A Mixture of Spirit and Deed
Not so long ago, most of the world was an unexplored wilderness. The animals, plants, and people that inhabited the lands beyond Europe were unknown, at least as far as the Western world was concerned. The rivers and jungles of the Amazon, the Badlands of Pata - gonia and of the American West, the tropical forests of Indonesia, the savannah and center of Africa, the vast interior of Central Asia, the polar regions, and the many chains of islands that dot the oceans were complete mysteries.
And, while our knowledge of the world’s living inhabitants was slim, our grasp of our planet’s past was nonexistent. Fossils had been known for millennia, but they were seen in the light of local mythologies about dragons and other imagined creatures, not in the light of natural science.
Our sense of the time scale of life on earth? Vague and vastly off the mark.
And our picture of our own species’ history? A set of fantastic myths and fairy tales.
The explorations of the previously unseen parts of the world and the unearthing of the history of life and our origins are some of the greatest achievements in human history. This book tells the stories of some of the most dramatic adventures and important discoveries in two centuries of natural history— from the epic journeys of pioneering naturalists to the expeditions making headlines today — and how they inspired and have expanded one of the greatest ideas of modern science: evolution.
We will encounter many amazing creatures of the past and present, but the most remarkable creatures in these stories are the men and women. They are, without exception, remarkable people who have experienced and accomplished extraordinary things. They have lived the kinds of lives that Twain extolled— they walked where no others had walked, saw what no one else had seen, and thought what no one else had thought.
The people in these stories followed their dreams— to travel to faraway lands, to see wild and exotic places, to collect beautiful, rare, or strange animals, or to find the remains of extinct beasts or human ancestors. Very few started out with any notion of great achievement or fame. Several lacked formal education or training. Rather, they were driven by a passion to explore nature, and they were willing, sometimes eager, to take great risks to pursue their dreams. Many faced the perils of traveling long distances by sea. Some confronted the extreme climates of deserts, jungles, or the Arctic. Many left behind skeptical and anxious loved ones, and a few endured years of unimaginable loneliness.
Their triumphs were much more than survival and the collecting of specimens from around the world. A few pioneers, provoked by a riot of diversity beyond their wildest imaginations, were transformed from collectors intoscientists.They posed and pondered the most fundamental questions about Nature. Their answers sparked a revolution that changed, profoundly and forever, our perception of the living world and our place within it.
Unlike their privileged countrymen back in the universities, churches, and drawing rooms of Europe, most of whom believed that the origins of living things was a matter outside the realm of natural science, these explorers asked not just what existed, but wondered how and why these creatures came to be. Unlike their teachers, who pursued a natural theology that interpreted everything in Nature as part of the design of a Creator — peaceful, harmonious, stable, and unchanging — this new cadre of naturalists discovered that Nature was, in fact, a dynamic and perpetual battleground in which creatures competed and struggled to survive, a war in which they either adapted and changed or were exterminated. Unlike their predecessors, who explained the distribution of living species in the world much as one would the instant and premeditated placement of pieces on a chessboard, these naturalists discovered that the world and the life it contained had a very long history that shaped where various plants and animals were found across the globe. And, unlike their contemporaries who viewed everything in Nature as being purposely created for man’s benefit and domination, they rejected that conceit and placed humans within the animal kingdom, with our own earthly origins.
The torch of this revolution has been passing from generation to generation of scientists who have been walking, literally and figuratively, in the footsteps of these pioneers.
A mixture of spirit and deed
My goals in writing this book are to bring to life the pursuit and the pleasure of scientific discovery, at the same time capturing the significance of each advance for evolutionary science. The idea here is that science is far better understood and enjoyed, and made memorable, when we follow the bumpy roads of the scientists that led, eventually, to their achievements. It is not an original idea. Like the naturalists described here who trod in their predecessors’ footsteps, I am following the lead of authors such as Paul de Kruif (Microbe Hunters) and C. W. Ceram (Gods, Graves, and Scholars), whose works brought the passion and excitement of the glory days of microbiology and archaeology, respectively, to many readers. The stories I tell were chosen for both their dramatic content and scientific importance. I have, I confess, "cherry-picked" the rich lore of natural history for the best of the best.
Ceram described adventure as "a mixture of spirit and deed." These stories are intended to capture those two elements in a compact form. They are crafted for enjoyment, not as scholarly biographies or histories of science. I have not delved into the biographical depth that would be necessary in full-length treatments. I have provided some background where I thought it would offer insights into who or what kindled the spirit of adventure in these naturalists and scientists.
Wherever possible I relied on field notes, journals, expedition reports, and other firsthand accounts because they tend to contain the person’s thoughts and reactions at critical moments. I also examined original scientific papers because they are the material of record of what exactly was found, concluded, and proposed. Many of the individuals or discoveries described here have also been the subject of one, several, or many excellent books, some written in the first person and others by biographers. You will find the many sources I relied on in "Sources and Further Reading," at the back of the book, and I certainly encourage you to explore them. I had a blast researching these stories.
This book is not a compendium of the greatest evolutionary scientists or discoveries (although many here would certainly be on any such list), nor is it a history of the field. But the individuals here do represent very well the spirit of the enterprise, and many scientists, myself included, have drawn inspiration from one or more of them. So if you sense a lack of objectivity and a hagiographic bent, I am guilty as charged. There is much to admire in the protagonists of these stories. I have not paid attention to whether someone was a good citizen, good with money, or even a good spouse (some were, some weren’t). These people had (or have) very rewarding and satisfying lives because of the great pleasure they gained from what they have done. I did not want to write a book about miserable bastards (although, come to think of it, that might be fun and would make for a catchy title).
The search for origins
The scientific quest driving all of these stories is the search for the origins of species, what was referred to by early scientists and philosophers as "the mystery of mysteries," "the question of questions," or the "supreme problem of biology." I will begin my tales and set the stage for the main body of the book with a short account of one of the boldest and most important scientific voyages ever undertaken. I am not referring to Darwin’s famous journey but to the expedition through South and Central America made three decades earlier by Alexander von Humboldt (Chapter 1). It has been said that all scientists are descendants of Humboldt, who in the course of his travels made contributions to virtually every branch of science. We will see, however, that the magnificent flora, fauna, and fossils were perceived very differently by this great explorer than by those who followed him. Though brilliant, Humboldt and his illustrious circle of friends belonged to an age that embraced a religious vision of nature. Humboldt thus offers a view of the world before the revolution, and though he did not perceive a solution to the mystery of mysteries or even that the problem of origins could be solved, his journey blazed the trail for and directly inspired the wave of naturalists who did.
The main body of the book is organized into three parts, each of which focuses on one major aspect of the search for origins — of species in general (Part I), of particular kinds of animals (Part II), and of humans (Part III). Each part is preceded by a brief preamble that provides some background for the stories within it, and I have ordered the chapters in such a way that the connections between the scientists, discoveries, and ideas are highlighted in successive chapters. In Part I ("The Making of a Theory"), we follow the epic voyages of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, who solved the origins problem, and of Henry Walter Bates, who discovered superb evidence of the process of natural selection. In Part II ("The Loveliest Bones"), we retrace several of the greatest expeditions and most spectacular finds in paleontology, which have thrown light on the origins of the animal kingdom and various major groups within it. And, in Part III ("The Natural History of Humans"), we track some discoveries from the archaeological and fossil records and explore new insights from the DNA record that have shaped our understanding of human origins.
This book debuts, not coincidentally, on the anniversaries of several milestones in natural history and evolutionary science. In 2009, we mark Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of hisOn the Origin of Species.It is certainly fitting to celebrate the ideas and achievements of our greatest naturalist and the leader of this scientific revolution, and this book is in part my contribution to that party. We also mark the 100th anniversary of Charles Walcott’s discovery of the remarkable animals of the Burgess Shale, which documented the Cambrian Explosion (Chapter 6), as well as the 50th anniversary of Mary and Louis Leakey’s first ancient hominid find, which redirected the study of human origins back to Africa (Chapter 11).
But my aim goes well beyond these famous events. There is, for example, another, less well known anniversary to recognize, and its being so less well known is a matter of some concern that I hope to redress in my own small way. One hundred and fifty years ago, on July 1, 1858, the fruit of Darwin’sandWallace’s great adventures— the theory of natural selection— was first presented publicly before a small audience of the Linnean Society in London and subsequently published in the society’s journal. For reasons not altogether clear, nor for which there would be a scholarly consensus, this event and Wallace’s contributions to it tend to be overlooked. Indeed, the most widely used college biology textbooks typically offer many pages about Darwin’s travels and work and just a few vague lines about Wallace: "a young British naturalist working in the East Indies who had developed a theory of natural selection similar to Darwin’s." Wallace, I think, is in danger of disappearing from textbooks altogether. And that, I hope you will agree after reading Chapter 3, would be a shame.
It is not a shame just because of the issue of credit in history. It is a shame because we are deprived of a great story of spirit and deed — Wallace’s two long journeys, with a shipwreck in between, and his dozen years in the forests of the Amazon and Indonesia, and how and why he came to similar ideas as Darwin did while toiling on the other side of the globe. It is an inspiring tale of great passion, dedication, physical risk and endurance, perseverance, and the immense pleasure of discovery. There is so much to learn from his struggles and triumphs and to admire in his character.
The same can be said of all the naturalists and scientists in this book. In fact, one of the most important experiences shared by virtually every person in these stories is that their discoveries and ideas were initially rejected or doubted. One might have thought that finding the first ape-man or a new dinosaur, or deciphering some critical piece of history in DNA, would confer instant glory. Think again. Many struggled for decades before gaining widespread acceptance and recognition. Such is the nature of breakthroughs and revolutions in science.
What also unites the naturalists here unites all of us as humans— the urge to explore. New discoveries about the origins of our species reveal that most of us are the descendants of explorers, humans who migrated out of Africa just 60,000 years ago or so and eventually populated six continents (Chapter 13). Even if it may now be only from the safety of our armchairs or theater seats, we share a deep need to know the world around us.
In July 1976, on the eve of the historic landing of theViking Ispacecraft on Mars, NASA assembled a panel of luminaries, including the authors Roy Bradbury and James Michener, the physicist Philip Morrison, and the undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, to discuss the motives for exploration. Most saw it as a matter of human instinct.
Cousteau offered, "What is the origin of the devouring curiosity that drives men to commit their lives, their health, their reputation, their fortunes, to conquer a bit of knowledge, to stretch our physical, emotional or intellectual territory? The more I spend time observing nature, the more I believe that man’s motivation for exploration is but the sophistication of a universal instinctive drive deeply ingrained in all living creatures." Morrison agreed that "it is in our nature" and that "human beings explore because in the long run . . . both by genetics and by culture, we can do nothing else."
So the last thing I would want to imply through these stories is that the best days of scientific exploration are behind us. Far from it. Several of the stories here unfolded in just the last few years. Headlines are being made on a regular basis by newly found hominid, animal, and plant fossils, and many more surprises are still buried in the earth’s crust. Powerful new tools for mining the DNA record of life and human evolution are certain to greatly expand our knowledge of our own natural history. There will be many new stories to tell.
But, you may ask, are we going to find anything that would turn our worldview upside down, anything of the magnitude of the revolution in thought that began 150 years ago? Is there anything still unknown that is comparable to "the mystery of mysteries" that launched these explorations to all corners of the world?
I think there is. And I will ponder that possibility in the Afterword.