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A personal story here for Darwin Day 2018. I knew about as much about Charles Robert Darwin as any typical science-interested student when I was growing up. But eventually I had the good fortune of taking a history of science class at the University of Wisconsin as an undergrad, and it inspired me with the story of Darwin as a human being, not just some clever scientist with a long argument that changed the world.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 unless you have Darwin’s gut-wrenching problems.

I devoured Desmond & Moore’s amazing biography of Darwin “the tormented evolutionist”, which was the transformative event for me. At the time I was experiencing the beginnings of some health problems that didn’t seem that far from problems Darwin suffered for much of his life, and then, as I read more about his life, I saw more features of this man that brought him vividly to life. I still think about those traits and how some parallel my life in certain ways (not that I am in any way a giant of science like him!!). And so this blog post was born, thusly:

I’m writing this post early on Darwin Day and entirely from memory, rather than doing my usual research into the post while I go; to keep the post more personal and less academic (e.g. just quick Wikipedia links below). I feel connected to Darwin’s life experience because, like him, I wandered about as a student, unsure about my direction in life and causing my parents some consternation early on. He tried medical school (Edinburgh; too bloody) and theology (Cambridge; faith just was not his thing) but found hunting for beetles on the heaths more exciting. In high school I played with ideas such as Hollywood screen-writing (too risky), radio DJ (I had no skills) and truant or criminal (I hung out with some shady characters even though I still had some morals; despite transgressions and convictions).

I then took a standardized “what is your best career fit?” test in biology class which conclusively told me that biology was best for me as a career; and that rang true. I’d always loved nature and so that was the idea I had when I went to undergrad. I signed up for the wrong college (Agriculture & Life Sciences, not Letters & Science; confusing divisions!) at the UW. I got some early research experience in that first college: I tried my hand at raising colonies of Indian mealmoths (Plodia interpunctella; I can still identify them!) and their parasitoid wasps. At that same agricultural lab I got to do my own experiments in a basement wind tunnel over my summer holiday, in which I released those pesky moths to fly down the tunnel toward various kinds of pheromone-based lures, finding that one kind seemed to work best. But I didn’t like that and frankly found agricultural science boring, for me. We didn’t connect, nor did some other lab experiences I had. But I grew from them and still value them (and respect the science and people involved) very much.

I took Evolution and also Functional Morphology courses, didn’t do great (I was young for the classes), and then finally took that history class—boom! Aha, scientists can be human! Not just hypothesis-robots! Darwin was a man of great privilege, having his estate and wealth handed down from his funky grandpa Erasmus and stern father Robert. But, in addition to his meanderings that eventually forced him (via his father’s impatient urgings) to become the Beagle’s naturalist for a five year voyage, he suffered in quite human ways throughout much of his life. The greater trials commenced during that voyage, with still-mysterious health problems and the fractious relationship with eccentric Captain Fitzroy. They continued with his marriage to cousin Emma Wedgwood (yes, of that pottery-famed lineage) in which they lost four of ten children at young ages (most critically, beloved Annie at 10 years old) and in which they struggled with Darwin’s diminishing faith and Emma’s stalwart beliefs.

Finally, Darwin struggled famously with his “big book” for >20 years, afraid of its impact and its reception, and of its need to have a watertight, evidence-based argument from many perspectives, with his hand forced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s converging ideas. Along the way, with his health and family problems, he had to contend with his mentors’ and peers’ reactions to his ideas—although one could call the acceptance of much of his main arguments to be a “happy ending” (the post-mortem eclipse of Darwinism, and its eventual resurrection + syntheses, aside). These trials that Darwin faced as a human are all relatable, and the more one learns about him the more complex, flawed, emotional and yes, tormented he becomes. He can be both a hero and a tragic figure or a cautionary tale.

When I get the chance, I like to teach students about this human side of Darwin. It is a way into the heart of the science, to show a person’s journey along with the wonder of discovery, and how such a journey is not necessarily a simple or even joyful one. I can feel the many facets of Darwin in my own life—the intensely curious, peripatetic, enthusiastic young man who loved experiencing nature in all its raw forms, the chronically suffering disabled person who sometimes could not enjoy the work or other aspects of life that he treasured, the family man who loved time at home, the explorer who treasured roaming the local heath or far-flung foreign terrain, the meticulous scientist who exhaustively gathered tiny bits of data in isolated studies to slowly build toward grander ideas, and much more.

But Darwin is a different human, too. We live in such different times, when there the world of science is far larger but the world feels far smaller, more interconnected. Naturalists today are not simply landed noblemen who can play with science in their luxurious spare time, nor do they work alone at their pursuits. Anyone can be a scientist, and a career scientist can, if they are fortunate and skilled enough, assemble their own laboratory in which they lead a team to tackle their big questions that captivate them. The individual questions in science tend to be smaller (more incremental and specialized) today, yet can overall (across career(s)) be bigger because we can tackle -and have tackled- some of the bigger ones; Darwin’s big questions being among the giant ideas we are now poised upon.

It’s not all about science, though. Darwin’s story, which I think about so often, reminds me of how we all struggle in our lives and amidst the joy of discovery in everyday life there can be considerable suffering and regret. It is a bittersweet story; an ever-so-human story. And today is a good day to reflect on that, and to celebrate life while we lament what has been lost.

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