Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. You’ve probably read a lot of wonderful things about him in the days leading up to today. Darwin was one of those people who looked around at what he saw in the world – honestly, carefully, and with no preconceived bias – and managed to figure out the true nature of things, how cause and effect actually works in the evolution of species – including ours.
He managed to do this even though the key facts he would have needed to understand the mechanism of sexual selection and recombination were not yet available – Gregor Mendel did the work required for that somewhat later. Which makes Darwin’s achievement even more remarkable.
But my own personal history of appreciation of Darwin’s work is somewhat skewed by the fact that when I first learned about it, as a child, I glommed onto the name of the ship he was sailing on for five years while he made his most important discoveries: the HMS Beagle.
And so, in my child’s mind, I always associated Charles Darwin with Snoopy, that intrepid beagle from the Peanuts comic strip.
It’s not really much of a stretch, when you think about it. Of all the Peanuts characters, Snoopy was the explorer, the discoverer of new worlds. While Charlie Brown was consumed with self-doubt and existential angst, Linus assumed the inward looking gaze of a dreamy Aristotalian philosopher, Lucy focused entirely on her own unthinking arrogance, and Schroeder threw all his energy into expressing his music, Snoopy was the only one who looked at the world around him with a clear and unbiased vision, his eyes wide open.
Perhaps this was because Snoopy was a dog – free from the tyranny of childhood’s social pressures. While the other characters worried about girls or boys or about fitting in, Snoopy was engaged in a dance with the Universe. I suspect that this power to be free within his own mind was the reason he became the most popular Peanuts character.
And it also happened that my childhood occurred in an odd time in our culture. When I was a child young people were in the midst of rebellion. They felt betrayed that the grown-up guys in the suits – the “smartest guys in the room” – had rationalized our nation into an unwinnable war that eventually blew up into a tragic quagmire (sound familiar?). To young people of that time, assuming a posture of holy innocence was the only proper response. In the words of Joni Mitchell: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
And so as I grew up I experienced a contradiction. I respected evidence – looking at cause and effect without preconceived prejudice, and I also respected the ethical convictions of young adults who protested a misbegotten war. But an odd thing was happening. The very tools of truth had become associated with the discredited Military Industrial Complex. And so young people started to embrace pseudo-science – EST, crystals, Toth pyramids, and all manner of beliefs that had much of the form of science, but none of its focus on rigorous thinking or cause-and-effect.
The discredited “establishment” had somehow tainted science itself, and so I found my loyalties caught between two worlds – two different notions of truth – that were drifting tragically apart.
And yet everyone – whatever their view on reality – embraced Snoopy and his wide-eyed dance of discovery through the Universe. Even that flagship of big-government high technology – NASA and its mission to the moon – associated itself with Snoopy. One of the Apollo 10 craft was named “Snoopy”, and to this day NASA gives out “Silver Snoopy” awards to exemplary employees.
Truth – the objective truth that comes from looking at the Universe with objectivity – is powerful, and therefore it is both wondrous and dangerous. Nobody fights a cholera epidemic by wishful thinking or made-up pseudo-science, but neither to daydreamers and fantasists make atomic bombs. Science can be a potent tool for either great good or great harm.
To this day, I see the connection between Charles Darwin and Snoopy, two of my heroes. One was a great genius and the other a great symbol of exploration – separated by an ocean and 150 years – and yet they shared a belief in exploration, in the nobility of looking out into the world and trying to understand what is around you.
Exploration and an honest striving to understand the world around us – what could be better than that? I vote for riding with the beagle.