Why we are here, Bernard Carpinter

Looking for Darwin
Lloyd Spencer Davis
Longacre Press, $39.99,
ISBN 0781877361227

Science has somehow acquired an almost inhuman reputation. Scientists are regarded as dry, dusty specimens, cut off from society and probably working on projects that will cause more harm than good. Hollywood usually depicts scientists either as crazed geniuses trying to blow up the world, or as nerds who never get the girls with big bosoms. The main reason for this, I suspect, is that most of the communicators in our society have no understanding of science and indeed probably failed School Cert maths or whatever its equivalent is these days.

I’ve known plenty of scientists in my time and they all seemed pretty human to me; some were quite lovely. And if you give them a chance to tell you what they’re on about, they can be very interesting too. After all, they are trying to find out how our world works, trying to satisfy human curiosity.

If you’d like to see how human science can be, try reading this book. Lloyd Spencer Davis, a zoologist and documentary film-maker, tells how he became intrigued – obsessed, even – with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. He decided to follow Darwin’s five-year (1831-36) voyage on the Beagle during which Darwin found the evidence which led him to develop the theory that changed the way we think. A series of entertaining adventures follows, some of them quite dangerous or even foolhardy.

Davis tells his own story in down-to-earth, lively prose, with lashings of humour. At the same time he tells the story of Darwin, both his scientific work and his personal life. As we follow the voyage of the Beagle – during which the great scientist was constantly seasick – we encounter the creatures that gave Darwin the clues to solve the mystery of the origin of species. Most famously, there are the animals on the Galapagos Islands, where different but related species evolved on different islands to suit the slightly different environments.

Essentially, Darwin tells us that individuals in a population vary slightly from one another, through accidents of birth (mutations, we would say now). The fittest will survive. In this context, fittest does not necessarily mean strongest; it means those best fitted to their immediate environment. In some places, for example, it might be an advantage to be big and strong; in other places, it would pay to be small and nimble.

Ogling beautiful women in Italy and South America reminds Davis of the importance of sex in Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. An individual with superior characteristics might itself be better suited to survive, but in order for these characteristics to be spread in the population it needs to be able to attract a mate. Crude examples of the “survival of the fittest” are seen among species where males have harems, such as lions and walruses. Only the strongest males can have harems, because they have to fight off other males to obtain this privilege. They pass on strong, healthy genes. In monogamous species, male birds, for example, might need particularly bright plumage to be considered sexy by the females.

Davis follows Darwin back to England, to places where he lived, worked and propounded his ideas. Darwin, who had private means, married a cousin (one of the pottery Wedgwoods), started a family and lived in the countryside. He knew his theory would upset the Establishment, which believed that different species were all purpose-designed by the Christian God. In the end he “went public” only when it became apparent that another scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace, was about to put forward similar ideas.

Davis gets to a lot of different places – South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, Britain and even New Zealand – and meets a lot of different people. He has a gift for bringing them to life in his prose and, as I said, there is a lot of humour. Actually, there is a bit too much humour; Davis tries too hard to amuse and some of his blokey-jokey lines are at best unnecessary: “As a full-grown male can weigh up to ten times heavier than a female, watching them mate is what I would imagine it would be like if Pavarotti ever got together with Kate Moss.”

As he goes from place to place, and back in time, Davis intersperses his own musings about animals and evolution, plus life, the universe and everything. This is far from being a zoology textbook; it is the journey of one man through both the physical world and the world of ideas. Still, it will give the unscientific reader some idea of how science operates.

Davis starts the book in dramatic fashion. He is on an ice floe in the Antarctic in a snowstorm, observing an emperor penguin, when a leopard seal suddenly appears in the water menacingly close. “A leopard seal is what you’d get if you could graft the head of Tyrannosaurus Rex onto a torpedo,” he says. When he gets over the shock, he again asks himself the big question that has been hitting him over the head that day: “What the hell am I doing here?” He then ties that in with religion and the possible existence of a god, and makes that a secondary theme of the book. Which is a bit of a have really, because Darwin told us how we got here but had nothing to say about why we are here (if indeed that is a question that makes any sense). And it becomes clear that Davis has long ago abandoned his Anglican upbringing and is more interested in using science to attack the creationists. You might think it a waste of time to attack creationists, since Darwin’s theory is so well established, but Davis points out that 45 per cent of Americans say they believe the world was created exactly as described in the Bible.

Some religious adherents try to use “intelligent design” as an argument for the existence of a god. They say that each animal is so perfectly designed for its environment that only a god could have made it that way. Davis replies that if a penguin is descended from some sort of sparrow and a leopard seal from a bear-like creature – well, that’s a pretty funny way of going about designing a world.

In journalism these days, there’s a drive to “personalise” reportage. For example, a story about a drought might contain some alarming statistics but to really make the reader sit up and take notice you need to talk to a farming family who are suffering the consequences of the drought. This is what Davis has done in this book. As he says:

But knowing about something is not the same as believing it – this journey was testimony to that – and there is nothing quite like walking through the forests of southern Australia, New Zealand and South America to tip you from the hypothetical to the heretical: to see the distribution of life forms on this planet as a product of science, not God.

 

By telling his own personal story, and showing us the human side of Darwin, Davis makes the science interesting and understandable. That is a very worthwhile thing to do.

 

Bernard Carpinter is a one-time chemistry honours student, now a journalist in Napier.

 

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Posted in History, Natural History, Non-fiction and Review
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