Darwin Day 2009: Take to Nature and Draw Your Own Conclusions

I apologize for this tardy Darwin Day post. I had two meetings with professors today – discussing Foucault with one (my mind still hurts) and thinking about my master’s research, London research trip in the fall, and a conference paper in March with the other. So, a lot on my mind today, and I can’t but help just sitting in front of my computer, when not in an office, in my feed reader, perusing the enormous Darwin content online today (check out my shared feeds if you want to get overwhelmed too!). But it would be nice to be outside, but who has the time. I am craving summer, but that is some months away. But it has been nice seeing some sparrows flitting around campus. By, February, it gets extremely redundant seeing black-billed magpies everywhere. Okay, here goes.

For this special Darwin Day – the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth on February 12, 1809 – I thought I would write a little about why I am interested in – or should I say obsessed with – Darwin.

Growing up in southern California for the better part of my life did not afford much opportunity to explore nature. Yes, mountains stretch in between the populated areas and fantastic beaches dot the coastline (I’m thinking of La Jolla & Torrey Pines in San Diego), but when you have gigantic shopping malls, movie theaters, and several options of amusement parks with gut-twisting rides, why spend time in nature. Of course, as kids we went to rock and mineral shows with our grandfather, explored local trails and parks while he systematically hovered his metal detector over the grass, and read up the issues of National Geographic and Natural History that he passed off to us when he was through (interestingly these are the only two magazines that I continue to renew each year, although Natural History has slimmed down over the last few years). However, as we became teenagers and more interested in hanging out with our peers, we lost this interest in spending time with our grandfather. It was all about video games and Six Flags Magic Mountain. And for some reason, I think because people told me I drew well, I thought I was going to be an architect.

In eighth grade, I really enjoyed my life sciences class. It was set up with three teachers – Mr. Queen (the school also had a Mr. King), Mr. Hauser (he drove a blue dune buggy), and Mrs. Teynyk (don’t quote me on that spelling) – and a class of 100 students. Each teacher took a third of a class at a time and rotated through the school year: with Queen on textbook life science, with Hauser in the oceanography lab and traditional high school dissections (yes, we tried fried squid), and Mrs. Teynyk on health, nutrition, exercise, and sex education. They were an awesome team. Mr. Queen at one time paid my older brother’s way for a field trip to Catalina Island because with a family with five kids, there wasn’t much extra money to go towards such things. I enjoyed their teaching style, but science had yet to grasp me.

I was first really exposed to who Darwin was in high school. Not as a result of the freshman biology course I had with Ms. Foy, for I don’t recall Darwin having played a part in the curriculum. It was in June of 1993 that a rather insignificant movie was released: Jurassic Park. My mother had dropped my twin brother and I off at the local Edward’s Theater, and a little over two hours later, Jon and I were captured. Captured by the idea of life on earth having been so drastically different, exciting, and cool as hell. Jon quickly overcame this fascination, but it stuck with me for some time, and today it remains. I began reading books about dinosaurs, from paleontologists like Robert Bakker, Jack Horner, David Norman, and Gregory Paul, and science writers like Don Lessem and John Noble Wilford. I photocopied articles from newspapers and magazines at my local library. I joined the now defunct American-branch of The Dinosaur Society and dreamed about getting to go on family-oriented dig trip to Montana (these were always advertised in Natural History). Through immersing myself in the world of paleontology, I became interested in the controversy between creationism and evolution. I had grown up a Christian, but I didn’t know what that meant. We went to church as kids, mainly during the time we lived in southern Oregon (oh Crater Lake, how I need to see you again), but it wasn’t a defining factor in our lives. So with this interest in science and paleontology, I became increasingly interested in evolution and why it mattered to so many people to disregard it. I started reading books about evolution in general, a few on creationism. A classmate in junior year physics gave me a copy of What is Scientific Creationism? and it didn’t sound right as I read through it. What made sense was the other books I was reading, those supporting evolution. I decided to write a paper on the topic in my senior year English class. When I look back on it now, I laugh. But it was a worthy effort at the time. For that paper, I read a book about Charles Darwin (this book, specifically, and I still have the photocopy of the book I made at the time).

Out of high school (1996), I worked fast food jobs and at a family restaurant chain (for 7 years in all positions, including management). Three years separated high school and the local community college. I got my associate’s degree in math/science in 2001. I loved the two semesters of biology, and the field trips to two zoos and the Scripp’s Aquarium in La Jolla and the packet of worksheets to fill in information about the animals and habitats. I took chemistry and pre-calculus there, but hated it. Started a class on the natural history of California, but had to drop it because I totaled my car and had to work more and do less school. Took classes in anthropology, astronomy, and geology. I wrote more papers on creationism and evolution for non-science classes (English, political science, etc.). I loved learning all this science, but I still wasn’t spending time outside and in the local moutains or beaches.

I transferred to San Diego State from community college, and set myself up for a biology degree. I took classes in physics, more chemistry including organic, and genetics. And calculus. I did not do well. I was actually on academic probation for a period of time. I was too focused on managing at a branch of the family restaurant in San Diego. I was commuting 60 miles to and fro every day. Yet I still found time to attend departmental seminars, mostly the ones dealing with paleontology work that was being done at SDSU or other universities (now that I remember it, I may have seen Kevin Padian give a talk, but I am not sure). I attended lectures and book signings by paleontologists at the San Diego Natural History Museum (including Horner, T. Rich, Brett-Surman, and others). An older friend and I explored the museums in and around Los Angeles. I volunteered for a short period at the SDHNM as an exhibit interpreter for one of the traveling Jurassic Park exhibits. I joined Yahoo Groups about dinosaurs. I was obsessed with dinosaurs. But school wasn’t going well.

Grandpaw Brady

Grandpaw Brady

In December 2002, my grandfather passed away. Although we had been expecting it, this hit me hard. I wondered why I was working in restaurants. I wondered why I was continuing to go to a school I did not like. I thought of what my grandfather would tell me to do. He would have said to explore a new place; to do what you want to do and not what you think you have to. I decided to look for schools outside of California. I found out that Montana State University in Bozeman had an undergraduate degree emphasis in paleontology. So, I moved back home for a year to save money, now bussing table instead of managing, and planned a move to Montana. While still in California, and anticipating my move, I started exploring where I had grown up. I hiked spots near where I had lived for years. I drove off the freeways just to see what was beyond the cities. I spent more time at some of the beaches. I didn’t know a thing about the plants and animals of southern California, but I loved being outside nonetheless. I planned a Yosemite trip, but all my friends backed out. So I planned a road trip by myself through northern California to see places I hadn’t seen. More unfortunate family occurences prevented me from doing that. I have yet to see Yosemite. I took some geology classes from another local community college, and the December before moving to Bozeman on New Year’s Day 2004 I went on a weekend geology field trip to Death Valley National Park, and camped for the first time in my life.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

When I moved to Montana, I was the only one in my family to venture outside of California. I planned to start classes in the fall. In the meantime, I scenic drove the regions around Bozeman, checked out the Museum of the Rockies, and started going to the meetings of MSU’s paleontology club. In the summer, I did alot of local hiking – in the Bridgers, up in Hyalite Canyon, and even in the Beartooth’s (this involved a little camping too). I took several trips to Yellowstone National Park, seeing sights I saw many children enjoying with their parents. First time I ever saw a moose. A geyser. A significant waterfall.

Me hiking to Emerald Lake, Hyalite Canyon, Bozeman, Montana

Me hiking to Emerald Lake, Hyalite Canyon, Bozeman, Montana

Before I even started classes, however, I found out that MSU offered an emphasis in history of science in the history department. I met the professor in charge of that major, and I quickly changed my mind. This avenue of understanding science seemed to be more of what I was interested in. I love biology and geology, but I despise physics, chemistry, and all the associated math and statistics classes. I hate equations. I decided to start in the spring semester; by then I would have residency and cheaper tuition. Through the cleaning job, I met Catherine, who is now my wife. 

Catherine in Glacier National Park

Catherine in Glacier National Park

I immediately soaked up my history classes, especially Modern Science and the Darwinian Revolution. Animal Histories and Museum History also caught my attention. I wrote papers on science exhibits, Darwin’s work with earthworms, better baby contests as part of the eugenics movement, and Darwin’s experiments with seeds. I learned about the project to publish Darwin’s correspondence, and about the whole “Darwin Industry.” I craved information about not just Darwin, but the history of evolutionary theory and natural history in general. I joined the History of Science Society and the British Society for the History of Science. I met David Quammen. I joined the National Center for Science Education. It was not until 2007 that I began to explore online, and discovered blogs and listserves and podcasts. I decided to start my own blog about Darwin when I couldn’t find a site that focused specifically on telling what’s new in Darwin studies. So I started what I originally named The Daily Darwin, but quickly changed that to the current name. Thinking about my paper on seed dispersal, I thought of how doing a blog would allow me to share, or disperse, Darwin content to others. So the blogosphere welcomed The Dispersal of Darwin. It’s my place to inform other people, be they historians, scientists, bloggers, or anyone interested in Darwin and the history of science, of not only historical Darwin content – books, journal articles, conferences, other blog posts – but a myriad of stuff online. Photography, videos, movies, humor. I also use the space to share things about my life – school, living in Montana, books, or, most importantly, my being a father. In March of 2006, Catherine and I welcomed Patrick into our lives. From early on, he shared some of my interests.

May he sail on HMS Beagle replica one day!

May he sail on HMS Beagle replica one day!

It is an absolutely wonderful experience to watch Patrick grow up (he’ll be 3 this March) and learning about the world around him. He loves to be outside, but as we live in Montana and I am not to fond of snow or very cold weather, it’s tough to spend much time outside. Between work and school too. I don’t know how some people do it, with more than one kid even. It is summer that I really enjoy, when Patrick and I can pull out the shorts and sandals. Last summer was his first where we did alot of local hiking and exploring. He absolutely loves it. Loves rocks. Loves ants. Loves birds. What I see with my being a father, and the ability to accompany a developing mind’s insatiable curiosity for the world around him, is the opportunity to learn about nature and be the kind of outside person I was not as a kid. Patrick is going to hike as he grows up. He is going to go camping, although this is something I really know nothing about. He is going to see national parks (my list is poor: Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, and Death Valley). He is going to learn about the different plants and animals that live where he does. But he is only going to do these things because he wants to. I am sure he will.

Leverich Canyon Trial, Bozeman, Montana

Leverich Canyon Trial, Bozeman, Montana

He is going to teach me things. What he is going to teach me is not just the neat stuff about the natural world, like different bird species for example (birding is an activity I want to get into). He is going to teach me that immersing oneself in nature has a deeper meaning. To feel that we are a part of nature is crucial in thinking about how we want to treat this planet. This is where Darwin comes in strong. It is no suprise that a creation-minded person like Sarah Palin would also state that humans have had no effect on the climate of this planet. Certainly understandable if one views themselves as above nature and given dominion over it. (David Attenborough, as wonderful a human being as he is, unfortunately has to deal with people disagreeing with this idea). But my son is not going to be taught that he belongs to some group of humans created by some god (if at some point he wants to take this up, that’s his decision). He will learn what we can know for sure about our world and our place in it. He will learn about evolution and how humans are not the epitomy of creation but just one (and yes we are unique, but so are all other organisms) animal in the tree of life. This is not indoctrinating a young mind, as some might suggest. Rather, it is teaching a young mind about his place in a world that could get along just fine without him. Earth is not ours for the taking, but ours for the caring.

Palisade Falls, Hyalite Canyon, Bozeman, Montana

Palisade Falls, Hyalite Canyon, Bozeman, Montana

I think teaching about Darwin and evolution reinforces this mindset. This is how I want to raise my son. It is something we will share for years to come. For Patrick and I, every day will be Darwin Day. For me, my interest in Darwin not only fulfills interests in the history of science or science education (which just may be for me a second master’s degree), it compliments an appreciation of the natural world. I think of how Darwin would have taught his many children about nature. Several grew up to be scientists on their own. Over the years, I have continued my interest in science, but have not become the outside person I desire to be. I’ve accumulated enough hiking books, bird books, and other nature guides. It’s time to start using them more. And what better way than with my son!

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington

I was inspired to write this for my Darwin Day post when I read this quote from Kathryn Tabb’s “The Debate Over Intelligent Design,” Forbes, Feb. 5, 2009 (which I saw on Thoughts in a Haystack):

But what would this ghost [Darwin], who would find the separation of church and state unthinkably radical, have to say about the legal battles over evolution being waged across America?

An indifferent student, Darwin preferred the outdoors to the schoolhouse and once confessed, “Observing, thinking & some reading beat, in my opinion, all systematic education.” My guess is that Darwin would urge the children of Austin to take advantage of all the mayhem to sneak out while the adults aren’t looking–and, equipped with magnifying glasses and notebooks, take to nature and draw their own conclusions.

Instead of sitting in some church classroom every Sunday being told that man lived with dinosaurs and evolutionists are atheists, Patrick, equipped with a magnifying glass and a notebook, may just take to nature and draw his own conclusions. 

Patrick observing a ladybug in our apartment

Patrick observing a ladybug in our apartment



My bird photos

My insect photos

My flower photos

Photos when away from cities

Photos of Yellowstone National Park

Photos of Patrick, the Young Naturalist?

Books of interest:

Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv 

I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature, Jennifer Ward, Richard Louv, and Susie Ghahremani 

Naturalist, Edward O. Wilson

Maybe One, Bill McKibben

The Voyage of the Beetle, Anne Weaver

17 thoughts on “Darwin Day 2009: Take to Nature and Draw Your Own Conclusions

  1. Very well written, Michael.Brings to mind alot of memories of my father and you.I love your intensity for the love of our planet earth and the gifts that nature gives us everyday.You carry my father’s spirit with you and Patrick sees everything thru my father’s eyes.Thank you for carrying on his love of nature and for teaching Patrick about our earth and all it’s glory!!!Love you, mom

  2. Your journey outdoors with your son parallels my adventures with my son. However,
    early on it was very difficult to actually hike . . . for every two steps was like “oh! a rock!” or “look at this stick.” Now that he is older (8) he is really enjoying the outdoors . . . playing in creeks and waterfalls, climbing on rocks, etc. People are always pushing me to get him into sports. I reply that if I can instill in him a love of nature and hiking I would much prefer that.

  3. Hi Todd – that’s wonderful about your son loving the outdoors. Patrick easily gets distracted by something he sees on a trail, but I am sure he will learn to focus as he gets older. Hope you and yours had a wonderful Darwin Day!

  4. Excellent post! May our sons always love true learning, nature and thinking critically… with that everything else is gravy.

    It looks like Patrick is well on his way for a life of learning and adventure. You have several beautiful lines in this piece I could quote, but all I will say is you are right, And hold on for the ride – being an involved father and seeing Johann discover and explore the world is the greatest experience I have had. Challenging at times, but worth every moment.

  5. T. Fife & Eric – thanks for your responses and comparisons to your own son’s interests in science.

  6. Thank you for your comment. I enjoyed reading this post. I’m confident that your son will love nature and science as much as Johann does. Reading your post reminded me of when Johann was your son’s age. I took him out almost every day for nature and listening (walk quietly and listen for animals and the sounds of nature all around you) walks. You are passing on the gift your grandfather gave to you.

  7. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: The Curious Mind of Young Darwin « The Dispersal of Darwin

  8. Pingback: A thought for Earth Day « The Dispersal of Darwin

  9. Pingback: Introductory post for Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas | Exploring Portland's Natural Areas

  10. Pingback: The Curious Mind of Young Darwin « Science & Nature Books for Kids

  11. Pingback: Introductory post for Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s