It is late Tuesday night and I finally have a chance to think about Charles Darwin. Last summer I had the fortune to visit his home, thanks to the thoughtfulness of my sister and brother in-law who live in London. Down House, tucked away in the countryside, has changed little since his time. The main floor has been restored to the condition it was in when Emma, Charles’ wife, died. The upper level is a museum with displays of his life, his travels and his ideas. Outside, his garden and his research greenhouse are kept up, as well as the Sandwalk, the famous thinking path where he took his daily strolls.
It was a bit of a pilgrimage for me, visiting the home of the humble scientist and father. Here, one of the greatest ideas of the western world was developed. It was here that he labored over the ‘Origin of Species‘, and it was from here, pushed by letter from Alfred Wallace, that he finally released his ideas to the world. On the 24 of November, 1859 his book was published, and mankind’s view of his place in the scheme of life was changed forever.
My own background was one of faith, the faith of the Dutch reformation which are the roots of the Christian Reformed church of North America. Formed because, “The Reformed Church in the Netherlands began to show its share of moral decay and of theological liberalism – the latter largely spurred on by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that idolized human reason at the expense of Bible-based faith.” (from the CRC web page) Until I left home at the age of 18 my life was one where faith trumped reason.
Since the age of 9, my interest in nature grew. In Canada (and before I discovered books) National Geographic documentaries and Jacques Cousteau expeditions held my attention….but the real turning point was the destination of the latest family migration – Africa! And that word: how it rang and resonated in the imagination of a 9 year old child! Images of Daktari (a ’60′s TV show on a vet in Africa, which, ridiculously, sometimes featured a tiger!) Born Free, Tarzan and Walt Disney documentaries…..who would not be entranced and excited? In 1969 we moved to the Republic of South Africa and a new stage of life began.
In South Africa a solid interest in wildlife took hold. In a TV-free nation, radio, books and the library became sources of entertainment. The first non-fiction books I remember were by Willard Price, who wrote adventure stories for boys based on two teenage brothers who were budding zoologists. This led to the auto-biographical books by Gerald Durrell, who was later to found the Jersey Zoo and Trust, and the early zoo collecting tales of David Attenborough. Trips to the library for books and regular doses of National Geographic magazine were to become my life – reading about nature and adventure. Unknowingly, I was casting a mold for myself. I thought I had discovered my life’s path. Notice the irony of the situation: in Africa, with a loving mother of strong faith but no support for our education or interests and a father constantly fleeing from himself – I found my path not directly in nature, but in books about nature. I didn’t collect insects, keep lizards or press plants, I didn’t keep any exotic pets (except fish – my fathers hobby) or watch birds – I had no mentors save in books.
But this seems a long stride from Darwin. Back in Canada by 1979, we reconnected with the local CRC. When I moved out of the house to live alone at age 18, my Christian faith seemed to strengthen. I read C.S Lewis eagerly and began some attempts at Bible study. But my education after high school faltered. Living in the city, my ties with nature were limited to weekends and holidays. I continued to read books and watch TV documentaries. Evolution was often mentioned but I did not really try to understand it, and I found no reason to depart from creationism. I floundered on, an observer of nature, a photographer, but still not involving myself in any branch of nature except tropical fish. I watched David Suzuki of CBC’s, The Nature of Things, and he often spoke of how species were adapted to their environment. He talked about man’s increasing devastation of the earth and consequences it was having to the life around us. The nature books I was reading also made frequent mention of evolution, and it was not until I came across an illustrated copy of The Origin (abridged and introduced by Richard Leakey, Rainbird Publishing 1979) that I began to earnestly attempt to understand Darwin’s theory.
To be continued….