Last night National Geographic Channel aired Darwin’s Secret Notebooks, part of their Darwin 200 programming (see a review of the series here and here). Since I am not able to watch the channel, National Geographic was very cool and sent me a screening copy. I watched last night, but didn’t have time to give some thoughts.
Overall I liked the program, which highlighted some specifics that are often overlooked. Unfortunately, the program glossed over some rather important aspects of the development of Darwin’s ideas.
Notes while watching program:
- Darwin spent most of his life in England
- starts off with Darwin setting sail on HMS Beagle at the age of 22 for 5 years (actually, Darwin thought the voyage would be 2 years)
- spent only 5 weeks in the Galapagos Islands
- “but his greatest insights happened elsewhere”
- started writing in secret notebooks after voyage, and kept their contents hidden for more than 20 years
- some biologist (I don’t remember his name) to reopen Darwin’s journals, retrace his adventure & see what he saw (maybe should have mentioned work of historians in researching and making available the content of these notebooks)
- “By the time he returned from his voyage, young Darwin grasped the essence of his greatest discovery, and soon wrote it down in a series of notebooks” (essence? variation? deep time? wouldn’t natural selection be the essence, which Darwin did not come up with during the voyage)
- neat graphic of HMS Beagle‘s sailing route on the globe with Darwin’s tree of life sketch
- Darwin went to Cambridge for the clergy
- visited Brazil
- as naturalist aboard Beagle, Darwin had duties to collect specimens from the natural world (actually, he was brought on as more a gentleman companion for Fitzroy)
- program has voice overs of Darwin’s writings in notebooks
- host says the forests become the cathedral of Darwin’s religion, species are parts of a divine plan, nature linked to religion through natural theology, Paley, argument from design (what Darwin learned at Cambridge)
- Darwin took extensive trips ashore in South America, fossil hunting on the coast of Uruguay
- thought about extinction, comparing large extinct animals with contemporary animals similar in form
- he questions why these creatures are found in only one region of the world; wonders where new life comes from & why others disappear
- Patagonia/waterways along Argentine coast – goes off on his own, treks across country w/ local gauchos
- rheas – 2 separate species – why? why would a creator create such unusual creatures (penguins, steamers, rheas)?
- had birds changed? lost the ability to fly?
- despite this questioning, Darwin is still committed to the fixity of species
- rounds tip of South America, comes to Pacific side
- he continues trekking into interior of continent; climbs in the Andes, sees shells of shallow water creatures up in the Andes
- consults Lyell, Principles of Geology, and thinks about uniformitarianism (gradual changes of earth’s surface by ordinary processes), a vast amount of time can help to explain the face of the planet – impact of this is enormous on Darwin
- aftermath of earthquake in Chile; land upraised 10 feet above high water; Darwin discovers evidence that earth may be millions of years old, not the thousands dictated by Scripture
- Galapagos Islands; “centers of creation,” Darwin not yet an evolutionist; seeing creatures of Galapagos does not change that (important point to make, good job Nat Geo!)
- warblers, finches, & grosbeaks – Darwin not impressed, does not label specimens
- mockingbirds – Darwin more careful with collection, impresses more than finches
- coral atolls in the Pacific; in deep water where corals cannot survive; “ring of coral atop a mountain of dead ancestors”
- volcanic islands (Tahiti); how did creatures that live on islands get there? supernaturally placed at each location?
- life in the sea is very diverse and abundant, but life on land less diverse and sparse; why land & sea stocked so differently
- Darwin searches for explanations by natural forces; thinks about transoceanic dispersal
- immensities of space and time
- colonization of islands from distant continents, but different from animals on mainland
- mockingbirds – varieties of a single species?
- “such facts would undermine the stability of species”
- returns to England a scientist (naturalist maybe? “scientist” not yet a word)
- John Gould says mockingbirds comprise 3 distinct species, dozen or more individual species of finches
- species replacement over space and time – is their a relation?
- “both in space and in time we seem to be brought nearer to that great fact, that mystery of mysteries, the first appearance of new beings on this earth” (Darwin had this in the second edition of his published narrative in 1845, years after the voyage and after he had already come upon natural selection)
- Darwin convinced that species change over time, but how?
- still believes in a higher power (always did really!) but rests his faith (or understanding?) in the laws of nature
- tree of life sketch, common descent, but how could this happen (mechanism)?
- Oct. 1838, read for amusement Malthus on populations; struggle for existence between species and individuals of species; competition for resources; those with advantages favored
- theory by which to work – Natural Selection – but world no less miraculous
- quote: last paragraph of Origin - but that’s from 1859! does not fit with chronology of program
- his evidence and argument are underdeveloped and unacceptable to many
- Chambers ridiculed
- waits 20 years before making theory public, only closest friends know about it
- Nov. 1859 – published On the Origin of Species - celebrated and scorned
- old Darwin shown on Sandwalk
- Darwin revealed order that underlies the natural world
- THE END
Two things really missing from this program:
1. The amount of scientific work Darwin conducted between the voyage and publication of Origin, that which helped his underdeveloped evidence and argument referred to. When the narrator said “but his greatest insights happened elsewhere” I expected his work in and around Down House to come in to the story, along with excerpts from his notebooks at this time.
2. No mention of Wallace whatsover.
Visually the program was nice to watch, but I felt that the narrator (I still can’t remember his name) was unnecessarily on screen to much, looking from mountain tops and out towards the sea. I have no idea who he is.
Overall a good program – I thought how they conveyed Darwin’s observations during the voyage was done nicely – but there is no reason to leave Wallace out of it…