Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Kiwi's Egg - David Quammen

Kiwi's Egg - Charles Darwin & Natural Selection

I liked the image of Darwin pregnant with his evolution theory just as a female kiwi is enlarged with her egg (the only bird whose egg comprises 25% of her body weight). Yup, he was just about to burst. But it was a long pregnancy and in the end, labor had to be induced – by the young fella Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace basically scared Darwin’s big idea into the public domain. The older man had been sitting on it for a couple of decades and was seemingly in no hurry to present the British public and scientific community with rope to hang him.

But as the young upstart sent him a sketch of his ideas from far away Indonesia he realized he best get to it. We can see Darwin’s reluctance to publish his ideas as a sign of arrogance – obviously he didn’t think anyone else would get there too; or, more in tune with Quammen’s portrait, as a mark of someone so uncomfortable being under the spotlight that he truly dreaded the attention that was sure to follow the unveiling of his ideas.

In “Kiwi’s Egg” Quammen decided to start his mini-biography were others would willingly end it – as Darwin descends the Beagle never to travel again outside his native island. Surely this is where the exciting part of Darwin’s life ends?

Well, maybe. But after all, his voyage was a fluke and while it might have changed his professional plans (from man of the cloth to man of science) and given him plenty of intellectual fodder for years to come, it didn’t change who he was. He was a man who liked to think things through – really thoroughly – he made a list of pros and cons on marriage, after all, so he wasn’t about to rock the core of science and eject religion from the map without being sure of it, either.
I was amazed at how complex Darwin’s character was – he was capable of great generosity and great egotism; a shy man who avoided travelling from his country house to London, electing letter-writing as his favorite means of communication with the world at large, and yet, someone who moved very fast (and cunningly) to assure a younger man wouldn’t get full credit for a theory he considered his. Complex characters, after all, don’t make good icons. Fortunately Quammen doesn’t seem willing to participate in Darwin’s canonization just yet.

Some of the story – especially the part where Darwin’s path crossed Wallace’s - had already been told by Quammen in “Song of the Dodo” albeit through Wallace’s perspective. Not that it bothered me in the slightest – for one it’s a great story, second Quammen uses a different angle in “Kiwi’s Egg”, third I’m glad he didn’t try to bury Wallace – it’s obvious that if it wasn’t for him Darwin, wouldn’t have published his theory so soon (in fact, he had already left written indications for his wife to publish his notebooks after his death – indicating he was definitely in no hurry) – their stories are truly inseparable.

Another thing readers might not be aware of is that Darwin didn’t exactly become Mr Popularity right after “The Origin of Species” was published. It’s not like everyone (or even anyone) cried “Gosh, we’ve been so stupid, believing for generations that species were immutable and created just as they are and put just where they are by a kindly Divine hand – and by the way, don’t we look incredibly like chimps? Hooray for Mr Darwin!”. Nope, it was more like “What a crazy old coot. Sigh. Chuckle. Next please!”

We seem to resent being enlightened – most prefer being saved – heck, sometimes thinking is a right nuisance.

But after all is said and done, Quammen rocks.

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