In these Covid times, I get what little inspiration I can muster from reading books. I admire the skill of authors who dive deep into old documents to find information for their stories. Most of what I read is non-fiction, so the information I gain is either directly from quotes by someone from a letter or other written document, but more often a mix of quoted text and the author’s interpretation of what happened.
In this blog, I am sharing some excerpts from three books that I have recently read. They range from a historical journey describing the lives of scientists who at some level realized that the biosphere is not a static creation of a higher being, but a constantly changing and evolving assembly of organisms, to a detective story with tendrils reaching back to Darwinian times.
Since the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, evolution has been increasingly accepted by science as more and more evidence has been assembled. But while Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) is credited with the discovery of the mechanism by which evolution acts on populations, leading to speciation and specialization. Many other scientists had arrived at the conclusion that something other than a deity was responsible, at least in part, for creating the variety of life forms, and more importantly, for ending their existence. In addition, many agreed that earth was much older than the 6,000 years, providing the necessary time to allow slow changes to be expressed. Names like Aristotle, Lamarck, and even Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin are among these scientists. In her book Darwin’s Ghosts, Rebecca Stott describes these scientists and their struggles to disseminate their ideas without facing retribution from a society dominated by religion. But it is the surprising effect of experiments conducted by Erasmus Darwin on a woman that fascinated me. Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley and John Polidori visited Lord Byron in June 1816, where they discuss all kinds of things. I will let Rebecca Stott tell the story (Where she quotes people I have Italicized the text; the rest is Rebecca Stott’s words:
Rebecca Stott writes: “Percy Shelley, aged twenty-two, not long out of Oxford, has been reading about microscopy, the solar system, magnetism, and electricity. He tells them of a discovery made by Dr. Darwin [Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin] — how in a paste of flour and water you can make tiny organsisms increase in number and size, even without air, and they will come back to life again when dried out. That is how life began, he tells them. Not with a garden in Eden, but with tiny organisms in a pond. Might it not be possible, he speculates, to find a way of harnessing the vital principle that drives the minute water creatures back into life from death.
Mary Godwin, Shelley’s brilliant and intellectually voracious lover……. is interested in theories of life for different reasons. Only 18 and unmarried, she has been pregnant almost continuously since she and Shelley became lovers when she was sixteen. After eloping in 1814 and traveling across Europe with barely any money, she lost her first child, a daughter, at only two weeks old in February 1815; the loss devastated her. “Find my baby dead,” she wrote. “A miserable day.” Pregnant again only eight weeks later, she gave birth to her second child, a boy, William, in January of that year. She is already pregnant again.
Mary — who became Mary Shelley on her marriage to Shelley later that year — described the late-night conversations at the Villa Diodati in her introduction to the revised single-volume edition of Frankenstein in 1831: “They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin…who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.”
The vermicelli is a misremembering on either her or Shelley’s part. Darwin had actually written “vorticellae” in his notes on spontaneous generation in The Temple of Nature. He was describing a microscopic aquatic filament found in lead gutters that when dried out shows no sign of life but “being put into water, in the space of half an hour a languid motion begins, the globule turns itself about, lengthens itself by degrees and assumes the form of a lively maggot…swimming vigorously through the water in search of food.”
Unable to sleep, her head full of these speculations about life, Mary Shelley dreamed of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half viral motion.” ”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, went on to become a classic, and is considered by many the first Science Fiction novel. Who knew that evolutionary discussions may have played a role in its creation!
The second story I want to highlight relates to a chapter in North American history that is thankfully more or less over with the ousting of Donald J. Trump from the White House. His supporters, including many evangelicals, have seemingly abandoned all societal norms; lies, personal attacks, and bullying became acceptable, as was white supremacist extremism, racism, and misogyny. Many have compared Trump’s reign as comparable to Germany’s Nazi era under Adolf Hitler, but whether or not Trump and Hitler are directly comparable is a subject beyond the scope of this blog. Having said that, Bernd Heinrich, the eminent University of Vermont scientist addressed the issue in his family biographical book The Snoring Bird, and the parallels are striking. Heinrich’s father Gerd, a Hymenopterist focusing on the Family Ichneumonidae, was caught up in the sorry story. Bernd Heinrich wrote:
“For humans, one of the most powerful transforming stimuli is sensing that we are under attack. We close ranks and identify and “enemy,” which requires first of all isolating and identifying “us” as separate from “them.” Desperate situations always demand blame, and in combination with chaos, they then provide the opening for an authority figure who promises to restore order. “Liberties” must be curtailed while enemies, real and imagined, are sought. Then the spin begins, and those who follow are rewarded and those who don’t are punished in direct proportion to the power the leader has attained.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, exploited a disagreement with the French to withdraw from the League of Nations and go it alone. His “genius” was to link loyalty to Hitler to patriotism. Hitler was the “leader,” so according to Goebbels if you were against Hitler, you were against the country, and that was treason. He proclaimed revival of the Christian faith. Every soldier was to wear a belt buckle that said Gott mit uns (“God with us”). Any opposition to the regime was deemed unpatriotic, and dissenting voices in the press and elsewhere were muzzled. Soon other parties were banned because they were deemed anti-German. Still, there was resistance. But when scapegoats were needed, Jews who had positions in public life were thrown out, again because they were “anti-German.” Goebbels rallied university students to burn the books of liberals, to silence opposition to Hitler’s promised path to greatness.
And at the Nuremburg Trials, at the end of the war, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s designated successor, said:
Why, of course the people don’t want war….That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce peacemakers for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”
It seems that one could easily simply exchange names in the above, and it would ring disturbingly true. From my perspective, we dodged a very unpredictable bullet when Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States.
My final story comes from Kirk Johnson’s The Feather Thief, a book about natural history museums, fly tying, and obsession. But the nugget that particularly resonated with me came from one of the introductory chapters, which described how some of the bird skins came to be at the Natural History Museum at Tring, from where they were stolen by Edwin Rist, a young American musician obsessed with the tying of Victorian style salmon flies. Many of the stolen bird skins had been collected by none other than Alfred Russel Wallace, and as such were irreplacable. But it is Wallace’s thoughts on the value of museums, as well as the importance of conservation, and the threat of extinction that is the key to this nugget. Kirk Johnson writes:
“In all his travels, Wallace captured only five of the thirty-nine known species of Birds of Paradise, one of which, Semiptera wallacii, now bears his name. In an 1863 paper, he explained why he went to such lengths to gather specimens, describing each specimen as “the individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth’s history; and, as a few lost letters make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of the numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily render obscure this invaluable record of the past.”
To prevent the loss of the earth’s deep history, Wallace implored the British government to stockpile within its museum as many specimens as possible, “where they may be available for study and interpretation.” The bird skins surely held answers to questions that scientists didn’t yet know to ask, and they must be protected at all costs.
“If this is not done,” he warned, “future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had in our power to preserve.” He challenged the antievolution religionists, “professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.” ”
His words could not ring more true today, with funding for Natural History Museums literally going the way of the Dodo!
Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, London.
Darwin, Erasmus. 1803. The Temple of Nature; or, the Origin of Society: A Poem, with Philosophical Notes. J. Johnson, London.
Heinrich, Bernd. 2007. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, p. 125. HarperCollins, New York.
Johnson, Kirk W. 2019. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, p. 36. Viking, New York.
Stott, Rebecca. 2012. Darwin’s Ghosts. The Secret History of Evolution, pp. 180-182. Spiegel and Grau, New York.
 Vorticella is a genus of protist in the Phylum Ciliophora.