Eureka: Collecting the Origin

Almost everybody, regardless of what side they favor in the culture wars, knows that Charles Darwin was the first scientist to come up with the theory of evolution. At least, they think they do. In fact, lots of people had the general idea long before Darwin, including his own grandfather. We remember Darwin not because he was first, but because he made the strongest case, thanks in large part to that most basic of hobbies, stamp collecting.

While Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist has been sighted in the wild, the official release date isn't until next week. So, if you're still waiting, here's a final video to help pass the time-- and this one's for the biologists, turning Ernest Rutherford's famous taxonomy of science around to make it a compliment to stamp collectors.

As usual, this was shot in the Union College digital studio, with the assistance of Khaleef Knowles. I edited it together, using as many of my own photos as I could, which is why you get several shots of SteelyKid with domestic animals, and a bunch of her toys. The approximate text is appended below, though as usual I ad-libbed a few changes.

I toyed with the idea of a fourth video, to pick up a chapter from the "Telling" section of the book, too, but it's not really possible without getting into image rights issues that I'd rather not have to bother with. These have been fun to make, but I'm not going to launch a regular video series to compete with Veritasium and Minute Physics and the rest any time soon-- it's a ton of work. I have the utmost admiration for the folks who do this on a regular basis.

I hope these are enjoyable and informative, and give you a sense of what the book is like. If you'd like to read more stuff like these, well, the book is available, or will be shortly. If you'd like to hear it live, drop me a line; I'm happy to go places and give talks.


Collecting the Origin

Charles Darwin is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic scientists in history. To combatants in the culture wars, he appears as either a sort of scientific saint, or the embodiment of evil. And everybody on both sides knows that he’s the guy who invented the idea of evolution when he published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Only, he’s not. The idea that living things evolve pre-dates Darwin, by a mile. His own grandfather wrote poetry promoting evolution in the 1790’s, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had published a complete theory of evolution around the time Charles was born. Darwin wasn’t even the first evolutionist to hit the best-seller lists—a sensational pro-evolution book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, was a runaway hit in the 1840’s.

So why does everyone remember Darwin as the father of evolution, while the others are mostly forgotten? The answer is surprisingly ordinary: it all comes down to stamp collecting.

Okay, not literally stamps. “Stamp collecting” is a convenient stand-in for collecting hobbies in general—the amassing of large numbers of different varieties of some general type of object. This takes all sorts of forms—people collect trading cards, books, china bells, art and antiques. Almost everybody has at one time been a collector of something, even if it’s just a bunch of interesting-looking rocks found in the driveway.

Charles Darwin was a great collector of observations about the natural world. As a young man, he signed on to the famous voyage of the HMS Beagle, and spent five years collecting plants and animals, rocks and fossils up and down the coasts of South America. After returning to England, he spent the next twenty years on a country estate, breeding pigeons, dissecting barnacles, and discussing animal breeding with rural neighbors and renowned experts. He amassed a vast collection of little observations, and studied the patterns that emerged when he put all that information together.

When it came time to write his book, then, Charles Darwin had a huge advantage over earlier evolutionary thinkers. Where earlier writers relied heavily on vague metaphysical speculation, he brought a mountain of data. In the first chapter alone, he cites observations regarding ducks, cows, goats, cats, sheep, pigs, dogs, cattle, donkeys, guinea fowl, reindeer, camels, rabbits, ferrets, horses, geese, and peacocks, along with at least ten named breeds of pigeons to illustrate the effects of animal breeding. He also cites work from at least 24 other sources, ranging from other scientists, to noted animal breeders, to the Roman writer Pliny and the book of Genesis. All of this while regularly apologizing for being unable to go into sufficient detail in the space of a single book.

None of those individual observations are convincing on their own, any more than a single stamp makes a collection, but taken all together, they make for an overwhelming case in favor of evolution. Earlier writers had the idea of evolution, but Darwin’s years of collecting gave him the evidence to back his ideas up, and present a rigorous scientific theory of evolution by natural selection. The evidence has only gotten stronger over the last century and a half, cementing Darwin’s status as an icon of science.

The story of Darwin’s collection is a dramatic counter to one of the most unfortunately persistent ideas we have about scientists. In the popular imagination, science is something difficult and inscrutable, requiring skills that ordinary people just don’t possess. Only nerds with really huge brains can possibly be scientists.

In reality, science isn’t a set of esoteric skills, but a simple and universal process. You look at the world, think about why things happen the way they do, test your model through experiments and observations, and tell everyone the results of the tests. That process is something we all do, every day, even in pursuit of hobbies as straightforward as collecting stamps. The same habits of mind needed to build a good collection—careful searching and close observation of the small details that set valuable stamps apart from worthless bits of colored paper—are responsible for the success of one of the most revolutionary scientific theories in history.

Around 1900, the British physicist Ernest Rutherford famously declared that “all of science is either physics or stamp collecting.” This is usually held up as an example of either the inferiority of biologists or the arrogance of physicists, depending on whether you’re a physicist or a biologist. Given the key role that collecting has played in science, though, maybe we should turn it around, and take it as a great compliment to stamp collectors.

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