A Lesson From Darwin
By Misty Jackson
Unbeknownst to him, my nine-year old son reminded me just how important it is to love what we do. Near the end of the last school year he came home and announced that he had chosen Charles Darwin as the historical figure he would represent in a monologue on Biography Day. Being an anthropologist I was proud of him for his choice. As I listened to him practice, his recitation mostly just confirmed what I already knew. But I was struck by the parts of Darwin’s life that my son selected to focus on and came to the jarring realization that had this famous naturalist not followed his heart, the world would likely be a very different place. My son’s presentation pointed out the obstacles Darwin faced even as a young child. He hated the boarding school to which his affluent Father sent him and his brother, Erasmus, when his mother passed away. When his teacher found out that the brothers were sneaking out to their chemistry lab in a shed to perform experiments, Darwin reported that he was “publicly rebuked by the head-master, Dr. Butler, for thus wasting my time on such useless subjects.”
Darwin’s father pushed him towards becoming a doctor. Darwin hated this, too, and dropped out of medical school, unable to stand the method of surgery of the early nineteenth century that used no anesthesia. His father suggested he become a clergyman as this would allow him time to pursue his true calling, the study of nature. He studied for the ministry at Cambridge for three years only to state, “My time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh [medical school] and at school.” Fortunately for Darwin, however, the position of naturalist was then offered to him, through the help of a professor at Cambridge, on the Beagle for its mapping voyage around the world. An uncle managed to convince Darwin’s father to allow him to go on the expedition, and from that experience he would produce his seminal theory published in The Origin of Species in 1859.
Would someone else arrive at the theory of evolution by natural selection if Darwin had not? Yes, as all students of biology, geology and anthropology know, Alfred Russell Wallace did just that in 1858. But Wallace’s paper was not nearly the meticulously researched tome chalked full of the evidence Darwin had acquired through observations on his five-year travels and after. Did Darwin have advantages due to his parents’ upper class wealth and contacts allowing him opportunities and schooling not available to everyone? Yes, but he was still, originally, headed down a path to a career he did not want and away from the brilliant contribution he eventually made. It is also worth noting (though my son did not) that Darwin’s hobbies, including beetle collecting as well as shooting and stuffing birds, in the end served him better in his life work than so much of the formal education he received when studying medicine and theology.
It’s probably safe to say that relatively few of us are going to have the impact that Darwin has had and that relatively few of us will become the household name, remembered over centuries, that he has. But Darwin had no idea when he started where following his passion would take him. Furthermore, in today’s economy, it can be especially challenging to pursue one’s dream. I’m just glad Darwin pursued his despite his naysayers and detractors, and I take inspiration from him that the rest of us can and will do much better ourselves if we follow his example.
Jackson is an alumna of the MSU Department of Anthropology and the owner and principal investigator of Arbre Croche Cultural Resources, an archaeology and historical research firm. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.arbrecroche.com, and LinkedIn.
(As a researcher I am compelled to provide you with my sources for the above:
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Frances Darwin, originally published in 1893 as Charles Darwin, and Creation, by Randal Keynes [Darwin’s great-great-grandson], New York: Riverhead Books, 2001. My son’s source was Who Was Charles Darwin, by Deborah Hopkinson, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 2005.)