In My Words: Darwin the scientist, Darwin the man

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate Professor of Biology Dave Gammon explores Darwin's ability to work across disciplines and with those whose opinions differed from his own, characteristics Gammon notes we can learn from today. The column was published by the Greenville Daily Reflector, The Salisbury Post and The Butner-Creedmor News.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution changed forever how we think about medicine, organisms, and human origins. But as we celebrate Darwin’s birthday this Feb 12th, the lessons from his character are just as relevant to us as his ideas about biology.

Dave Gammon, professor of biology

Darwin’s character is commonly misunderstood. Contrary to popular Internet memes, he never saw himself as a crusader against religion.

Furthermore, Darwin’s intellectual brilliance differed from that of other historical geniuses. Albert Einstein reveled in complex equations. Darwin felt intimidated by math, avoiding it when possible. Rosalind Franklin mastered the latest laboratory technologies in her studies of DNA. Darwin performed simple experiments at home using common plants and barnacles. Isaac Newton was an arrogant loner. Darwin was humble, collaborative and a loyal family man.

These modest and gentle characteristics make Darwin’s example particularly relevant during this modern era of division, demonization and selfishness.
Newton famously stated, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Unlike Newton, Darwin’s shoulders of giants came from far outside his chosen discipline. Charles Lyell, a geologist, helped Darwin realize that dramatic changes in organisms can occur through the accumulation of ordinary and observable changes over long periods of time. Thomas Malthus, an economist, explained the effects of limited resources in a way that gave Darwin his greatest insight, the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection.

In contrast, too many of us view the world only through the lens of our chosen field. As the old saying goes, if your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. We forget the world also contains nuts, screws and loose ends.

Many of today’s biggest challenges need help from multiple disciplines. Artificial intelligence might be grounded in computer science, but without experts in business, ethics, humanities and the law, AI could take on monstrous dimensions. Similarly, some environmental challenges are so complicated they can be addressed adequately only using the tools of multiple disciplines and worldviews.
Darwin also found inspiration not just from scholars, but from common folk typically shunned by the “gentlemen” scientists of his day.

For example, he admired the craft of common pigeon breeders. Darwin marveled how the best biologists of his day overlooked the possibility that wild species could change over time, even as his breeder friends molded fantastic new varieties of domestic pigeons. To Darwin the insights were what mattered most, regardless of whether they came from an acclaimed scholar or a humble tradesman.

Today’s experts should follow Darwin’s example. Professors can and should seek inspiration from their students. Environmentalists should seek inspiration from farmers and manufacturers. Publicly elected leaders in Washington, D.C. should actively seek out the views of ordinary constituents back home. Views from the common man always provide important fodder for understanding modern challenges.

Of all the traits of Charles Darwin, the one I admire most was his ability to befriend those with whom he disagreed. It is easy to love those with whom we already agree. Many of those closest to Darwin, however, including his own wife, Emma, were unwavering Christians who viewed the concept of human evolution as heretical.

Despite her beliefs, Emma Darwin described her husband as “the most open, transparent man I ever saw.” She viewed the two of them as belonging to each other in the eternities, and their marriage of over four decades certainly nudged them in that direction. The strength of their relationship remained vibrant even as his scientific thinking progressed.

Somehow Emma the devoted believer and Charles the determined agnostic nurtured a healthy relationship despite their passionate differences of worldviews. Today so many of us disagree fervently over politics, religion, and other important topics. Imagine if we followed the example of the Darwins and prioritized finding common ground over winning an argument.

Rather than demonizing or deifying Darwin this Feb. 12, I hope we use Darwin Day as a reason to celebrate our shared humanity.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.