Preparing to be Charles Darwin is always demanding. It requires at least an hour just to get into costume—putting on the beard alone takes some thirty minutes. However, it is mentally becoming Darwin that is most difficult, for I must suppress my own identity and think as Darwin would—not imagine being Darwin but really think and react as Darwin would were he with us here and now.
In the theater, this is called “The Method,” perhaps best realized by Marlon Brando. I prepared for this performance over a period of three years, reading everything Darwin wrote that was available, including the four-volume From So Simple a Beginning edited by E.O. Wilson. I’ve read On the Origin of Species three times and some twenty or thirty other books by or about Darwin. When people proudly announce, as so many do, “I don’t believe in evolution,” I politely reply, “Neither do I. No one believes in evolution. Evolution is science. It is not about believing in anything. We either know and understand—which is why you have these electric lights and can expect to live beyond the age of forty—or we are in the process of knowing and understanding.” The novel Origins gave me some dialogue to use in the most popular of our four shows—Darwin Remembers. I do not have any sort of script, only some cues for the actors playing my wife, Emma, professors, father, sisters, Fitzroy, and Huxley. In our weekly cable television show, I just am Charles Darwin.
As Darwin, I say that I started the voyage of The Beagle explaining, much to the amusement of the sailors, all that we experienced in biblical terms but ended those five years questioning everything I thought I knew. And this is why science is so difficult. I know firsthand, as do all scientists, that it is not easy thinking, and perhaps we should consider the possibility that we can never expect everyone—or even most— to think in that fashion.
After a performance at a local Unitarian church, an obviously desperate woman asked me, “But surely there is some spiritual aspect to being human?”
I answered, “No, there is not.” I refused to give her that semblance of hope she sought. “We are living creatures and we shall die and vanish just as do all others.”
My wife, Emma, reacted in much the same way when, in the solitude of Downe House, I read to her an excerpt of the Origin manuscript that I kept hidden in my desk drawer. I needed some sort of reaction from a nonscientist. Well, she was much disturbed that she would not be able to join me forever in the afterlife. After that, I locked my desk drawer, leaving instructions that it should not be published until after my death. After my death, Emma censored my autobiography and other documents so as to not disturb our friends. I had nightmares that after publication mobs would drag me out of bed and hang me from the nearest tree. I think that is more likely to happen now than during my time.
One individual asked me about the almost eight years I spent studying barnacles. Why? Well, because so little was known about this rather ordinary creature and because that is what a scientist should be doing. In this long, meticulous, and often tiresome study, I became a true scientist. I had specimens sent from all over the world. I spent so much time that when my children visited other children, they would ask to see their room with the barnacles. How many people can focus almost all their energy and time on such an endeavor? It has required almost all of human history for a few to achieve the sort of discipline and concentration that created science. Can you imagine how Emma would react to the discoveries I made and to the experiences I had? Not only do barnacles change sex, but, on one female I studied, four males had embedded in her body and become nothing more than tubes of spermatozoa; that was their entire existence. I could have never shared the knowledge of the wasp that lays on the body of a caterpillar its eggs that devour it from the inside out when they hatch. Or the sight of sea-turtle hatchlings rushing toward the sea being gobbled by hundreds of predators both on the beach and in the water; out of a nest of a hundred or more, only one or two survive. Or the minute fish in the Amazon that will swim up a man’s urine stream into his penis and then proceed to chew through his abdomen while he dies in supreme agony. Or the fact that half of human conceptions are aborted but called miscarriages. Or that nine out of ten cells in our bodies are not human. And how many babies are born with tails and more than two nipples—six in some cases, all in neat rows down their chests.
When we present this true reality to others, can we expect them to just find it interesting? Or are they horrified? It would be much like opening a fortune cookie and reading a truly accurate fortune—“You will grow old and ugly and die, if you are lucky.” And then there is the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland who runs as fast as she can but barely stays where she is, like us in the battle we continue to have with the oldest creatures on Earth, whose sole purpose is to devour us inside out. These bacteria and viruses are out-evolving us and are kept in check only because of those few who practice science. Often, I will attempt to give the large picture of my work in a simple analogy: we are not much different than a flower. We sprout, grow quickly, become beautiful and fertile, reproduce, and rapidly go to seed.
I also remind my audience members that their common sense is not really good enough to understand this reality. The Earth looks flat. It isn’t. Am I standing on the bottom or top? There isn’t a bottom or top. The Sun comes up, moves across the sky, and sets. No it doesn’t. The Earth is moving and the Sun is stationary. Galileo got in big trouble for that one. The communications satellite appears to hang stationary in the sky, but it is actually moving as fast the Earth’s rotation. Why doesn’t it fall? It is falling, but, since the Earth curves, we say it’s in orbit. There must be “something” beyond this world. No, there does not have to be something. There has to be a creator, a mover. No, there does not, and we do not have any evidence for such. And, there is nothing intelligent about our design. In fact our design is a perfect example of evolution. Then what’s the point? There is no point!
I went through this questioning myself when my precious Annie died in my arms at age ten. After that, I no longer accompanied Emma to church. I knew for sure then that there was no loving benefactor anywhere in this world or the universe I was just beginning to understand. What obviously existed was the struggle to survive that I had observed. That for me to survive to age seventy-three was more than I could have hoped for. That my life appears to have had some significance was really beyond my dreams. After the voyage of The Beagle, all I ever wanted was to become a scientist, to have a clear mind searching after evidence and achieving understanding, and become a seeker of the truth. The only message we can hope to pass on after our demise is what science has achieved, how it has transformed all our lives, and how much more there is to know and understand. There are no true alternatives, just a desperate longing for some hope to be spared, to be exempt from the reality we have finally come to know. We are primitive swamp creatures forever connected to our evolution. We must accept that we shall have to do battle with that primeval early ancestor both in ourselves and against others. Can we expect others to understand and accept this? Probably not—probably never!