Darwin’s Beetle: On geeking out.

I wrote this for another “official” college blog but want to share it here.

Darwin’s beetle: On geeking out

October 23, 2013

Our first-year common course doesn’t fit into neat disciplinary boxes, and that’s the point.  Ranging across literature, history, philosophy and science, it’s not designed to convey “expertise” in any one field but to help students develop the set of portable intellectual tools they need in any major, in future employment and in their lives as adults: strong reading and critical thinking skills, the ability to listen and discuss, and the curiosity to find answers and discern realities for themselves.  But when students ask me, “What is this class for?” I tell them it teaches a college student’s most important skill: geeking out.

The best predictor of college success is not test scores, number of AP classes, or even that elusive thing called “intelligence”–it’s the ability to fall in love with ideas, to hurl yourself into a subject so fully that it shapes how you spend your time inside and outside of class, reading and thinking and practicing and shaping yourself into a successful member of that field.  In exposing students to such a wide range of authors and texts, from Plato to Martin Luther to Martin Luther King and Mary Shelley, our first-year common course gives students lots of chances to geek out, to latch onto a fascinating concept and follow it into a lifelong enthusiasm.  It challenges students and faculty alike to step outside of known disciplinary bounds, learn something we never thought we would, and model that learning for each other.

This semester, we added a new text, excerpts from Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” (1859).  I was a little worried at first: although I’m a former farm kid, passionate environmentalist and omnivorous reader in the history of ideas, I’m also an English professor.  Would I be able to do justice to Darwin? Would class discussions get bogged down in the misunderstandings of “Darwinism” so prevalent in his time and ours? But in his opening lecture on Darwin, my colleague shared this passage from Darwin’s “Autobiography”:

“[No] pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow.

I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

Darwin's beetle

Just like that, my worries were over: I was in the presence of a fellow geek – so geeky that he spent five years as a naturalist on the ship Beagle, traveling round the world, collecting and learning and soaking in everything he could, so geeky that one of his friends even caricatured him riding on the back of one of his beloved beetles. The enthusiasm radiating from the page was utterly winning, slightly self-deprecating but passionately driven by the pursuit of knowledge. I knew I could trust this man. And my trust was not misplaced: over the next couple of weeks, as students and I worked carefully through the text, we came to know Darwin, through his words and ideas, as anything but the cold, hard atheist of stereotype. In their papers and in discussions, my students used words like “gentle,” “warm” and “humble,” pointing out the frequent occasions where Darwin hedges his conclusions with appropriate scientific modesty and suggests that such modesty is appropriate in the face of all that humans don’t yet know and understand–and maybe can never know–about the origins of life on earth.

But the main word we kept coming back to, in describing Darwin’s view of the world, was wonder.  A onetime-potential-future clergyman, Darwin can perhaps best be described as agnostic, although even that label’s a bit messy. Yet he never closes the door to beauty, mystery and the need for humans, in our investigations of nature and of our own origins, to open ourselves to the ineffable and challenge ourselves to see how–in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet–”there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.” Even as Darwin describes the “struggle” for life between plants and animals competing for existence, even within “a plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which on an average only one comes to maturity,” he refers to “the beautiful and harmonious diversity of nature” and gives a simple, lyrical analogy of life as a giant tree: “As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.” Wonder and humility shimmer around Darwin’s descriptions of the living world he so closely observed and so well loved, and they shape his diligent investigations toward the form “into which life was first breathed.”

As a mature thinker, Darwin learned to live with uncertainty – even to thrive on it, since it propelled him forward into all he had yet to discover and into the living world that brought him such joy. This spoke powerfully to my students and to me. How can this openness shape our own educations and personal quests? How can we discern meaning, even beauty, amid the confusion of our changing ideas and changing lives, and how we can remain open to, accepting of, and curious about that change? How can we “geek out,” like Darwin, taking full advantage of all the opportunities for discovery, challenge and change in front of us at this college? I’ve had lots of rich conversations over the years in this first-year course–but this was one I will never forget. And as we prepared to finish our reading of Darwin, I saw in the students’ eyes that they felt the same. We had come to know this distant historical figure as a person like ourselves–a humble, rigorous scientist who at heart always remained that excitable undergraduate, popping a beetle into his mouth to keep it and study it as long as he could.