Monday, September 10, 2018

From Darwin's own thoughts. Part I.

I have just been re-reading Charles Darwin's autobiography.  He wrote it with his son's encouragement shortly before the great man passed away in 1882, and was first published in 1887.  I think he wrote it to tell his children and so on about his famous life.  Yet as famous as he had become, he is as modest as one would expect from that exemplar of the best of humanity.

I encourage anyone in the life sciences, who doesn't presume to think s/he already knows everything, to read it, for reasons I'll suggest below.  It has various versions, as his son Francis edited it a bit, redacting some personal family-related  comments (these were later restored, but are unimportant here). You can find it here.

I thought that some of the things he said would be worth posting on a site like this.  Darwin was right about many things, and even he was wrong about others (as, indeed, he himself freely says).  But it is his thinking, his perspective, standards, reasons, and outlook that are important.  So what follows are some quotes that I chose (easy to find by searching the ebook), with my reflections separated in italics and in blue.  (Because there are many pithy quotes, I've split this into four successive posts):

"To my deep mortification my father once said to me, "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."

Darwin was an idler as a privileged young gentleman, but, to our great benefit, circumstances grabbed his attention and serious side. And he explains it thus:

"Looking back as well as I can at my character during my school life, the only qualities which at this period promised well for the future, were, that I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing.

I mention this because later in life I wholly lost, to my great regret, all pleasure from poetry of any kind, including Shakespeare."

Darwin more than once admitted, or even bemoaned, his narrow focus and neglect of some of the finer things in life.  Yes, he was successful, but this could be a lesson for us all: keep a balance!

"I almost made up my mind to begin collecting all the insects which I could find dead, for on consulting my sister I concluded that it was not right to kill insects for the sake of making a collection."

Even Darwin saw the evil in killing other living things just to gawk at them.  We do it routinely, even including mammals (mice, etc.), but to salve our conscience (for those who have one) we get IRB approval first, to keep their suffering under at least some constraint and prevent our suffering from lack of a project to do.

"This was the best part of my education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science."

He observed rather than simply conjectured, and his patience and eye for detail and for identifying the critical variables were at the root of his success.

"...but to my mind there are no advantages and many disadvantages in lectures compared with reading."

Ooops, professors!  Some of us do need to hear a message live and have it explained.  Darwin, though, had the drive, and patience, to study a subject in great detail.  How many of us have that?

"At this time I admired greatly the 'Zoonomia;' but on reading it a second time after an interval of ten or fifteen years, I was much disappointed; the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given. after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense."

He reasoned in his own way, and did't really suffer by his non-numerical abilities.  Maybe he was not misled by math's oversimplification and rigidity?  Maybe we rely far too much on the latter, as a safer and quicker course to 'results', than patient, deeper thinking?

"During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound interest Humboldt's 'Personal Narrative'."

" consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them."

If he was anything, it was a patient, careful sponge for detail.  And reading stimulated his original thinking.

"I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge of a man's character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether any one with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage."

Here he's talking about having almost been rejected for the voyage that became the basis of his life's work by Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle.  Beware of hoaxes even in science!  We see unwarranted speculative conclusions being asserted almost every week in the news media, and even in journals (though there, couched in dense professorialized terms!).

"The investigation of the geology of all the places visited was far more important, as reasoning here comes into play."

"Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of the voyage."

Again, his integrative detail-sponging patience and reasoning.  No rush to conclusions (or to print).  Indeed, he waited for 25 years before publishing his ideas on evolution, and only did so then when he was prompted by Alfred Russel Wallace's discovery of the same ideas.  

"The sight of a naked savage in his native land is an event which an never be forgotten."

(Here he's writing of being in Tierra del Fuego.  But he did not think of such people as inferior, as his experience later makes clear)

"Nor must I pass over the discovery of the singular relations of the animals and plants inhabiting the several islands of the Galapagos archipelago, and of all of them to the inhabitants of South America."

We know how important that set of observations was!  The islands are still under close observation.

"But I was also ambitious to take a fair place among scientific men,— whether more ambitious or less so than most of my fellow-workers, I can form no opinion."

"...I am sure that I have never turned one inch out of my course to gain fame."

Ambition, yes--but egotism and show-boating, never: no rushing to the news media, no spin doctors!

No comments: