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Charles Darwin: A heretic and a hero Add to ...

The life of Charles Darwin

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BISHOPS MILLS, Ont. - The cattails will be served warm, drizzled with lemon juice. Mealworms, burdock root and sea cucumbers are also on the menu.

At the Bishops Mills Natural History Centre, an hour south of Ottawa, naturalist Fred Schueler and his wife, Aleta Karstad, are planning a tribute to Charles Darwin - a "phylum feast" featuring plants, animals and micro-organisms from as many taxonomic divisions as possible.

It's potluck, and everyone is welcome to come - as long as they label the species contained in the appetizers, mains or desserts they bring. Past contributions have included prickly pear, goat, herring, oysters, fiddleheads and moose.

The couple try to hold their feast every year, but this one is doubly special. A week from next Thursday marks the 200th anniversary of the day Darwin was born, the son of a well-off doctor in Shrewsbury, England, and the daughter of famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. And it was 150 years ago, in 1859, that Darwin published the book that revolutionized science and ushered in the modern era, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Pres- ervation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That unwieldy title was later shortened to The Origin of Species.

Why a phylum feast? Dr. Schueler says that eating as diverse a meal as possible is a fitting tribute to the scientist who first showed the world how all living things are connected. It also may be the most flavourful of the many celebrations planned for the two anniversaries, and has been a Feb. 12 tradition since Dr. Schueler, 60, came to the University of Toronto as young man from Connecticut to do his doctorate on leopard frogs. Like his hero, he has dedicated his life to studying nature and answering the questions his observations raised.

In Darwin's case, those answers shocked Victorian England and drove a permanent wedge between science and faith. He forced people to consider the possibility that their ancestors had looked like apes, and ignited a debate over God's role in creation that has yet to end. Darwin remains a polarizing figure, a genius and a villain, his name revered by some and detested by others. More than 40 per cent of Canadians who responded to a 2007 poll said they don't believe in evolution or aren't sure about it - far more, experts say, than those who question other well-founded scientific theories.

South of the border, the battle is even more heated. In 1926, almost 50 years after Darwin's death, the right to teach his theories in U.S. schools led to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. And just this month, more than 80 years later, a born-again Christian who supported teaching modern creationism - intelligent design - in schools vacated the White House in favour of a president who is vocal in his support of science.

THE EARLY DARWIN: 'A DISGRACE TO YOURSELF AND ALL YOUR FAMILY'

As a child, Charles Darwin loved the outdoors, but he also lied about spotting rare birds and made little progress with his lessons in Latin or Greek. Other than his being an avid collector of beetles, his many biographers haven't turned up much about him that foreshadowed greatness. "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching," his father once told him, "and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."

His family was wealthy, so Darwin didn't have to earn a living. He tried medicine, but found corpses revolting, and was studying to be a clergyman in 1831 when he jumped at the chance to sail around the world aboard HMS Beagle. The ship was on a mission to survey distant Tierra del Fuego for the British government, and the captain, Robert FitzRoy, was looking for a companion, ideally a gentleman with an interest in plants and animals.

As the famous voyage stretched to five years, Darwin proved himself a rising naturalist by shipping home specimens by the crateful. But the real voyage of discovery didn't begin until he returned to England in late 1836.

Only after experts identified and analyzed his finds did Darwin begin to piece together what they meant. Why did three islands in the Galapagos each have a distinct species of mockingbird? Why did the 13 species of Galapagos finches have such different beaks from each other. Why was the fossilized extinct giant sloth he found in South America so similar to the modern versions that still lived there?

In July, 1837, he began to record in a series of small notebooks the observations that would become the raw material for The Origin of Species.

Today, his name is synonymous with evolution, but Darwin didn't come up with the idea. It had been floating around for years, and his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a doctor and poet, had speculated that "all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament."

It wasn't new, but evolution certainly was heretical - it challenged the Church of England's teachings that God had created Adam and Eve and every plant and animal species on Earth. Darwin slowly came to see that his specimens supported a colder, more rational view of nature that he felt compelled to probe despite the risk to his reputation. He wanted to learn more, to discover how the process worked, to find proof for his ideas.

In his 2006 book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, American science writer David Quammen says the great naturalist produced his theory in much the same way that a mother kiwi labours to lay an egg that weighs a fifth of what she does. First, Darwin seized on the idea that all animals vary slightly - other than identical twins, for example, no two humans are quite the same - and concluded that sexual reproduction was essential for producing random variations. Over time, these small differences can accumulate into adaptations to meet particular circumstances, such as a drought or a flood.

Other writers and thinkers offered inspiration. One of his "aha!" moments came in 1838 when he read the sixth edition of Essay on the Principles of Population by Thomas Malthus. The English political economist describes how species tend to reproduce beyond sustainable levels but runaway population growth is checked by starvation. This showed that death can be a creative force, says Harvard University science historian and Darwin authority Janet Browne - the weak died and the strongest, or best adapted, survived.

Four years later, Darwin finished a summary of his ideas, using the "natural means of selection" to describe how the culling of weaker individuals shapes a species over time.

Natural selection, the mechanism for evolution, was Darwin's big breakthrough, biologist Brian Hall says, along with the idea that evolution changes organisms over time - or "descent with modification" - and that all organisms are related in a tree of life.

"The ultimate genius was the way he put all that together," says the Dalhousie University evolution expert. "Nobody else had done that before him in a detailed way, although Wallace came pretty close."

Alfred Russel Wallace was a cash-strapped but brilliant naturalist who shocked Darwin into finally going public in 1858 - almost two decades after coming up with his theory - by sending him an essay that laid out a nearly identical approach. Had the essay gone to another scientist, Dr. Hall says, Wallace would be remembered as the father of evolution. Instead, Darwin and his friends arranged to have it read aloud at a scientific meeting, along with excerpts from his work.

As a result, they officially share the credit, but Darwin got all the attention.

Why did he sit on his theory for so long? There were many reasons for his procrastination, including a desire to amass as much evidence as possible and an obsession with classifying barnacles that lasted almost a decade. And his ill health, by his own account, cost him years of productive work. He suffered from regular but mysterious bouts of retching and vomiting, heart palpitations, headaches, painful boils and flatulence so turbulent that he needed to be alone after eating a meal.

Then there was Emma, the cousin he married in 1839. A devout Anglican, she fretted over his growing skepticism about God. The loss of their beloved daughter, Anne, just 10 when she died in 1851, badly weakened by a bout of scarlet fever, destroyed the remnants of his Christian faith.

But he also was troubled by the knowledge that his theory would challenge the religion that offered his wife so much solace: If he was right, then Genesis was wrong. Even when he finally wrote The Origin of Species, he avoided the question of how humans evolved, leaving that to later books.

Like many couples, Darwin and his wife had trouble discussing their most troubling disagreement, so early in their marriage she wrote him a letter about her concerns about his work and his immortal soul. He reread it many times, and at the bottom he wrote: "When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and cried over this."

THE CELEBRITY DARWIN: FAME MADE A PUBLIC FIGURE (AND A MONKEY) OF HIM

The Origin of Species appeared on Nov. 24, 1859. Written for a general audience, it quickly sold out, making Darwin famous and controversial - a very public figure whose face peered out from cartoons of monkeys and apes.

Yet he remained removed from the storm. His fragile health gave him an excuse to continue his reclusive country life at the house he had bought south of London. From there, he shrewdly managed a masterful public-relations campaign through a constant flow of letters to the friends and colleagues who vigorously defended his work in scientific journals and public forums. While he experimented with orchids, they took on his many attackers, both in print and in person.

It was decades before the scientific community accepted natural selection. One of the theory's major weaknesses was an inability to explain how heredity works. Darwin didn't know about genes or mutations, let alone the astonishing fact that humans share almost 99 per cent of their genetic makeup with chimpanzees and 85 per cent with mice.

Still, Mr. Quammen writes, the centennial of The Origin of Species was celebrated in the scientific community in the confidence that Darwin had got it right, and since then far more evidence has piled up.

But gaining broad acceptance for evolution by natural selection has been more difficult. Brian Alters, founder and director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal, suspects that Darwin would be surprised to know that the campaign continues so long after his death.

"Darwin, to this day, is anathema to millions and millions of North Americans," says Dr. Alters, an expert on science education who appeared as an expert witness in a high-profile 2005 case over whether intelligent design - a modern form of creationism - should be taught in Pennsylvania public schools. "He is almost right up there with Hitler. He symbolizes atheism. He's the guy who removed God out of creation."

Now an agnostic, Dr. Alters is a former creationist who was born into a fundamentalist Christian household in California and learned about evolution only as a teenager.

It was like taking a long, cold shower, he says. "The creation story is a beautiful story. There is a heavenly father who created all things. He didn't want the man to be alone, so created woman. He created animals. There is this beautiful Garden of Eden the creator wanted for these special humans.

"Then, all of a sudden, in a public-school science classroom, you hear it is a whole other thing called natural selection. It is a story mainly about death, and extinction and horrible suffering, and a lot of chance involved. If you reran the tape, maybe humans wouldn't even have evolved."

But many religions, including Roman Catholicism, are not opposed to evolution, Dr. Alters says. So why do so many people remain unconvinced? A survey of Canadians conducted in 2007 by Angus Reid found that 22 per cent of respondents believe that God created humans in their present form while an additional 19 per cent said they just aren't sure about evolution.

A combination of scientific illiteracy and religious illiteracy comes in to play, Dr. Alters says. Many people don't know that they can believe in both God and evolution, he says.

"Rarely do they ever hear they can have their cake and eat it too. The supreme being, let's say God, is capable of using evolution to bring humankind and all organisms about. Evolution does not mean atheism or agnosticism."

The widespread skepticism, he adds, also stems from the fact that evolution challenges something many people cherish: the notion that humans are special - and superior to other animals.

In his book, Mr. Quammen argues that this is where Darwin ran afoul of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and probably most other religions on the planet. Evolution refutes "the supposed godliness of man - the conviction that we, above all life forms, are spiritually elevated, divinely favoured, possessed of an immaterial and immortal essence, such that we have special prospects for eternity, special status in the expectations of God, special rights and responsibilities on Earth."

Teachers sometimes hesitate to bring up evolution in class, Dr. Alters says, because they don't want to upset students or their parents. Some don't use the word evolution, or will talk about it only with respect to animals, not humans.

"A teacher will start teaching evolution and immediately a tear rolls down a student's face. We get reports of this all the time," he says. "Just because we win in court with logic and science doesn't mean we win the hearts and minds of people outside of the courts."

THE DARWIN ADMIRER: BY GRADE 2, HE KNEW WHAT HE WANTED TO DO

The table where the phylum feasters will sit down to dinner in Bishops Mills is still piled high with the shells of the mussels, clams and snails that Fred Schueler is currently studying. It will all be cleared away in time for the party, his wife says.

Guests will be offered a tour of the natural history centre, which is housed in an old general store and described by Dr. Schueler as a private, "mom and pop research institute" supported by long-time friends who consider its work important. The elk toes, elephant ears and other freshwater mussels it contains are part of the fourth-largest such collection in Canada.

Dr. Schueler's life really has been influenced by Darwin. He, too, undertook his voyages of exploration - including a coast-to-coast trip doing field work for an illustrated natural history of Canada - as a young man. He now studies what effect new arrivals, such as zebra mussels, have on native animals and plants, and says Darwin invented the concept of an alien species.

Growing up in western Connecticut, fly-fishing for smallmouth bass and learning about the natural world through the field guides of Roger Tory Peterson, he knew by Grade 2 what he wanted to do. Like Darwin, he is drawn to a multitude of organisms, including mussels, clams, snails, worms and woodland salamanders, and has a Darwinesque obsession with whatever he chooses to study.

In the 1980s, Ms. Karstad says, her husband would stop the car at the sight of a cattail, and bring out his calipers to get an accurate measurement. He was studying a species that was moving west into the Prairies and hybridizing with one already there.

Dr. Schueler also is fascinated with the natural history of earthworms - the subject of Darwin's final book. The great man kept worms (which Dr. Schueler says aren't native to Canada but came with early settlers) in his study and performed all sorts of experiments, such as testing their hearing. (They're indifferent to shouting, he reported.) By this time, he had followed up The Origin of Species by tackling humanity's evolution and explaining his theory of sexual selection in 1871's The Descent of Man. The volume on worms appeared a decade later, the year before he died at 73, and was enormously popular.

Of course, Darwin didn't need a bestseller because he was independently wealthy, but Dr. Schueler is not. He is a research associate with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, which is a non-paying position, and he and his artist wife are currently collaborating on a book about slugs and snails, finishing the work of a colleague who died after starting the project.

Whereas the Darwins had servants, Dr. Schueler and Ms. Kardstad wear extra clothes indoors to cut down on heating bills. But many of their pleasures are similar, and rooted in their love of nature. Just as the Darwins sometimes took a late-night walk to hear the nightingales, they spend their Friday evenings using a bright light to watch mud puppies frolic under the ice downstream from where the mill once stood.

Like Darwin, Dr. Schueler suffers from poor health. He is an insulin-dependent diabetic, a condition that needs careful management. Again like Darwin, he is an agnostic married to a devout Christian. They talk about this difference, but it isn't a source of tension.

"We agree to disagree," he says, although Ms. Karstad finds no conflict in believing in God and in evolution. "I don't feel threatened by it," she says.

THE HISTORIC DARWIN: CREDIT FOR UNLOCKING THE SECRETS OF LIFE

With the double anniversary, Darwin is bound to be much in evidence this year. And rightly so, according to experts such as Dalhousie's Brian Hall and W. Ford Doolittle, a biochemist at the university who studies the evolution of genes and genomes.

"Trying to make sense of biology without evolution is like trying to make sense of current affairs without history," Dr. Doolittle says, adding that natural selection and descent with modification "are what convinced scientists, and much of the public, that life, including our own, is not incomprehensible."

But for Dr. Schueler and Ms. Karstad, the grandeur of Darwin's vision is what is most worth celebrating.

He connected all living things - "endless forms most beautiful," as he described them in the final passage of The Origin of Species, with a common history.

"Darwin taught us we are related to everything," Dr. Schueler says.

That's why, before long, they will be defrosting the cattails, whose slender male flowers taste a bit like corn on the cob and have to be eaten in a similar fashion because of the tough filament that runs down the middle of each pollen-packed tube.

Also in the freezer is burdock, which looks like rhubarb until it starts to produce burrs. When boiled, roots from young plants turn from creamy to grey, but taste vaguely like parsnip. A run into Ottawa's Chinatown will provide sea cucumbers, which are sliced and fried, and a neighbour has brought over some venison.

Over the years, the phylum feast's menu has varied, depending on where the two have been living. In the 1980s, it featured meat from a minke whale hit and killed by a boat near British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. To describe the taste, Dr. Shueler asks: "Have you ever had beaver? It is fishier than beaver."

Putting together the tribute meal would be a lot easier, he says, had Darwin been born in the summer. "We would have eaten earthworms."

Anne McIlroy is The Globe and Mail's science reporter.

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