In Search of the “Strong Ideas of Sciene”

Veronica Hanus

Every week, I write to a man who has been dead for 150 years. Strange as this may sound, it’s actually quite normal if, that is, you are in Darwin and the Age of Discovery with Prof. Connie Soja. The course, offered as one of Colgate’s Core Distinction classes, seeks to explore the extent to which Darwin’s theory of natural selection had shaped the culture of the Victorian Era and continues to reach out to a vast variety of disciplines today. To this end, each student is required to write a term paper discussing the effect of Darwin’s ideas on some topic of interest within their discipline.

The thirteen of us include concentrators in Biology, English, Japanese, Art, Classics and Geology, and have spent the semester in lively seminar discussions — lively, in part because almost every one of us is working to become an “expert” in a different field.

But we do more than sit around and talk about Darwin. We are, indeed, trying to understand the time in which Darwin lived and what influenced and guided his thoughts. To get as close to our topic as possible, we have hopped into a Colgate van twice for early morning field trips. A’la Miss Frizzle from the Magic Schoolbus, Prof. Soja had us down on our hands and knees collecting and classifying fossils in a nearby quarry. She couldn’t literally take us back in time, as Miss Frizzle might have done, but we were able to deduce the character of the environment that was there 375 million years ago by observing fossils we found.

At every turn, we write to our old friend Mr. Darwin, describing our class discussions, our reactions to the readings, and detailing (sometimes with great hilarity) the innovations that have come about since his death. One of the parts I found most exciting was speaking to Darwin’s great-great-grandson, who, having studied Darwin carefully, appeared to have become very close to Mr. Darwin, just as my classmates and I were hoping to. Mr. Darwin said I could share one of our letters with you, and I can think of no better way to share the adventure that my classmates and I have gone on this semester. In the letter, I describe to Mr. Darwin our conversation with his great-great-grandson:

My Dear Darwin,

You would be so proud of your great-great-grandson, Mr. Randal Keynes! My whole class spoke to him just today via teleconference.

Randal, like you, is straightforward and modest. There was nothing “flashy” in his presentation, and when he did not feel he could speak for you, he simply told us that he didn’t know. Just like you were willing to admit the limitations of your ideas, occasionally Randal told us “That is a very good question — one that I have pondered myself — and I do not yet have a definite answer [to].” He was especially careful to insist that we not refer to the “truth” of science, saying instead that he preferred to ponder the “strong ideas of science.”

Several students mentioned how impressive Randal’s sincere interest in you and your life is. He has written a book, titled Annie’s Box, detailing life at Down House, with great emphasis on the importance of Annie to you and the family. Randal feels that to truly understand and appreciate your theories, we should understand the man from whom they came, and that it is worthwhile to understand how you thought. In its reading, my classmates and I felt that we were able to come to know you as a person. We were touched to hear your relationships with your wife, your children, and your servants. I believe we have only begun to understand how you puzzled over the mysteries of nature along your “thinking path.” However, the image of you as a patient, careful scientist who allowed his inquiries to permeate every aspect of his life is firmly embedded in our minds, and we have come, as Randal before us, to admire you greatly.

A friend of mine, after listening to my excited chatter for several minutes, stopped me and asked why it was that I was so interested in a man because of his genes. I laughed and said, “My dear friend, don’t you know that that is what sexual selection is all about? Interest in other’s genes?” I then gave him the real reasons for my enthusiasm about the conversation. I had been reading much about natural and sexual selection, thanks in part to your writings, my dear friend, and I thought my comment was worthy of a chuckle. Thankfully, the pun was taken well. I’ve collected a few wary looks when bringing up evolution in conversations with friends. Perhaps you will understand, or can empathize with those misunderstood. Joking aside, I didn’t want my friend to think I was intrigued by Randal Keynes because of his genetic connection to you, because there were far more important things that sparked my interest.

Most impressive to me was his intense interest in you and his avid determination that your ideas be preserved. He was very respectful of you and took few liberties when projecting your ideas on issues that have arisen since your death. We were, of course, all very eager to know what your would think about the internet, cloning, and global climate change. I believe that Randal answered our questions well. His statements that you would have been eager to use any technology that enhanced communication amongst your colleagues but wary of any human attempts to speed or tamper with evolutionary processes are consistent with the readings we have been discussing all semester. Our confidence in Randal continued to build as the conversation progressed, and we wondered if he had always sought to understand you.

Randal did not always know that he wanted to study you or to write about your life. In fact, it sounds like he was rather content to avoid subjects where his ancestry would affect people’s perceptions of him and his work. He specifically told us that he had avoided economics because of his surname and the judgment that he knew would come from that. While we did not ask if he had considered science as a career path, I suspect that, just like he avoided economics, the presence of so many scientists in his ancestry made him want to strike out on his own. Similar to yourself in this regard, he wanted no extraordinary treatment and hoped to have his work judged on its merit.

For me the most striking part of our conversation occurred when he told the story of his grandmother’s gift. When he received Annie’s box from his grandmother, his feelings changed — now he knew he must share his experience. I’ve always been quite fascinated whenever someone says he felt “compelled” or “called” to do something.

Randal explained to us that you spent years after Annie’s death contemplating the idea of divine providence, and unable to find reasoning by God in life’s events, decided to stop looking for a plan that could not be deciphered and might not exist. I have actually had a similar struggle myself, and I still cannot answer the question: “Does God have a plan for us?” I myself have concluded that divine intervention or random chance need not make a difference.

To hear Randal say that he felt compelled to write about you and your family after receiving your accounts of Annie’s illness touched me deeply. His experience certainly explains the passion with which he spoke to us and the painstaking research he has done in the last several years. The depth of his research is remarkable considering he spent the majority of his life content in his knowledge of the family and happily willing to describe his interest in your Voyage of the Beagle as “enjoyment.” I sensed he had no deep interest in your work until he was given the box approximately ten years ago. Yet he speaks with the same “strength of purpose” that he describes you as having. What a remarkable change.

He reminded me so much of you that at the end of the interview, I asked if he felt his connection with so many great scientists had affected the way he solved problems. He explained that he had spent a great deal of time “getting to know” you and that he feels that he and others that study you can “enter your mind” and find a greater understanding of your work. He encouraged us to see you as a companion, as he does. What a wonderful relationship you have with your great-great-grandson! My congratulations to you, for I believe he is a remarkable person who is in many ways shaped by his knowledge of you. You have reason to be proud.