Class Day speaker says discovery is critical to personal and planetary future

L.A. Cicero William Durham

William Durham, the Bing Professor of Human Biology, said discovery was Darwin’s number one passion and explaining it was his goal. Durham then listed several take-away lessons from Darwin’s life.

"Why talk about Charles Darwin?"

That was the question William Durham posed early in his Class Day lecture Saturday at Maples Pavilion, following a short preamble congratulating the graduating seniors and their parents.

"At a time when our world seems plagued with big issues and problems—global climate change, economic woes, energy and food shortages, the re-emergence of infectious diseases—discovery will play an especially crucial role in our future," said Durham, the Bing Professor of Human Biology. "We need Darwin-like dedication more than ever to the process of discovery. Darwin will be a good example for all of us."

But to use Darwin as an inspiration for one's own voyage of discovery, it is crucial to know the facts from the misconceptions about him, Durham said. It's also critical to understand evolution.

Noting that fewer than 50 percent of Americans currently accept evolution, he cited a 1999 survey done by a Stanford honors student asking students in line at the Stanford Bookstore about their thoughts on evolution. Eighty percent of the queried students responded that they thought modern evolutionary theory had a valid scientific foundation. But when asked to choose an explanation of how evolution works from among several short statements, over half of them chose wrong answers. One of the most popular wrong answers was that evolution was "purposeful striving toward higher forms."

"If over 50 percent of Stanford students in 1999 could not give a good definition of evolution, you know we have an evolution [literacy] problem," Durham said.

The bulk of Durham's message to the graduates, though, was uplifting and optimistic, including his mention of the upcoming celebrations in 2009 for the bicentennial of Darwin's birth. "We wouldn't want you to miss out on events next year, so watch for them wherever your voyage of discovery takes you," he said.

Another reason he chose to talk about Darwin, he said, is because of the image many people have of him as a white-bearded old evolutionist—the way he appears in photographs taken during his later years.

"We think of Darwin as a wizened old guy, the prototypical Victorian scientist," Durham said.

In truth, he said, "Darwin was a young man when he did his important work. He was 22 when the Beagle set sail. He was all of 26 for his important observations in the Galapagos. The work of a 20-something changed the world forever. …

"Darwin was just out of college when he made the key observations, discovered evolution, and my point to the Class of 2008 is that that could happen to you," Durham said, sparking enthusiastic applause, along with a few approving hoots and whistles.

"His book has been called the book that shook the world. And you know, when you boil it all down, it is so simple," Durham said. "So simple and profound. …

"All living organisms past and present are related by descent, by historical derivation from a common source. Second, their diversification and adaptation are the result of natural, not supernatural, processes," he said.

That Darwin was able to develop his theories in the age before genetics does not mark him as a genius, Durham said. "In many respects, Darwin was extraordinarily ordinary."

Durham recounted Darwin's early failures with higher education, when he dropped out of the premedical curriculum at Edinburgh University, then attended divinity school at Cambridge, only to spend most of his time collecting beetles.

Despite being distracted, he did manage to graduate from Cambridge, though without honors, as Durham noted. Then, through a botany professor who had mentored him, Darwin received the offer of the voyage aboard the Beagle. "Keep in touch with your adviser" is the lesson to be learned from that anecdote, Durham added.

Darwin's father opposed the voyage, and only through his uncle wading in on his behalf against his father's protestations was Darwin able to go. Thus began the multi-year voyage that lead to his formulating the theory of evolution.

Durham expounded on the unusual animals Darwin encountered in the Galapagos Islands, from immense tortoises to both land and marine iguanas and, of course, the ever-popular blue-footed booby.

"You can't leave Stanford until you've had a lecture about boobies, and I wanted Mom and Dad to be here for it," Durham said. He also touched on the red-footed and white-footed, or Nazca, boobies.

It took Darwin another two years after his visit to the Galapagos Islands to formulate his theory of evolution, and it took the help of other naturalists for him to sort out the species that were the basis of the theory. Even after he developed his theory, it was another 22 years before he published it.

Discovery was Darwin's number one passion and explaining it his goal, Durham said, and then listed several take-away lessons from Darwin's life:

"Explain what you find."

"Darwin's ambition was simple: to explain what he found. Making sense of what you find can be the most important part of a voyage of discovery, a most important part of a lifetime of discovery, making sense of the data at hand."

"You don't have to be exceptional, but you do have to be persistent."

"If there is a lesson from Darwin, it's that persistence pays off. An ordinary boy at school, unusual obsession with beetles, maybe, but that turns into this persistent pursuit of collections and data that led to something substantial."

"Don't go it alone, seek other collaborators. Let others help you. And of course, keep in touch with your mentors."

"I like to think of Stanford as an archipelago: that our departments are like the islands that you may have wandered in and taken a class and said, 'Well, I didn't understand this one,' and wandered to another island, another department. It may take you a while to figure out what it all means, but like Darwin, we hope those lessons and those visits to those islands will stay with you," he said.

"Keep discovering and rock your world."

Sterling Award

Provost John Etchemendy, who opened the proceedings, congratulated Jonathan Julio Jourdane, who won the J. E. Wallace Sterling Award, given annually by the Alumni Association to a senior whose undergraduate activities demonstrate the strong potential for continued service to the university and the alumni community. The award was presented to him at a dinner on May 21. At Sunday's Commencement ceremony, Jourdane was presented with the Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding service to undergraduate education.