P.S. to “That Other Darwin”

In my previous post, I certainly didn’t mean to “diss” Charles Darwin by calling him the “consummate hedgehog.” The world of ideas must have its hedgehogs as well as its foxes. It is true that Charles’s überfox grandfather Erasmus anticipated a lot of evolutionary theory, including Natural Selection, many years before Charles got around to it. Charles’s contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, also figured out the basics. But neither Erasmus nor Wallace gathered the sheer weight of evidence needed to make their ideas stick. It took the world’s greatest hedgehog to do that.

And Charles came by his ideas the hard way, with no noticeable influence from his grandfather. True, he read a book by Erasmus when he was seventeen “in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me.”

Charles’s way was longer and more tortuous. To begin with, he had to let himself be amazed and puzzled by the sheer diversity of life he observed during his youthful, legendary, worldwide journey aboard HMS Beagle.

In an age in which the first two chapters of Genesis were almost unanimously accepted as the final authority on natural history, what was young Charles to suppose upon seeing his first platypus in Australia? Why would an all-creating God scatter such anomalous creatures in entirely different parts of the world? His earliest speculation was about as far from evolution as you can get:

An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.”

“Two distinct Creators”! It was as heretical an idea as Natural Selection would later prove to be. But young Darwin was not an “unbeliever”—not yet, anyway. Soon after his encounter with the freakishly odd platypus, he took comfort in noticing that the Australian antlion larva was very similar to a European species. Such a resemblance, he thought, could be no cosmic coincidence:

Now what would the sceptic say to this? Would any two workmen ever have hit upon so beautiful, so simple, and yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so: one Hand has surely worked throughout the universe.

“One hand” creating, of course, in a manner consistent with Genesis. But Charles Darwin’s Story was just getting started.

Platypus-sketch

 

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