Darwin Tales

25 November 2013 Comments Off on Darwin Tales


As last week’s Philosophy Day seminars were unified by the theme of Darwin and evolution (or rather, speciation by natural selection, which is more in line with Darwin’s famed theory), it behooves me to write about this great man — and Darwin’s life clearly had no dearth of interesting incidents.

Like any naturalist of old, Darwin tackled science as a whole — scientific branches at the time weren’t as rigidly defined as they now are, and any curious doctor or clergyman was free to pursue (and, if persistent enough, publish on) whatever sort of scientific interest happened to catch his fancy (they weren’t as overtly insane as the Renaissance polymaths, though, since the latter were often poets, musicians, sculptors, painters and architects in addition to dabbling in philosophy, engineering, medicine and every science known to man). His interest in the natural sciences, however, began with the humble hobby of beetle collecting (competitive beetle collecting, notes Wikipedia, and I can only imagine some Victorian predecessor to Japanese Bug Fights, where the collectors’ prized catches must fight to the death in a cage match to determine the victor — and you’re made into a social pariah if your beetles aren’t up to par), which was a national craze in England at the time, and which Darwin was very keen on. So keen, in fact, that when he caught sight of the rare crucifix ground beetle during one of his collecting sessions, he had absolutely no qualms placing one of his other beetles into his mouth, so as to free his hands and seize the new insect before it could flee. Of course, many ground beetles are known for their foul secretions (with bombardier beetles included in their ranks), and the one young Charles held between his teeth took the opportunity to bombard his mouth, freeing both itself and the other captives in the confusion.

The crux of Darwin’s ideas on evolution, however, was formed during his five-year voyage on the Beagle — and this journey, too, was certainly rife with adventure. As a naturalist, Darwin’s duty on the ship was to murder every animal he could get his hands on, haul them back to the ship, and ensure that they did not sink during the trip back home (this last part, as Darwin’s friend Alfred Wallace would tell you, is quite important: Wallace’s ship and collection were lost on the return voyage, while Henry Walter Bates, another famed explorer who arrived in the Amazon rainforests with Wallace, managed to gather over 14,000 species to be catalogued — and quite wisely spread them over three ships to avoid the possibility of their total destruction). One opportunity for gratuitous animal abuse presented itself on San Pedro Island, where Darwin saw a small, fox-like beast (now known to belong under a relict genus more similar to wolves and dogs than foxes) watching the sailors’ activities. Presumably unwary of humans, and quite interested in what these tall, loud things were doing on its island, the fox continued to watch the toiling men while Darwin snuck up behind the creature…and bashed its head in with the rock hammer in his hand. It’s like that scene (you know the one) in Jurassic Park II where the bounty hunters find a Compsognathus that is drawn to the camp because it has never seen a man and has no reason to be afraid, and give it a reason to be afraid by brutally tasering the animal — except instead of bounty hunters there’s Darwin, towering over the dead fox with a bloodied geologist’s hammer.

The moral of the story is not to mess with Darwin, unless your skull is hammerproof.

The third Darwin incident (Darwincident? …well, all right, that was a Darwince-inducing pun) to be covered is his infamous comment about ichneumon wasps and the mercy of God (I’d have liked to cover his barnacle adventures, since one of Darwin’s main contributions to science in fact concerned barnacles, but there isn’t much space left). The quote goes thus:

“There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. “

I can’t blame Darwin for entertaining the thought — God (or whatever divinity you may believe in) really had it in for the man, what with all the senseless death in his life, and ichneumon wasps do have quite the monstrous life cycle (their larvae eat caterpillars from within, as Darwin mentions, and some even proceed to brainwash the barely-surviving insect and utilize it as a sacrificial sentry for their developing pupae). But this comment always struck me as odd — perhaps it’s the cultural background, but I look at Biblical stories and see people turning into pillars of salt, children mauled by divinely ordained bears, locust swarms as far as the eye can see and many other examples that drive home the point that God does not play nice if you aren’t willing to behave, and the Abrahamic God seems to me exactly the sort of deity who would not only create the ichneumons, but also transform sinners into caterpillars and have them devoured by wasp larvae as punishment. Which, frankly, is awesome.

Perhaps, though, a point could have been made regarding the parasitic barnacles that inject their clone-bodies into crabs through hollow antennal needles, because these just plain make no sense.