Darwin a good example for us all, Durham says in Class Day address

Following is the text of the Class Day address, "Your voyage of discovery: Follow Darwin's lead and rock the planet," by William Durham, the Bing Professor of Human Biology, as prepared for delivery on Saturday, June 14, 2008.

L.A. Cicero Durham

Anthropologist William Durham delivered the Class Day address Saturday, June 14, in Maples Pavilion.

Thank you, and welcome to Class Day! I want to begin with heartfelt thanks to members of the Class of 2008. It has been a real joy to work with many of you over the last four years. I'm tempted to say you're my favorite class of all time—but let's decide that at the end of the lecture! It is indeed an honor to be with you this morning.

With classes done, exams done, grades done, the year done, all four years done (Mom and Dad, the tuition is done!), and you are all still here, this has got to be the best day of the year. So I'd like to take the best day of the year to talk about a favorite topic of mine involving person, a place and a process.

The person I'm going to talk about is Charles Darwin, an interesting and influential person. More has been said and written about Darwin than any other scientist, so he is certainly qualified for our purposes. The place I'm going to talk about is Galapagos: a remote, volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles west of Ecuador (to whom the islands belong). Any early name for Galapagos was Las Encantadas ("the Enchanted Islands"), and because of their unusual landscapes, flora and fauna, they still seem "enchanted."

The process I'm going to talk about is discovery: the quest for new knowledge. The ways we go about finding out—finding out new things about the world, the universe and our place within it. Symbolized by his role on the "Voyage of the Beagle" (shown in the slide working its way through Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America), Darwin was amazingly devoted to discovery and its lifelong pursuit.

At a time when our world seems plagued with big issues—global climate change, economic woes, energy and food shortages, the re-emergence of infectious diseases—discovery will be especially crucial to our future. We need Darwin-like dedication to discovery more than ever before. In this way, Charles Darwin is an extraordinarily good example for all of us.

As you can tell, we're experimenting with the Jumbotron today for these purposes. So where you may be expecting to see classmates like Candice Wiggins and Brook Lopez, you will see other examples of prowess, but at least we'll try to keep the same color scheme!

Why talk about Charles Darwin, who may seem "old school" in 2008 and a bit stodgy on a day of great merriment? I have three reasons. The first is simply to make sure you've had at least one lecture at Stanford on Darwin. Evolution literacy is at new lows in our country, and we must do our part to improve that. I am not asking for you to accept evolutionary thinking—that's for you to decide; my challenge is simply to make sure you've engaged with it.

The second reason to talk about Darwin is his coming "birthday party." Next academic year (2008-09) is the Charles Darwin Bicentennial, as he was born the same day as Abe Lincoln, February 12, 1809. The year will be marked with worthy, exciting events wherever you may go. Here on campus, for example, we're doing a special course in the fall called Darwin's Legacy—a look at his impact in natural science, medicine, social science and literature—in both the undergraduate and Continuing Studies curricula. And for alums, we're doing a whole host of Darwin-related travel/study programs. So wherever you go next year, watch for Darwin Bicentennial events as a way to update yourself on the topics.

But the main reason to talk about Darwin today is this: We often think of Darwin as the mature, wizened old guy, the prototypical establishment Victorian scientist. But Darwin's keen observations on the Beagle, his collection of many new species of flora and fauna, and his discovery of evolution all took place when he was 20-something. He was

22 years old when the Beagle sailed in 1831;

26 when he visited Galapagos for five weeks in 1835; and

28 (two years after Galapagos) when the insight struck and he became an evolutionist.

He did hesitate 22 years to admit publicly what he had figured out, so that it was only in 1859 (at age 50) that he published On the Origin of Species. But he was—just as you are—just out of college when he had the insights that, as many have said, "shook the world" in their reach and significance.

To get right to the heart of the matter, Darwin's earth-shaking realizations were two—and again, my goal is not to convince you of their veracity (you will have to do that for yourself) but to lay them out for you to think about:

(1) That vast collection of living organisms on planet Earth, past and present, are all related by descent from a common origin. In other words, all species of life as we know it are related in a giant tree-like pattern of unbroken descent.

(2) That this "descent with modification" of organisms—including all their diversification and all their adaptation—involved only natural processes; there is no evidence of supernatural agency. The wild and wonderful properties of living organisms have all been shaped, "designed" if you will, by biotic and abiotic natural processes.

You may be thinking that Darwin was exceptional, unusually gifted or a certified genius. Nothing could be further from the truth. In most ways, Darwin was quite ordinary. How then was he able to make such waves?

As we take a look at Darwin's life in the next few minutes, I will argue that it all comes down to five points—five points that may also be useful to you:

Nurture your curiosity.

Build on your strengths.

Keep yourself open to novelty.

Respect yet challenge the old paradigms (because you want sound reasons for changing them).

And by all means, get out and discover!


Charles was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England, to a rural physician and his wife, Susannah Wedgwood, of the famous pottery family. Charles ("Bobby," they called him) was the fifth of six children. He came into life with many advantages, including wealth because of his father's position as country doctor and entrepreneurial spirit. The father, Robert, had particular influence on Charles because his mother died when he was only 8.

Bobby's problems began early in life, and intensified with every effort to meet his father's expectations. Consider, first, Darwin's difficulties as a young schoolboy. He just could not put his heart into classroom learning. After his mother's death, he was put up as a boarding student at the Shrewsbury School, where his attitude was almost completely apathetic and callous toward education. It was so bad that Darwin was later to write (page numbers are from Darwin's Autobiography, edited by his granddaughter, Nora Barlow, in 1958):

"Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler's school. … The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank … [and] I believe I was considered by all my masters and by my Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect." (27-28)

Outside of class, he had quite a few interests. He was already a collector, and "collected all sorts of things" (shells, coins and minerals among them) and enjoyed figuring out the names of plants.

"In the latter part of school life I became passionately fond of shooting … [especially birds, mentions the excitement over his first snipe]. This taste long continued and I became a very good shot." (44)

He enjoyed working with hunting dogs and became something of a birder: "In my simplicity I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist." (45)

Darwin's father was an imposing figure. Darwin wrote about him, "He was about 6 feet 2 inches in height, with broad shoulders and very corpulent, so that he was the largest man I ever saw. When he last weighed himself, he was 24 stone (336 pounds) but afterwards increased much in weight." (28)

His father noticed the young boy's lack of enthusiasm for formal schooling: "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." (28)

College years

"As I was doing no good at school, my father wisely took me away at a rather earlier age than usual, and sent me [age 16] to Edinburgh University with my brother." (46) Like his brother, Erasmus, Charles was supposed to begin the study of medicine and thus follow in Robert's footsteps. He joined a natural science club, studied zoology among other subjects and kept shooting. During summers he visited his cousins the Wedgwoods (he especially liked cousin Hensleigh and some of the girls), shot partridges in their forests and became quite fond of Uncle Jos (Josiah Wedgwood)—"an upright man with the clearest judgement." (56)

I don't know whether you will find it comforting or not, but in fact, Darwin couldn't handle the "premed" curriculum of the time! His epiphany came when, as a premed, he sat as observer to "two very bad [surgical] operations, [including] one on a child … and rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so." (48) (Remember, this was back in the days before ether or chloroform.) From this moment, the young Darwin was sure he could never practice medicine.

After two years, his father figured out he was not going to be a physician and proposed he should become a clergyman instead: "[My Father] was very properly vehement against my turning [into] an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination." (56)


Robert then sent Charles off to Cambridge in 1828, where he studied for three years. Remarkably, he still showed little sustained interest in any academic subject. However, his boyhood interest in natural history had developed at Cambridge into a veritable passion for collecting beetles. As he put it,

"No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions." (62)

Nevertheless, Darwin held to the plan of divinity studies advocated by his father, and in 1831 (now age 22) passed the examination for the BA degree without honors. He agreed to return to Cambridge later in 1831 to begin specialized studies to enter the Church and become a clergyman. But that summer, a letter from his botany professor and mentor, John Henslow, was to forever change all that. It was about a trip on a surveying ship "to Tierra del Fuego [of South America] and home by the East Indies."

Henslow, a prominent and lively figure among Cambridge academics, had been asked by the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy, to recommend a young naturalist and companion who might join the voyage. Henslow thought Darwin to be "the very man they are in search of." Darwin jumped at the chance.

But, of course, there remained a major barrier: Darwin's imposing father! In despair at yet another derailing of his errant son, wondering if Charles would ever settle down to a respectable career, and expressing the concerns any parent would have over disaster, shipwreck and disease, the elder Robert declined to allow his son to go. The voyage was scheduled to last two years, and this would mean two years further delay in getting Charles to settle down! (Little did Robert know that the voyage would actually take five years.)

But trying his very best to be reasonable about it, Robert left open the door: "If you can find any man of common sense," he said, "who advises you to go, I will give my consent." (71)

The appropriate person, Charles knew, was his uncle Josiah Wedgwood (brother-in-law to Robert). Darwin went to see Wedgwood, who not only supported the idea but wrote back to Darwin's father that the offer was certainly "honorable," and "the pursuit of Natural History, though certainly not professional, is very suitable to a Clergyman."

At this time, you will recall, there was no apparent disharmony between science and religion. Science, in a sense, was religion. A prevalent view of the time, called "natural theology," held that the world was so full of design—in the diversity and adaptations of organisms—that each organism must have been specially and divinely created. One could study the Creator, in other words, through his creations.

But there is another intriguing possibility that we might note: Darwin was 22, and Josiah had a lovely daughter just a few months older named Emma! It is speculative, but worth pondering, whether Josiah wanted also to send Charles off on a ship and away from his daughter for a voyage of at least two years' duration. In any event, Charles knew that his father would have to accept the endorsement of Uncle Jos, and it worked.

The voyage of the Beagle

It took some doing to pass FitzRoy's scrutiny, and then there were a couple of false starts due to bad weather. But Darwin finally sailed with the Beagle on the 27th of December, 1831, when Darwin was 22 years of age.

The trip took far longer than expected, surveying and mapping the southern coast of South America. Indeed it was already two years into the voyage—roughly at the time they initially expected to return, that the Beagle began to venture up the western side of South America. And it was only late in the fourth year of the voyage, September 1835, that the Beagle arrived in Galapagos.

In retrospect, the delay worked enormously to Darwin's advantage. It gave him time to read and think, on such works as Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. And perhaps more important, it gave Darwin a prolonged prep course on the flora and fauna of mainland South America. He had already seen the mainland animals—the tortoises, iguanas, mockingbirds and grassquits (small, finch-like birds)—and observed the likes of sea lions, fur seals and frigatebirds.

At last, four years into the voyage, the Beagle arrived in Galapagos, and Darwin was surprised to find a hot desert environment, full of cacti and reptiles, where he had expected lush tropical vegetation. There were tortoises to be sure: same genus as on the mainland, only these were giant. There were also iguanas: two species in fact, resembling in general features (general shape, clawed feet, crest on the back, etc.) the green iguanas of the South American coast. But the Galapagos iguanas were different! One was terrestrial, cactus-eating and a dirty brown in color. The other iguana was black, sometimes with red splotches. But the black and red iguana is also aquatic! Darwin observed that it feeds on seaweed on the ocean floor, and snorts the excess salt from its nose! An aquatic, seaweed-eating iguana? Tortoises so large that it took five or six men to haul each one back aboard the Beagle for food? And finches and other land birds in great abundance and diversity, out here in the middle of the ocean?

Darwin was clearly floored by the unusual flora and fauna of Galapagos. On the one hand, these were familiar kinds of organisms. Darwin recognized many, at least to the "family" or "genus" level. But he also repeatedly noted, in growing notebooks that he worked on daily, that while they resembled the organisms of the mainland in general features and "character," they were also peculiar. They were unique to Galapagos in many of their detailed features! This was certainly the peak of Darwin's intellectual exploration on board the Beagle.

Of this experience, Darwin later wrote:

"[One can readily] see that this archipelago, though standing in the Pacific Ocean, is zoologically part of America. If this character were owing merely to immigrants from America, there would be little remarkable in it; but we see that a vast majority of all the land animals, and more than half of the flowering plants, are aboriginal productions. It was most striking to be surrounded by new birds, new reptiles, new shells, new insects, new plants, and yet by innumerable trifling details of structure, and even by the tones and voice and plumage of the birds, to have the plains of Patagonia, or the hot dry deserts of Northern Chile, vividly brought [again] before my eyes. Why on these small points of land [recently formed] … why were their aboriginal inhabitants … created on American types of organization?"

Darwin's perspicacity and detailed observations of the flora and fauna of Galapagos have given rise to the view that this was another "Eureka!" moment in the history of science. That like Archimedes in the bath, Darwin stepped ashore in Galapagos, and realized (a) that life had evolved and differentiated from a common original ancestor, and (b) that natural selection had been the principal agent of that evolution.

Nothing could be further from the truth! Indeed, several independent lines of evidence show that Darwin had no such eureka moment in Galapagos. Yes, he was definitely provoked by what he saw there. And yes, he was able to collect many specimens that would later prove crucial to the development of his theory and explanation.

But no, the evolutionary significance of Galapagos did not appear to Darwin in a sudden flash of insight in the islands. The Beagle left the Galapagos, sailed westward to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and eventually on back to Falmouth, England, in October 1836. Evidence indicates that Darwin was puzzled by his Galapagos collections on the journey back, but that it was not until 1837 that he was persuaded of the descent relationship among similar species, and it was not until 1838—two full years after Galapagos—that the idea of natural selection dawned on him.

Back in England, Darwin appropriately asked for help from British scientists to sort out and help identify new species from his collections. For example, he asked ornithologist John Gould if he would help with the land birds. There exists in the archives of Cambridge University some notes in Darwin's hand, written about the second week of March 1837 (about 18 months after Galapagos), that record Darwin's surprise when Gould insisted the Galapagos collection contained 13 species of finches, all new to zoology. To have so much diversity in such a small and remote archipelago was astounding. And to have so many of the species look like "variations on the same theme" was to raise profound questions for the 28-year-old. He wondered to himself if new species could have "sprung from a common source" in Galapagos.

In July of 1837 Darwin began a notebook with his ruminations on the "transmutation of species," as he called it. And in that notebook Darwin one day sketched the first tree-like diagram for the diversification of life. The diagram is stunningly simple: It suggests that genera of related species are formed when one species branches in space and time into descendant species. Suddenly, the similarity of finches on remote, isolated islands made sense. Darwin was later to write, "Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that one species had been taken and modified for different ends." (Voyage of the Beagle, 1845 edition)


Looking back over Darwin's life, I would say that the takeaway lessons are these:

(1) Discovery was Darwin's number one passion. We might poke fun at his obsession with beetle collecting, but look what he did with it. As it broadened over time to a love of natural history generally, he was able to draw earthshaking conclusions from fairly simple, patient observations of variation and diversity.

(2) Darwin's intellectual exploration as a 22-to-27-year-old—his Beagle voyage of discovery—was the inspirational origin of his life's work. You are about to embark on that period in your own lives: May it be every bit as exciting and rewarding for you. May it lead you to new insights and paradigms. May you have the strength and persistence, like Darwin, to push on when you haven't a clue what it all means. Just think: Something like what Darwin did could happen to you!

(3) Another point: Even when he got to Galapagos and was struck by its unusual flora and fauna, he didn't immediately realize what he had found and why it was important. But he collected, he made some notes (not always careful ones), and he wondered about it. Darwin's ambition was simple: It was not fame or fortune (though some fame did follow years later). It was to explain observed phenomena. Making sense of what you find in the world can be the most important part of all.

(4) Darwin shows that you don't have to be exceptional to make a difference in the world, but you have to be persistent. He made mistakes, big ones at that. "I never dreamed," he later wrote, "that islands so close together could be differently tenanted." He forgot—or didn't bother—to write island names on many of his collection tags. But still he persisted, and persistence paid off. He came to a theory that was to have a huge and far-reaching influence on intellectual and scientific history. Some have called it simply "the best idea ever." In addition, he showed that you don't have to go it alone. Seek help and collaborators! Let others help you. And do keep in touch with your mentors.

So I urge you all to try Darwin's formula, for this world certainly needs the help of your discoveries. It's not enough to read and think: You have to get out there, give it a try, keep discovering—and like Darwin, rock your world!

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