17 Feb 2009

On His Bicentennial, Mr. Darwin’s Questions Endure

Charles Darwin brought an insatiable inquisitiveness to his view of the natural world. On the bicentennial of his birth, author Verlyn Klinkenborg reflects on what Darwin’s most fundamental observations mean to us.
By verlyn klinkenborg

Do bees vary in different parts of Great Britain?, Charles Darwin asks, in print. And is the female Bombus fertilized in the air? What is the action of common salt on carbonate of lime? Can two parent horses, neither of them dun, produce a dun horse? Will wire rope, he asks, work in my well, which is 325 feet deep? Does seawater kill seeds?

Darwin examines the skulls of Polish chickens, which have an extraordinary tuft of feathers on their heads and a skull deformation to
I wonder whether Darwin ever noticed a natural fact that didn’t raise a question in his mind.
support it, and wonders whether keepers of tufted fowl “have observed any clear signs of deficiency in the mental powers of any of their birds?” Even when he is not asking questions, you can hear the question implicit in the title of Darwin’s articles. “Cause of the variation of flowers” — in the Journal of Horticulture — is itself a variation of “Why do flowers vary?”

I wonder whether Darwin ever noticed a natural fact, no matter how trivial, that didn’t raise a question in his mind. I think his very manner of perception was interrogatory. To notice was to ask. But what strikes me is the poise of Darwin’s questions. They are modest and yet, at the same time, full of authority. The modesty is implicit in the noticing, surrendering his sense of self to the detailed imprint of the world around him.

And the authority? It lies in his confidence that questions have answers. That confidence is private — a faith that careful thought and the steady accumulation of evidence will yield a hypothesis. But it is also public. Many of Darwin’s questions appeared in print, in places like the Gardeners’ Chronicle, calling for answers from a community of fellow noticers. He distributed printed questionnaires about the breeding of animals. He interviewed pigeon fanciers and animal breeders of all description. And he was not remiss in offering answers where he could — reporting, for instance, about hedgehogs with strawberries stuck to their spines. He believed, though not credulously, in the value of the public exchange of ideas and information.

Darwin doesn’t often moralize about the state of his own species. But his faith in its essential rationality and its occasional perceptiveness seems very deep. We tend to think of Darwin ruminating about nature in its wild state. But it’s striking how much of the evidence he gathered during his life was really about the effects humans have on nature. He understood the clear analogy between the variation of species in nature and the variation of domestic species in the hands of breeders. He realized that humans often knew that they could do a thing — like creating Polish chickens — without understanding the underlying mechanisms that allowed them to do it.

Consider the opening of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under
It’s striking how much of the evidence he gathered was really about the effects humans have on nature.
Domestication. “Man,” Darwin writes, “has no power of altering the absolute conditions of life.” Plant and animal breeding is essentially a kind of jujitsu, using the force of nature’s inherent tendency against it, so to speak. But Darwin’s sentence goes on, and suddenly we are the ones who find ourselves looking through time, because he says, man “cannot change the climate of any country.”

What makes Darwin such a striking thinker is the way he gets to the root of things. His questions may sometimes look simple and naïve, but they are nearly always pointing us to the problem of underlying mechanisms, always wondering why things happen to be so.

Sometimes he takes us deeper than we realize. In that same passage, talking about the huge variation of size and form and coloration in domesticated species, he writes, “It is an error to speak of man ‘tampering with nature’ and causing variability. If organic beings had not possessed an inherent tendency to vary, man could have done nothing.”

That phrase — an inherent tendency to vary — can change the way you look at the world around you. It was written by a man who was used to looking through time. Caught in the snapshot of the present, we don’t instinctively feel the inherent tendency to vary in the organic beings around us. But to Darwin, everything is on its way to being something else. And that, of course, includes us.


Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board at the New York Times, where he regularly writes editorial opinions about rural life. His most recent book is Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.

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