Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

How important it is to walk along, not in haste, but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out

Yes! No!

– Mary Oliver

Almost everyone has heard about “Darwin’s Finches” — those dark little birds that live on the Galapagos Islands. But most people don’t realize that Darwin didn’t set eyes upon those birds until nearly the end of his five year journey. Additionally, when Darwin first stepped aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831, he was neither an ornithologist nor a professional scientist; instead, he was a 22-year-old beetle collector and an amateur naturalist with only a smattering of formal scientific training. Yet, because of the many challenges on his famous voyage, Darwin returned to England five years later as a “finished scientist” and further, as a fledgling biological visionary. What happened to Darwin during the intervening time? What did he see and experience during those five years that shaped his understanding of the natural world? How did he develop the insights necessary to propose natural selection as the basis for evolutionary change? Was Darwin’s philosophical transformation a sudden “eureka!” moment, or was it a gradual process? These are the themes explored in Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s charming and interesting new book; Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The improbable importance of everything and other lessons from Darwin’s lost notebooks (2006, Little, Brown and Company).

In her quest to document Darwin’s philosophical metamorphosis, Haupt relies on his published writings and also meticulously excavates his diaries, private correspondences, general specimen notes and even the pocket notebooks that he carried in the field. Even though Haupt brings us nose-to-nose with dung beetles, intestinal parasites, and tropical vegetation, the main focus of this book is Darwin’s observations of birds.

Certainly, Darwin never thought of himself as an ornithologist. Instead, he described himself as a geologist and he published books about a variety of topics, including marine invertebrates, earthworms and orchids. But less known was that during his famous journey, young Darwin also spent a fair amount of time observing birds, particularly Andean condors, hummingbirds and several South American rhea species, which he referred to in his notes as “ostriches”.

Because Haupt is a nature writer and an avid bird watcher, she brings a fresh and knowledgeable perspective to the literature by specifically investigating the key role of birds in the development of Darwin’s biological vision. This approach is tenable, especially for a general audience because, as Haupt explains;

Nearly everyone has a basic working knowledge of birds. I can mention that Darwin was observing a kind of pheasant, a bird the size of a robin, or even a specific bird, like an Andean condor, and be reasonably certain that my meaning will be met. I cannot say the same for discussions of marine invertebrates, reptiles, fossils of extinct mammals, or minerals [...]. Beyond this, though, there is a freshness in Darwin’s approach to birds that speaks to my purpose. With a minimum of preconceived ideas, without previous experience, and without expectations and intellectual constraints from his teachers, Darwin’s mind was allowed to soar unfettered. … It is little surprise that observations of birds would provide much of the best evidence for his theories.

Throughout the book, Haupt carefully selects specific passages from Darwin’s writings to provide the reader with glimpses into his growing delight with, as well as his deepening appreciation for, birds and their multidimensional, often subtle, relationship with the world. Haupt also explores related topics such as the importance of bird collections to ongoing scientific research, Darwin’s observations of physical changes in domestic pigeons due to human selective breeding, and even the evolution of Darwin’s spiritual and religious life.

For young Darwin, his journey of discovery was puzzling at times, however, Haupt’s lovely prose never is. She skillfully draws the reader along his path, pointing out seemingly small observations that later assume their full import in his published writings. Even though this book describes the personal side of an important scientific discovery, Haupt reveals timeless lessons for us, too. She reminds us of the joy to be found in living things, how we become truly alive with our attention to life’s details, that nothing in the natural world should be beneath our notice. Whether you are a bird lover, a naturalist or if you are curious about the personal evolution of scientists and their ideas, you will enjoy this book.

This is Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s second book. While you await the release of this book on 7 March 2006, you can read the first chapter online. Her first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds (2001, Sasquatch), won the Washington State Book Award. Haupt lives in Seattle.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt
    February 27, 2006

    Nice review. The book would appear to form a nice complement to “Voyage of the Beagle” as it concentrates on his South American field work.

    The subtitle phrase “the importance of everything” really strikes at the essence of Darwin for me. As you and the author note Darwin did not have formal training in ornithology – but because of his extraordinary powers of observation and concentration he was able to collect significant numbers of facts about birds, as he did with other subjects.

    I understand the author’s comment about everyone having a working knowledge of birds, as opposed to barnacles for example, and using this as a way to understand Darwin’s vision. I read Rebecca Stott’s “Darwin and the Barnacle” and the difference between dry, detailed descriptions of dissections and observing birds out in their natural habitat is a big one.

  2. #2 GrrlScientist
    March 1, 2006

    this book is also a fine companion to the Darwin exhibit that is currently showing at AMNH in NYC. i hope to be writing a review of that exhibit soon — due to factors beyond my control, i have not written this review even though i do have a pile of notes from those times that i’ve attended the exhibit.