Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Charles Darwin was the poster child for that cliché. He signed on for a two-year trip around the world. It took five. He signed on to survey the geology of the new world. He ended up writing the most important biology book of all time. |
No one would have thought Darwin was destined for greatness. He dropped out or flunked out of medical school because he had no stomach for cutting things open. He would spend the last fifty years of his life dissecting everything from barnacles to bipeds. He was an irreligious in a religious time. Today he’d be labeled an agnostic or an atheist. Nevertheless, he studied for the clergy.
In Darwin’s time, biology, geology, and astronomy weren’t sciences. They were branches of “natural theology,” the province of the church. They were observational activities: cataloging the results of God’s busy week (Genesis 1). That kind of activity appealed to him. Darwin signed on for a two-year tour as the geologist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. The trip lasted five.
Darwin’s geological discoveries contributed to the growing body of evidence that the earth was not stagnant—set in stone that one Tuesday ten thousand years before. He found fossilized beds of seashells in the Andes miles above sea level. That didn’t fit. He found fossilized remains of animals no one had ever seen. That didn’t fit. Maybe the earth wasn’t fixed, but changed slowly over time.
It wasn’t just the geology and the fossils, Darwin noticed the variations among related plant and animal species and asked why. Thinking about them led him to his celebrated theory: natural selection. More are born than can be sustained. Those with an advantage live to pass their advantage on. He conceived the theory early on, but the great scientist in him bid him wait. Twenty-three years of study and experiments accumulated data that validated his hypothesis before he published the results. He would have waited longer and built an even stronger case, but another scientist had reached the same conclusion. To have labored twenty-three years and be scooped. No way! He rushed to publish and then spent the rest of his life adding to his five hundred page “abstract.”
With his book, Darwin forever changed the world. He has been named the sixteenth most influential person in the world—after the likes of Mohamed, Buddha, and Christ, Newton, Galileo, and Einstein. He is recognized as the fourth greatest Englishman of all time; his image has appeared on a British two pound commemorative coin, and on the British ten pound note. He lived the simple life of a country gentleman, and ended up buried in Westminster Abbey among Great Britain’s greatest men. He is the namesake of geneses and species, of research institutes, colleges and universities, of parks, cities, and bodies of water. Not bad for a commoner and a gentleman farmer.
Who knows what he might have been if he had followed his original plan? Probably nobody. Not even a footnote in history.
Lives can turn out great without a plan.
Woodrow Wilson is a Caltech PhD. He has stood on the shoulders of giants to reach for the stars. He has known giants well enough to know their human sides. On his own human side, Wilson is a Toastmaster, a cook, and an author. He speaks about cooking and writing. He has published “The Champagne Taste/Beer Budget Cookbook” Visit his web site to learn more about him.
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Charles Darwin, natural selection, the origin of species, biology, geology, fossils,