing Freudianism as an intellectual hobby, and even as a systemof social analysis and an explanation of personal destiny. It almost seemed as if an enormous shift inconsciousness and belief were under way, with evolutionary psychology replacing the “depthpsychology” of the last hundred years. A
large general audience now followed the work of suchinterpreters and disputants as the biologists Ernst Mayr, Edward O. Wilson, and John Maynard Smith,the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the zoologist Richard Dawkins, the philosopher Daniel C.
Dennett, the science writers Robert Wright, Jonathan Weiner, and Matt Ridley, and the social scientistFrank Sulloway, all of whom have continued the discussion of fundamental issues initiated by Darwin,Herbert Spencer, and Thomas Huxley. Would such writers soon establish themselves in intellectualhouseholds the way Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich, Erich-Fromm and Theodor Reik had done ageneration or two ago—as icons and spiritual advisers? The prospect gave me the shudders. RobertWright’s 1994 book, The Moral Animal
, which summed up the emerging discipline of evolutionarypsychology, proposed to find reasons in evolutionary history for virtually everything we do but ourchoice, in the morning, of gray socks or brown. Under such an assault, the tenets of humanism, suchthings as free will, culture, judgment seemed to wither away. No doubt an evolutionary psychologistwould see in my agreeing to visit a place that gave me the creeps further evidence of the persistence ofbourgeois marriage as a special kind of adaptive behavior in the contemporary environment. (They talkthat way.) We had two children, and I no longer consciously desired to reproduce myself, but inDarwinian terms that hardly matters. The genetically patterned instinct to insure reproductive success,and thus to deliver the genes to the next generation, was an instinct that might lead another male to stray,but it led me, in the combined feminist and pro-marital environment of our little Manhattan social circle,to hang on to my wife. This may seem an odd way to talk about love, but Darwinians would say that
even when planning vacations we act toward certain ends. Before we were married, I did not, like earliercourting males, wear plumage but instead followed the bird-watching Cathy Schine into mosquitoeyMaine ponds. The way to that woman’s heart was definitely through ponds, woods, and Roger ToryPeterson, whose impassive bird guides I examined with deep interest in our Southwest Harbor hotel. Sheknew, of course, that I was faking. In Darwinian terms, however, it was the thought that counted, and itworked.
In the morning, our group left Guayaquil and flew to Baltra, in the center of the Galapagos
archipelago. Baltra is flat, black-brown, and ugly. Darwin himself was apparently depressed by his firstglimpse of the islands: he noted “stunted brushwood” and air with “a close and sultry feeling, like thatfrom a stove,” so that “we fancied even the bushes smelt unpleasantly.” Within an hour, however, wetourists were sitting in a panga
(a sort of motorized Ecuadorian rowboat) and heading out to ourseagoing yacht, the Galapagos Adventure, anchored in the bay. The yacht was ninety feet long, the samelength as the Beagle, and, at first sight, a great deal more comfortable. There was a gleaming wood-paneled lounge, with polished floors and brass rails, and at the front of the ship, facing the bow and thesea, an open deck that I knew I would love. That deck would be my retreat from the nature lovers.
Mickey, our tour leader, who was short, strong, and effervescent, with dark eyes that danced
when he talked about nature – he was pushing seventy but had more energy than a teenager—revved everyone up. Not that the group needed it. Antic joking, a kind of nervous hilarity, swept through thefold. They were all amazed to be in the islands, cut off from everything so far away from civilization,some of them said, that there could be a nuclear holocaust and we would never know it. Hearing this, Isecretly suspected them of wanting the missiles to land; that way, they could stay in the islands forever,keeping company with the lizards, and never return to the impurities of civilization.
The cabins below smelled of fuel, so Cathy and I headed for the upper deck, where we found a
cabin with windows and ocean air. An evolutionary theorist might have said it was our version of aniche. In the forest, the squirrels, avoiding the big cats and other predators, developed the ability to climbtrees and escaped to the canopy. For us, too, higher up was better – or so we believed. Unfortunately, thecabin was so tiny that our knees knocked together as we sat on the facing beds. Two decks below, agenerator roared twenty-four hours a day, and when the boat lay at anchor even our cabin hummed andvibrated like the No. 2 express between Times Square and Seventy-Second Street. Despite the gleaminglounge, our voyage might not always be comfortable. Darwin, who suffered terribly from seasickness, atleast did not have to smell gasoline or listen to a generator.
“I am so excited,” Cathy said. “Aren’t you?"“Oh, yes,” I said.
WAS Darwin merely lucky? When I read Voyaging,
the marvelous first volume (published in
1995) of Janet Browne’s ongoing biography of Darwin, I was struck, for a while, by the apparentcontingency of Darwin’s greatness – his frequent and dangerous flirtation, as a young man, withmediocrity or a merely eccentric monomania. How easily he could have become one of theentomologizing or botanizing gentlemen, the young men who stayed at home.
Before the Beagle voyage, he had never thought of training himself as a professional scientist.
After two years of medical school at the University of Edinburgh, he had fled in horror – shocked bythe operations performed without anesthesia. He then enrolled at Cambridge, intending to take HolyOrders. Like many another Anglican clergymen, he would place rocks, feathers, and shells onthe drawing-room table, the collection arrayed in celebration of God’s glory. The clerical orthodoxy ofthe day was “natural theology” the notion that the world’s infinite but mutually dependent variety wasproof of God’s grand design. Darwin wound up as naturalist of the Beagle mainly because the ship’scaptain feared going insane. Captain Robert Fitzroy was twenty-six – only four gears older than Darwinand relatively untested. Though gifted in many ways, he was plagued by a high, nervous irritability, andwhen slighted he could flare up in uncontrolled rages. He was an aristocrat by birth and could not bearspeaking to the crew, or even to the officers, as equals; he required the presence of a man from his ownclass with whom he could share dinner and conversation, a man interested, as he was, in thenatural sciences. In 1831, the Beagle’s new mission was to make chronometric measurements and tochart the coastal waters of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Chile; after leaving the Americas, the shipwould then continue west, stopping at British settlements in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and South
Africa. The solitude of those long voyages could be unbearable; the previous captain of theBeagle, falling to pieces off the dreary, alienating coast of Tierra del Fuego, had blown his brains out inhis cabin. And there was suicide in Fitzroy’s family, too. His uncle, Viscount Castlereagh, the BritishForeign Secretary, had slit his own throat at his country estate in 1822. For both family and professionalreasons, Fitzroy had good reason for concern. Darwin, despite an undistinguished undergraduate career,had remained close to several of the dons he met at Cambridge, one of whom rallied support for him as acandidate. Darwin went to see Fitzroy in London. The two young men met, talked, and dined. Both ofthem were very direct, and they quickly hit it off, each charming the other, even though Fitzroy, anadherent of the popular “sciences” of phrenology and physiognomy, took some exception to Darwin’sappearance. Darwin later wrote in his autobiography, “He doubted whether anyone with my nose” – itwas rather blunt – “could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.”
If we think of Darwin at twenty-two, waiting in Plymouth for the Beagle to leave, we may find
him alarmingly unprepared for the moral and intellectual adventure he was about to undergo. Though hewas an experienced amateur naturalist, he had little knowledge of anatomy, and he couldn’t draw.
Perhaps his father’s exasperated denunciation of him a few years earlier – “You care for nothing butshooting, dogs, and rat-catching” – still rang in his ears. 1n a panic before leaving, he taught himselfnavigation and relearned mathematics. Suddenly, his face broke out in a rash, and he began to sufferchest pains and heart palpitations. The junior officers taunted him with tall stories and incomprehensiblenautical slang; he seemed a useless young swell. (During the voyage, on April Fool’s Day one of thecrew called out, “Darwin, did you ever see a Grampus?,” causing the young naturalist to rush to theupper deck to catch a glimpse of the mysterious creature.) When, after many delays, the Beagle finallyput out to sea, on December 27, 1831, Darwin immediately became sea-sick. As he stretched himself outflat on the chart table set up in the poop cabin, or in the hammock slung above it, his nausea anddizziness intermingled with screams from the crew. Fitzroy, eager to assert his authority, often had themen flogged for one offense or another. A young man unready for his destiny and cast among harshstrangers is a figure that appeals to us enormously, perhaps because so few of us ever feel quite preparedfor the great events of our lives. But Darwin, whatever his ignorance, possessed something that most ofus lack: an indiscriminate hunger for information and collecting, the very thing that led him to shovebeetles and owl into his mouth. This kind of unformed curiosity—a desire to see the Grampus – isusually accounted of little use to scientists, who need to define and limit their interests before seriousresearch can begin. But it may have been the key to this young man’s success.
On board the Galapagos Adventure, our first dinner featured strange Ecuadorian vegetables, pale-
yellow and whitish things. Afterward, standing against the windows in shorts, our Ecuadorian guide,Rodrigo Jacome—Rod he called himself—gave us the lowdown. A formidable ex-rancher from theAndes, he was about forty-five, handsome and rather tough-looking. He stood with his arms folded andgave the impression that he had been around. He knew his Darwinian texts, he knew his biology, and,teasing the women, seemed to know Americans, too. The rerun of the Latin lover, I thoughtgrimly. Some of this stuff—the going-to-the-Galapagos litany – Mickey had drummed into us earlier.
The islands are relatively new – none more than five million years old – and were formed by underwatervolcanoes thrusting up as tectonic plates beneath the Pacific moved slowly over “hot spots” in the earth’smantle. The lava eventually broke the surface and cooled, leaving the black slopes of volcanic shields,with cratered and fissured rock, and long lava tubes running down the sides of the elevated sections.
There are some grassy, and even semi-luxuriant, highlands, green under a misty gray sky, but despite arainy season it doesn't rain much in the Galapagos, and most of the surfaces are hard and dry.
The animals crawled out of the sea, borne to the islands on currents, or arrived from the South
American mainland on drift wood, or, in the case of birds, flew. Many of them had to struggle to findfood, but they suffered the intrusion of very few predators. When Darwin visited the islands, he wasamazed to see birds easily killed by a switch, or even caught in a hat.
The defenseless animals have long been at risk, however. All through the trip, the Galapagos
National Park Service people we met angrily recounted the depredations of the past. Starting in thesixteenth century, European visitors brought domestic dogs and cats, which turned feral and menaced theiguanas; and they brought goats, which ate the vegetation that the giant tortoises depended on. Britishand American whalers later removed tortoises by the hundred, storing them upside down in the holds of
their ships, so they would have fresh meat for the long voices. As a result, some of the tortoise species,slow breeders, became extinct. The islands now bristle with prohibitions. The Ecuadorian governmentlicenses the tour boats; no vessel without such a license or prohibitively expensive temporary permit maylegally cruise in the Galapagos. Ashore, we were not to wander off alone or walk anywhere except onmarked paths, and we were not to touch or feed the animals. Each time we returned to the GalapagosAdventure from our explorations, the crew, standing on a steel ladder at the side of the yacht, wouldspray our legs and feet, washing off any insects, sand, seeds, or pollen. The immaculate shrine, of course,was not the ship but the islands: we were not to bring anything from one habitat to the other.
There was something a little priggish in the Galapagos cult – produced, I thought, both by
Ecuadorian greed and tourist un-ease: The announced idea was to preserve Darwin’s laboratory: wewould observe natural change by consciously changing nothing. A nice paradox, but it inescapably led toanother: the Ecuadorians could t really let some fifty thousand people a year into the Galapagos withoutthreatening the very purity they wished to preserve. The eco-tourist, inspired by virtue, feels like a guiltytourist, and the guardians of the islands never let him forget it.
The young Darwin may have shown few talents apart from a passion for shooting and collecting,
but enthusiasm counted for more in 1830 than it does now. As Janet Browne makes clear, the distinctionbetween amateur and professional – between the clergyman with his feathers and ferns and the advancedscientist laboring over fossil remains and taxonomy – had not hardened, as it would later on. Nor had thescientific disciplines thrown up their walls. Setting out to sea, Darwin was excited as much by geologyand botany as he was by zoology and paleontology; he was eager to study mountains, reefs, deserts, andplants as well as crustaceans and birds. Living at a moment when science still had to depend onexploration and adventure, he neither censored his curiosity nor limited his movements; it seems never tohave occurred to him that there were some things he should not investigate, some places he should notgo.
The Beagle made its first stop at St. Jago (Sao Tiago), in the Cape Verde Islands, off Africa, and
Darwin was delivered into the rest of his life. He revelled in the tropical vegetation, ate bananas(“mawkish and sweet with little flavor”), and rapidly developed ambitious theories about the geologicalhistory of the islands. He also played hide-and seek with an octopus or a cuttlefish that kept changing itscolor:
I was much amused by the various arts to escape detection used by
one individual, which seemed fully aware that I was watching it. Remaining for a time motionless, it would then stealthily advance an inch or two, like a cat after a mouse; sometimes changing its color: it thus proceeded, till having gained a deeper part, it darted away, leaving a dusky train of ink to hide the hole which it had crawled.
This description was written in 1837, the year after Darwin returned to England, and was
published in 1839 in his popular book “Journal of Research into the Geology and Natural History of theVarious Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle,” or, as everyone now calls it, “The Voyage of the Beagle.”
With a groan, I had begun the book in our cabin during our first night at sea. An entire volume of
nature writing! The style was fluent but matter-of-fact. With a little help from Browne's biography,however, one can see the great blaze of energy behind Darwin’s literary equanimity. In 1832, and in thefollowing years of the voyage, Darwin explored and collected with furious concentration in Brazil,Argentina, Tierra del Fuego, and Chile. He was grateful to be on terra firma, where he could keep hisfood down, and, as Fitzroy and his men charted the waters and made their chronometric measurements,Darwin, alone or with crew members who had volunteered or whom he had press-ganged into servicewent ashore—sometimes deep inland. He preserved and labeled his new specimens, then left them inbarrels for the next Admiralty vessel to pick up and take home.
Insatiable for experience, he roamed the pampas in the company of polite but treacherous
gauchos sporting shoulder length hair and long knives in their belts. In Argentina, he had a solemnmeeting into with the fierce master horseman and killer General Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was intenton exterminating the Indians. (The young visitor apparently did not attempt to dissuade him.) In a sequelto the old adventures of the Glutton club, he feasted on odd creatures, including armadillo and what he
took to be an ordinary ostrich. It was actually the un-collected species he’d heard about from the locals –later named Rhea Darwinii –
but he didn't realize what he had put in his mouth until the meal was halfover.
After a couple of years spent nosing up and down the east coast of South America, Fitzroy and
his men passed through the Strait of Magellan and moved up the west coast. Darwin’s account growsmore and more expansive. In Chile, he was close to an earthquake, which fired his imagination as only acatastrophe can. (He openly admits he enjoyed the disaster as spectacle.) He crossed the Andes,speculating about the growth of mountains, rode back to the coast, and rejoined the Beagle, which soonset out into the Pacific. He was heading for the Galapagos.
The Voyage of the Beagle
was written to impress the scientific community in London, at the
Universities, and beyond; but, however stately Darwin’s manner, he is unmistakably careering throughEden, naming the creatures as he goes. Against my will, I was beginning to admire his writing; thesteady, evenhanded, respectful description of every living creature, every piece of terrain, and everynatural event. The prose is quiet but also confident and brimming—a style produced not merely byscientific curiosity, but by an intense happiness dissolved into objects of its study. Fearing nothing,exaggerating nothing, Darwin reintroduced into English prose intimations of the marvelous. InPatagonia, a spider,
while standing on the summit of a post, darted forth four or five threads from its spinners. These glittering in the sunshine, might be compared to rays of light; they were not, however, straight, but in undulation like a silk blown by the wind. They were more than a yard in length, and diverged in an ascending direction from the orifices. The spider, then suddenly let go its hold, and was quickly born out of sight. The spider is an acrobat, a walker not on tightropes but undulations. In the Galapagos, giant tortoises are absolutely deaf; certainly they do not overhear a person walking close behind them. I was always amazed, when overtaking one of these great monsters as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then, upon giving a few raps on the hinder part of the shell, they would rise up and walk away; but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.
On the contrary, his balance was superb. For all its gravitas, the book is a rapt tale of wonders.
We arrived, early in the morning, at Santa Cruz Island and went ashore in the panga
. I sat with
my knees clenched together and with a life preserver around my shoulders. As the boat drew in, a lovelycrescent beach appeared, white and immaculate, with red-spotted lava rocks at either end stretching intothe sea. The stillness of the air was magnificent. Here was my glittering beach! Nature enough! And thenwe saw them, a Galapagos specialty: a procession of marine iguanas making its way up from the ocean.
The large black lizards dragged their long tails through the sand; they were hideously ugly. But there wasan oddity: I could see their legs moving, but from our distance, about thirty yards away, the group ofbizarre creatures as a whole appeared stationary. A trick of perspective and distance? Pelicans camegliding in, flying very low, perhaps fifteen feet overhead, and they seemed enormous, with pouches thesize of satchels. I suddenly realized that the sun was standing almost directly above us: we were virtuallyin the equator. Very quickly, I was spooked. Casting no shadow, I felt nailed to the spot, as bodiless as apost.
Disoriented, I looked a little more closely at the red spots on the lava rocks. Sally Lightfoot
crabs, hundreds of them, a dark but still brilliant red, were clambering across the black. The crabs movedincessantly, climbing toward crests or edges, but, again, like the iguanas, they seemed never to getanywhere. What was I seeing? Motion without movement; agitation without destination. The rocksseemed infested, the scene incomprehensible. When I attempted to follow the progress of a single crab, Ilost track of it, distracted by the many other creatures.
I gave it up as a bad job and joined the nature lovers where were swimming in the ocean. The
water was clear and very cold. Most of the group, including two widows in their sixties, wore wetsuits
and used snorkeling equipment. But I have always been at a loss with gear, too myopic to see muchthrough the mask, and often confused and panicky with mouthpiece and snorkel. So I swam along therocks without equipment, and, as I moved, something in the water, secretly and below, brushed againstme.
The spider that Darwin studied in Patagonia, which bore itself away on gossamer threads, also
spun connections and relations that reached to all of us, for evolution was a web, with everythingconnected to everything else. To the practiced eye, the spider’s blindly reflective behavior was also avirtual library of adaptive traits refined through evolutionary practice—strategies that were no differentin quality from adaptations that primates had performed in their long march to Homo sapiens
It is a remorseless process. Does anyone—even the most confident atheist or materialist – really
take comfort from evolution by natural selection? Evolution offers nothing (as the Victorians sorelycomplained) to the human desire for ethical advancement or emotional solace. The Americanphilosopher Daniel C. Dennett has candidly described Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the“universal acid” that seems to burn away all our comfortable illusions. For Dennett and other neo-Darwinians, not only is natural selection the center of biology but it explains more of consciousness andmorality than most people realize. For our choices and character, our desires and deeds may be the resultof long-ago accidents and adaptive mechanisms, which improved chances of reproductive success in agiven environment, and then got passed along in genes, after numberless generations, to you and me,where they function in a new environment, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It is a mindless aswell as remorseless process – “algorithmic,” Dennett calls it.
This genetic patterning, which started with tiny microorganisms, is now extraordinarily complex,
the things of this world joined in systems of astounding subtlety. Yet no centralized intelligence plannedthe life around us. There is Design but no Designer. Natural selection wants nothing, aims at nothing,and reaches no resolution or fixed point. If the neo-Darwinists are right, our creativity, ourconsciousness, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf rehearsing Schubert near an open window and someone listeningoutside – were produced by a process both unconscious and uncreative.
Nor can evolution be thought of as a progression. We can speak of expansion, in the sense of
greater complexity, but not of progress. In particular, human beings are neither the inevitable goal northe end product of evolution: evolution passes right through us. As Stephen Jay Gould maintains, ourexistence is merely contingent, the species Homo sapiens
no more than a tiny twig in the tree of life – atwig that might easily have fallen dead. At his most relentless, Gould declares that “we came this close
(put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, toerasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel.” By contrast, bacteria were here beforeus and will triumph after we are gone. Men and women will leave their bones but cast no shadow.
As the Galapagos Adventure plowed ahead to the next island, I was sitting at night on the open
deck in front of the dining room. Life stirred all around me, and I was caught between wonder anddismay. Something was snorting and blowing out in the dark water. Large birds-- swallow-tailed gulls –flapped around the ship, even at night, and earlier in the day, when I was on my way back to the cabin toget some suntan lotion, I looked down at the water and saw a hammerhead shark swimming gracefullyby. I had recovered from my disorientation on Santa Cruz, but I was not comfortable in the occasionalGalapagos plenitude. Splashing into the surf at some handsome beach – the beaches, some composed ofcrushed lava, were white, dark green, even a chic, fashion-spread black – our group would pick its waythrough dozens of sea lions, the males lording it over their consorts and children and raising their headsto roar us away if we came too close. Rod roared back at them. “Beachmaster,” one of the women said,with both amusement and I wasn't sure whether it was Rod or one of the bulls that she meant.
As we walked on the islands, Mickey and Rod seemed to be getting into a slight tug-of-war.
Lively as a water bug, Mickey pointed out sights and animals and raced from rock to rock, flipping themover in search of scorpions. But then Rod would stop before some small plant and demand its name, andMickey, struggling, would finally come out with the Latin designation; Rod, grinning, would offer aminor correction. Everyone sighed in appreciation. The women, I suspected, were caught betweenreverence for Mickey and attraction to the rugged and self-sufficient Rod. Competitive behavior betweenmen! It was a staple of Darwinian psychology. Men are always competing in one way or another (or,
alternatively, reassuring each other of their mutual status) – a hangover from days when men struggled toattract mates and fertile women were a precious resource. After a mere six thousand years or so ofcivilization, we are living in postindustrial societies, carrying genes developed during innumerable yearsof hunter gatherer life. Sitting before computer screens, men swing clubs, hunt, kill, put on ceremonialdress. The downsized employee who runs amok is only the most overt among the confused andmisbehaving. Maladaptation runs riot in the silicon-and-concrete jungle.
On the beach, perhaps a hundred of the sea lions lay in groups with the bachelors, defeated in
combat by the dominant males, having withdrawn to a little colony at one end, where they could nursetheir wounds. Occasionally, one of the younger bulls, barking as it swayed forward, would make apremature challenge and get chased away. Pregnant cows moaned here and there; one cow, having justgiven birth, was still connected by an umbilical cord to her shiny black baby.
As I walked through the sea lions for the first time, I was disgusted by the oily, rolling, and
roaring fecundity—a rank and greasy mass, like a vat of sunbaked Crisco. But I was probably the onlyone so affected. The others seemed to love the whiskered and rubber-necked sweetmeats. Several daysinto the trip, I was beginning to feel a little lonely. Cathy, searching for birds, had turned inland with herbinoculars. It’s not that the nature lovers were unfriendly. If one of our party faltered or got sick, theyrushed forward silently with tissues, towels, little damp pads; they helped out, shared their gear. Butthere was something slightly impersonal about their manner which made me feel as if I were of no morethan moderate creaturely interest. Of course, I had no right to complain; they only repaid my lack ofinterest in them.
Isolation was my own choices—or was it a choice determined long ago? Some male animals
adopt the strategy of hanging back – for instance, the young bulls at the edges of the herds who refusedto challenge the roaring beachmasters. They waited for the more aggressive males to exhaust themselves.
They were not passive, exactly; they were wary and calculating. I had been a hanger-back my whole life,late to get started professionally, late to get married, slow to join group activities, late to discoverDarwin. The hanger-back, timid but secretly ambitious and probably untrustworthy, was an observer, aspectator – by temperament, a writer. I looked again at one of the young bulls waiting on the sidelines.
He was of moderate size, perhaps two hundred pounds, still wet from the ocean and therefore very darkbrown, with melancholy eyes. The warm blooded animal wanted a place in the sun.
For most species, isolation was intolerable. Sea lions, for instance, appreciated the company of
other mammals. At the island of Bartolome, I rode in late, after Cathy and the others had gone ashore(there was a second panga
for the tardy) and I saw, moving in the water along the rocks, flashes of red,green, mauve and yellow—a group of women, including my wife, swimming face down, with the help ofcolored flippers, snorkels and masks. They were looking at the sharks, fishes, and rays below and wereapparently unaware that three sea lions were swimming along beside them, leaping out of the water likedolphins, plunging and then leaping again. A kinship existed among those swimmers, and I felt a pang ofjealousy. Was it a baby sea lion that had touched me in the ocean, at Santa Cruz?
At night, I lay in my bunk, half seasick, trying to remember the archbishop’s city in the Alps, its
golden streets cleft by the river, and music pouring out of windows everywhere. Nature wasn’tinteresting, for God’s sake! It was there for us to dwell in, steal from, protect against, learn from, andfear. As I shouted these things in my mind over the roar of the generators, I knew that I had resistedgoing to the Galapagos because I wanted to keep nature in its place. Growing up in the city, I had neverthought of nature as a subject,
like the history of baseball or constitutional law; it was the condition ofour existence, and I hated its dominion over me. That human beings had descended from the apes was nolonger difficult to accept. But the notion that human existence is a mere accident—that the glitteringjewel, consciousness, is just another adaptive mechanism—was a vile blow to one’s self-esteem.
And I hated the undermining power of Darwinian thinking. By what fortuitous adaptation had I
survived the relentless struggle for existence? An evolutionary psychologist might say that “humanist”beliefs and aesthetic taste were elements of status-seeking behavior, and therefore a strategy forattracting mates and carrying on into the next generation. The cultivated self, individualism, taste,judgment: the way we get near to God is also the way we get laid. Maybe so, but, even considered in thecrass light, how much longer would “taste” survive as an appeal in the current American environment?Celebrity—even buffoonery and shamelessness—was the new peacock tail. Maybe I was maladapted,
Darwin was struck by the extreme, almost fantastic plainness of the Galapagos Islands and the
oddities of life and death there—the unwary birds, the ageless tortoises who finally died in suchaccidents as falling over a precipice. He may not have understood what he was seeing, but he wasmightily tantalized by it. Here and there during his voyage, he may have had intimation of some largerpattern: the first two columns of a new book that he read obsessively, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology
, proposed a slow—rather than cataclysmic—formation of the earth’s surface, and that notionlater provoked Darwin into conceiving of the development of new species along similar lines. Theislands were isolated from the rest of life. What did isolation and the struggle for existence in theGalapagos portend? Grabbing a marine iguana by the tail, he slung it again and again into its eatinghabitat, the ocean, only to watch it patiently crawl out every time. “Perhaps this singular piece ofapparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance, that this reptile has no enemy whatever onshore, whereas at sea it must often fall prey to the numerous sharks. Hence, probably urged by a fixedand hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takesrefuge.” In such a passage, one can sense the light of understanding beginning to flare. Writing the yearafter his return, in 1837, Darwin was very close to the central mechanisms of evolution.
As I read The Voyage of the Beagle
with greater and greater pleasure, I realized that Charles
Darwin himself—a scientist who thought his own writing clumsy—was the nature writer I hadunconsciously been looking for. When you fall under Darwin’s spell, the famous anthology styles seemtoo ambitious by half: Chateaubriand impossibly ritzy and luxuriant; the vibrant Emerson spirituallypossessive and vague; and Thoreau, in the awkward abruptness of his anger, a superb crank. EvenHerman Melville, who visited the Galapagos in 1841 and wrote a little book about the islands, TheEncantadas
seems, by contrast with Darwin, overblown, literary in the worst way. Recording his
firstimpressions, Melville saw “tumbled masses of blackish or greenish stuff like the dross of an iron-furnace, forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam;overhanging them with a swirl of grey, haggard mist, amidst which sails screaming flights of unearthlybirds heightening the dismal din…”
Dear God, enough! Though Darwin “got” more out of nature then any man before him, he
doesn’t press too hard; he leaves nature alone. His words breathe relief, the relief of deliverance from theaesthetic and the spiritual. Nature is neither Chaos no the Romantic imagination incarnate; it offersneither moral instruction nor divine confirmation nor the spectacle of artistic creation. Nature is but thematerial world, orderly in its general outline but furnished in its local detail with accident, change, andblight. Darwin de-sanctified and de-aestheticized nature and delivered it to a new kind of literature—thewritings of the evolutionary scientists and philosophers who now dominate our shelves.
During the nights, the Galapagos Adventure crossed the Pacific currents, and getting to sleep
wasn’t always easy. The boat swayed and plunged and Cathy and I had it worse then the others; thehigher up you are in a ship, the more violently you get tossed. We took Dramamine, and I swilledNyQuil, which tasted slightly like the sailor’s sleeping potion, rum, and we plugged our ears to lessen theroar of the generators, and slept the way Mickey told us to, with one arm hooked around the thinmattress, (Holding on, I suddenly understood the function of Darwin’s hammock above the chart table.)On my way to the head, I bruised my shins against the wooden drawers under the beds.
Some niche! The squirrels climbing to the canopy of the forest avoided the big cats only to fall
prey to the hawks. Adaptation could play mean tricks: moving higher in the ship, we were more likely tobecome ill.
At breakfast, the others joked about seasickness, but complained only to make fun of
themselves for complaining; that was their style of irony, and by then I knew that it was really a form ofpride, for, in fact, they didn’t expect life to be comfortable. They believed in something else—hardihood,perhaps. Sharp-eyed Joan was hardy. So were the two widows, one of whom, pushing seventy, had legslike oak (she never tired when she was exploring the islands); she had nursed first one and then anotherhusband through his final years.
I had badly underestimated them, and I now knew why. With a few exceptions they could not be
called corporate, professional or intellectual strivers in the style of the people we knew in New York.
They had not put their greatest ambitions into work. Shrugging off my questions (I was eager to question
them now) they spoke slightingly of their jobs. They were about this
, the trip they take every year,sometimes to Iceland or the Costa Rica, or perhaps to the Great Barrier Reef, or to the plains of Africa.
The two widows had traveled all over the world; they had paddled through jungles and dived into thecoldest seas. In their own way, these tourists were as hungry as Darwin.
Spurred by Darwin’s writing, I had resolved not to hang back, and not to see nature as either a
splendid or a deficient picture. My resolve was immediately put the test at Tower Island, an extremelysinister place—as sinister as a horror movie, I couldn’t help thinking. We sailed into Darwin Bay, whichappeared to be a huge open horseshoe and was actually a partially eroded caldera, the crater of a volcanorisen from the ocean and open at one end. Around us on three sides, the guano-stained black lava cliffs(the walls of the volcano) rose straight up from the water for about fifty feet. We climbed Prince Philip’sSteps, named in honor of His Royal Highness’ visit in 1964. At the top of the steps was a drearycolorless plateau, leafless gray palo santo
trees, tiny green-gray Chamaesyce
plants, an atmosphere hot,breathless, and close, the air held around your head as if by a vise. Hundreds of birds—red and bluefooted and masked boobies—surrounded us, many of them mating or tending young. Medieval saintspreaching to birds perched on leafless tress must have tested their souls against such desolation.
Quattrocento visions of St. Francis irrepressibly came to mind. “Nature, no less then Life, is an imitationof Art…. Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation.” It is Oscar Wilde’s mostfamous paradox. The
The masked boobies—large, soft fishing birds—allowed one to walk right up to them. It is a
strange experience: birds are normally skittish, and one feels a queasy intimacy with these fearlessanimals. When the masked boobies napped, heads tucked under wings, their white down looked likecotton, especially in the young. But then Rod, enjoying the moment, told us that, though the maskedboobies generally have two babies at a time, only one survives. IN the circle of guano surrounding thenest, the firstborn, a little stronger by the time the second is hatched, pushes the younger outside thecircle, and the parents abandon the younger to the predators or starvation. Rod told us it is called “thecircle of death.”
The circle of death! It was too much, and I almost laughed. Nature, Wilde might say, was
imitating not art but kitsch. Darwin, however, tells us that nature just is. Neither Old Masters norHitchcock’s “The Birds” should be used to see it any better. City boys, for all their impatience with thenatural world, were as prone to making metaphor out of nature as anyone else. It had to sop, if only toclose the gap between myself and everything around me.
Passing through the palo santos
, we came out on a bluff overlooking the ocean, and horror faded
away. Hundreds of marine iguanas were crawling on the rocks, looking for a place to warm up; and thesea lions, with heaven knows what reserves of strength, pulled themselves out of the ocean as well, andflopped on the ridge with a groan.
My mood lifted. Something broke—a resistance, a fear, I didn’t know what. Our little group
stood in clumps, quietly watching the animals. Joan the sharp-eyed saw things no one else saw; Linda,the hermit-crab lady, found one of her creatures and let it wander on her arm. And Rod held forth. I hadgot him
wrong, too: it was nature, not female nature lovers, that interested him. Faced with these peopleand the life and death of these creatures, I knew I could not remain aloof much longer.
A couple of days later, I was sitting on the foredeck again, the wide Pacific all around, and I had
fallen asleep. I woke up and tried to read Darwin, but the page was fluttering with shadows. A flock ofgreat frigate birds, perhaps a dozen in all, were flying just overhead, even lower than the pelicans on thebeach at Santa Cruz. Viewed from underneath, the frigates, with their thin black wings, sharply angled atthe joint – a spread of five feet or more – looked like paper cutouts or silhouettes, frightening in their flatblackness. They gauged their speed exactly to match the ship’s, and, even as they moved, no more thanten feet overhead, they appeared to be going nowhere at all. Movement within stasis; it was the iguanascrawling in the sand and the Sally Lightfoots on the lava rocks all over again. But this time I saw mymistake.
There were so many of them that they came close to blocking out the light, and suddenly, on the
oddly darkened and fluttering deck, I felt again a kind of release, only much stronger this time. Thefrigate birds were scary and strange, yet they seemed to lift me off the deck with their wings. Fear,disgust slipped away, I felt a small tingling on the back of my neck and a great lightness. What was it? Afeathered and airborne out-of-body experience longing to join something I feared, the way a man who
hates some tune wakes up hearing it in his head?
I am not sure what caused it, but my flight was the one moment of sheer exhilaration on the trip,
and when I came down I knew that I had been more than wrong. Viewing nature as something composedand static was a way of pretending I didn’t belong to it.
Like it or not, I was part of the ceaseless flux, which induces crabs, spiders, sea lions, frigate
birds and eco-tourists, all equals in nature, to jostle for food and space, competing and cooperating at thesame time; In the last couple of days, I had stopped fighting against everything and had begun to enjoymyself least a little. On James Island, I had knelt for a long time before a land iguana perched on a rock,gazing directly into the lizard’s face and studying its strange lips, which seemed to offer welcomingsmile. On my knees, I decided that anthropomorphism was the most forgivable of human errors. Terrified men and women were looking for proof that human existence was more than arbitrary—thatthere were some signs of the human in other creatures. However mistaken, we would settle for a smile.
Reconciliation with “lowly” creatures was the first step in accepting the contingency of human life. Afterall, the rest of them were the result of accidents, too.
Darwin, who puts us squarely within the ceaseless flux, didn’t, as a writer, want anything; that’s
why he’s so moving. In this lovely early book, reconciliation was nature took the form for him of merelyrecording in his plain, friendly, copious sentences what he saw. Since his curiosity took in everything,that was no modest aim. But its expression was modest. The people on our trip shared Darwin’s freedomfrom commonplace egotism and obsessive self-consciousness. They were stubborn people—mild,perhaps, but stubborn and restless in the workaday world. Swimming among sea lions and sharks wastheir protest against the banality of American life.
Our trip was not ignoble. The giggling complicity of the first night, which I had taken as a sign
of embarrassment about eco-tourism, was actually a burst of pure excitement. What it meant was this:how small our adventure is—and how much even the smallness is to be prized!
Chastened, and almost happy, I was ready to face the end. On our last day, we were able to look
at an evolutionary casualty—Lonesome George, the last of the giant tortoise subspecies Geocheloneelephantopus abingoni
. Though George was born on Pinta Island, he had lived since 1972 in the CharlesDarwin Research Station, in Santa Cruz, a facility that (among other things) raises little tortoises ofthreatened species until they are strong enough to be sent home to their own islands. The baby tortoiseswere bunched in pens; George lived nearby, in a separate gardenlike enclosure. Over the last quartercentury, many attempts have been made to mate him with one female or another from a closely relatedsubspecies, in the forlorn hope that he could then mate with his daughters. Still youthful by tortoisestandards—he’s estimated to be fifty or sixty—George could apparently attain arousal with his potentialmates, but not ejaculation, a poignant condition indeed. From a platform stationed above, we saw him inhis garden, a melancholy monster who will probably carry his genes to the earth.
Watching George, and then the baby tortoises slowly moving in their pen, I made my peace with
eco-tourism and the Galapagos cult. What the researchers, rangers and eco-tourists were doing was partlya contradiction: natural selection, after hall, had always condemned a species to death. If we look back atthe earth’s history, there are many more dead species than living ones. Ecological ardor commands thatwe let no species die before its time, and no doubt there are serous arguments beyond sentiment forkeeping George alive—the possibility of future adaptive behavior, say, thou would allow a threatenedspecies to sustain itself. Still, why grieve over the death of a subspecies? Extinction was necessary toevolution. One possible answer is that Rod and the others tried to keep George’s paternity alive becausethe effort in some way kept us
alive. Human beings did not necessarily stand any greater chance ofsurviving than had the innumerable species that vanished in the past. In the extinction of any speciesthere was not just a sign but a guarantee of our own mortality. With hope against hope, one rooted forGeorge to crash the cymbals a few more times.
At home, in New York, the books on Darwin have flowed over the tables, the desks and chairs.
In my little son’s room, a couple of newly acquired hermit crabs live safely in an old aquarium. Cathyhas decorated it pleasantly with rocks, plants, and sand, an artificial environment of damp, beachy life.
The cats, always hungry, paw at the glass sides of the enclosure. They will not get in.
Darwinian controversies rage on. An ironic tribute to Darwin’s continual power is the resistance
to him among ideologues of the left and the right, including neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, who
worry that acceptance of Darwinism will dissolve the social cement of organized religion, and membersof the academic left, who worry that it bolsters “essentialist” notions of gender and human nature. Butthey are, among their intellectual peers, an increasingly beleaguered minority. The Pope himself hasmade his peace with evolutionary theory, and even progressive feminists like Barbara Ehrenreich – inher recent book Blood Rites
– have been exploiting it. Indeed, the most ferocious and intellectuallysubstantive debates these days are taking place within
Darwinian theory. Thus, for instance, Stephen JayGould squares off against Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, accusing them of exaggerating the roleof adaptation in evolution. Even in the dust of combat, Darwin’s triumph is secure.
My personal unease had diminished: wasn’t culture, too, an artifact of our natural history?
Richard Dawkins even coined the term “meme” to suggest that an idea or pattern—jokes, riddles, thefour-note motto theme of Beethoven’s Fifth— could be passed along from human to human, and alsofrom generation to generation in a way analogous to the inheritance of genes. Consciousness was createdby a long series of accidents and adaptations, but then consciousness served as a nourishing environmentin which memes could replicate themselves. Human behavior and human culture, cooperative as well ascompetitive enterprise, are part of our creaturely inheritance. Placed back in her rehearsal room before anopen window, the soprano would sing again, but for a future listener, sitting in the garden alone andenthralled.
WHEN Darwin returned home, an amazing thing happened to him: he became a rather dull
person. For all his energy and physical courage, once he got back to England he sank, with an audiblesigh of relief, into willed respect for convention and society. By 1842, he had virtually withdrawn frompublic life. He left London and moved into a big ugly house in Kent. Often ill, he surrounded himselfwith wife, children, pigeons, barnacles; the house was a burrow, a laboratory, a sick-room. Just asindiscriminate appetite was the secret of his youth, stolidity may have been the secret of his middle age.
(The excitable Fitzroy, like the Beagle captain before him, did, in the end, commit suicide, at the age offifty-nine, in 1865.) Step by step, with immense caution, Darwin developed his alarming andrevolutionary theories, not publishing On the Origin of Species
until 1859, more than twenty years afterhis return. One wonders which response he feared more. Was it rejection—or much morehorrible—acceptance: the widespread acceptance of a remorseless view of life.
Without intending anything of the sort, he has confounded and taunted the rest of us, for
Darwinian theory, by common consent, is the greatest of all assaults upon the human ego. Egoless wecould never be, but even the city boy, living far from nature, must acknowledge his instruction by theimmense reach of Darwin s modesty. Darwin had eaten the owl and tasted the acrid beetle. Whether wewant to or not, we have to savor, and even digest, what he dared to put in his mouth.
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