The Days of Darwin

I miss the days of Darwin.

Of course, I wasn’t alive during those days, not even as an inkling of an idea in someone’s head (although, figuratively, bits and pieces of my genes were already floating about in my great-great…great-grandparents).  But Darwin’s words, his beautiful descriptions of traveling and exploring and his outrageous perceptions of the “natives” of Tierra del Fuego, and the realization that he spent months at a time on board a ship with all its inherent dangers just for the sake of science amazes me.  I wish I could be right there with him, meeting the “natives” covered in feathers and paint and wondering if they might be hostile, sleeping in “blanket-bags” on a pebbly shore, and observing “the lofty mountains on the north side [that] compose the granitic axis, or backbone of the country and boldly rise to a height of between three and four thousand feet”. (I also wish I could describe mountains poetically as lofty without being laughed out of a science classroom, but we do live in a different time…).

Today’s science seems to lack the excitement and unpredictability of Darwin’s world, back before our technology and laboratory practices sterilized the scientific method. Ecology to Darwin meant going out into nature and actually examining an ecosystem, while today, sure, someone has to go collect the bugs. But then they’re dissected and the parts mashed up to extract DNA, and DNA (basically clean marks on paper, with no trace of the way an organism lives, breathes, eats, reproduces, climbs trees, swims in water…) becomes the focus. (I do realize that I’m speaking specifically of organismal ecology here, but this approach, of exchanging macro for micro, seems fairly universal). Perhaps my dissatisfaction arises from perspective: as someone who studies biology but doesn’t work in the field; or as a person who uses medicine but doesn’t watch its creation; and especially as someone who knows intellectually that Darwin’s experiences were probably not as majestic and entertaining as his writing makes it out to be, but wants to experience it anyway.

However, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want our scientific advances to disappear. The disinfected nature of science today serves an important role in scientific validity of data, the health of organisms on our planet (especially in the health-sciences), and more.  The emphasis on the micro, rather than macro, leads to so many discoveries not apparent to the naked eye. I think Darwin would agree, no matter the disappearance of the literal down-to-earth scientific method.  But I also think this influences my desire to read books like Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, or watch movies like Michael Bay’s The Island (though cinematic masterpiece it is not).  I can see the prototypical dirty underbelly of disinfected worlds through dystopian entertainment medium. I can live an explorer/scientist’s life vicariously in an older time, before the advent of technology.  Past or present, fact or fiction, I can find excitement and emotion, dirty and raw emotion, in science “known” for being cold.

-Saraswati

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~ by wisdomtooth13 on February 10, 2012.

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