Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Darwinday 2013 - apprenticeship

Today is Charles Darwin's 204th birthday (which he also shared with Abraham Lincoln - I may have more to say about Daniel Day-Lewis on or about 29 April). Ignore the California datestamp above - it is 12th February at Down House now and has been for 7 hours.

J√≥zef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born of Polish parents in the Ukraine in 1857.  He was orphaned at the age of eleven, started travelling early and found himself aged 17 in Marseille, spending the next few years sailing before the mast on French ships.  In 1878, aged 20, he landed in Lowestoft with hardly a word of English.  He spent the next 3000-odd days in the British merchant marine learning the trade of a seaman and learning the English language.  In 1886, he sat his examination – in English – to obtain his Master Mariner’s Certificate, which recognized his competence to captain any vessel, in any circumstances, anywhere in the world.  He started to write stories based on his ordinary and extraordinary experiences ashore and afloat and became, as Joseph Conrad, one of the most popular authors of his day.  His books have been made into films, like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and are still regularly used as set books for school examinations.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers investigates the circumstances that bring out extraordinary talent in different fields. What he finds is that to become an international concert pianist, a million dollar basketball player or a top computer baron, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice.  You need a certain native talent, of course, and a supportive family helps and some luck as to timing is also important.  But without those 10,000 hours, you’ll only be, at best, very good.  To get to the top, you have to put in the hours.  Because sailing-ships were necessarily a 24/7 business – you can’t let the crew have breakfast, let alone Sunday off, in a typhoon – you can clock up your 10,000 hours in far fewer years, even with some time ashore, than if you  practice the piano rigorously for 2 hours a day.

A couple of years after Conrad was born, Charles Darwin finally published his momentous book The Origin of Species.  This could be billed as the most famous and influential book that nobody has read; certainly most professional biologists, although professed evolutionists every one, haven’t read this bible of their field.  Which is a shame because, quite apart from the scientific arguments and a relentless accumulation of data and case-histories from distant and familiar regions of the natural world, it’s filled with passages as lyrically poetic and evocative as anything that Conrad wrote.  Perhaps the only other fact that is generally known about Darwin is that, in his youth, he’d spent several years at sea sailing round the world in the Beagle and had visited the Galapagos Islands.  That tropical archipelago is a veritable laboratory for the origin of species with each island having its distinctively different finches, tortoises and marine iguanas, and Darwin’s observations on and from the Beagle clearly informed his ideas on evolution by natural selection.

Historians of science have made much of the fact that Darwin took more than two decades between arriving home from his cruise in 1836 and knuckling down and writing his magnum opus which was published in 1859.  Some assert that, knowing his ideas must undermine the then all-prevailing Christian idea of man’s place in the universe, he held off publication to avoid public condemnation.  These same historians are bemused and even critical (hrrmph!) of the fact that Darwin spent at least eight years of the intervening period working intensively on  . . . barnacles.  His exhaustive work on the comparative anatomy and embryology of these well-known, widely distributed but humble creatures which he started in 1846 was published in two chunky volumes in 1851 and 1854.  I suggest that this work, far from being a timing-wasting refusal to get down to his real, if controversial, work, was his necessary total immersion apprenticeship.  Darwin spent his 10,000 hours, neither arpeggiating the piano, nor pacing a storm-heaving deck, nor weaving and jinking on the basketball court; he spent them looking down a microscope making meticulous drawings and measurements of the comparative anatomy of barnacles.  Until he’d served his time, he wasn’t really competent to think deeply enough to order his thoughts and marshal the data for his great work.

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