Charles Robert Darwin is one of the most polarizing intellectuals ever. For the last 150 years or so he has been considered evil incarnate by some or a saint by others. There was no middle ground, you either loved him or hated him. He was, therefore, the original Justin Bieber of natural history (By the way, I consider Craig Venter as the JB of modern science…).
The thing is that Darwin was neither demon or angel; he was simply a product of his culture and upbringing, like we all are, but unlike many of us, he was able to transcend his background and the preconceptions of his time and gave us one of the most remarkable examples of “out of the box” thinking.
Darwin formulated one of the best-argued explanations of how the wonderful diversity of life on our planet (and possibly, nah, most likely, elsewhere) is generated. That alone would have made his contribution to science (or natural history, as he knew it) invaluable, but, in addition to that, he produced a prodigious body of work of a truly interdisciplinary nature.
His curiosity took him from geology all the way to human behavior. He was able to be “actively curious” about practically everything because in his time, it was still possible for a single person to *truly* master such a wide variety of dissimilar disciplines. He was also one of the first true popular science writers. No question about it.
In all eras, one of the dangers of being a well-known, public intellectual is that they are rarely properly understood. For starters, some people will not actually read their work and pass judgement over it anyway. Also, many of those who actually read their writings have preconceived notions and biases that do not allow them to “believe” what was written. The thing is that good, properly done science is just not a matter of opinion. True science is based on facts, the more information, the merrier, as a fair amount of such information will lend itself to be weaved into a coherent point of view, which we call a scientific theory.
Many modern scholars fall into the “misunderstood” classification through no fault of their own. Others, like Richard Dawkins, thrive in, and actually look for, controversy and provocation, sometimes at the expense of true science. If he’d only stuck with what he knew and truly loved, biology!
Alas, this is a story for some other time.
Scientists, particularly public scholars, are also prone to be misunderstood because there is another source of uncertainty that naturally appears when examining a scientific work: The scientist’s motivation and way of thinking. That information is rarely available. I do not even know what I am thinking, let alone try to divine what’s in another person’s mind. Worse, try to get into the mind of a person who lived some 200 years ago!
Fortunately, we have a glimpse of what made Darwin’s mind tick. In addition to his impressive scientific output, measured in books and scientific papers, Darwin also wrote prodigiously to friends, colleagues and to even complete strangers in his quest to obtain as much information as possible to test his theories. He wrote some 1,500 letters for that purpose and to express many of his intimate thoughts. If you think carefully about how much Darwin got out of writing his letters, it is remarkable how much information was he able to obtain in a time when letters could take months to be delivered, read and answered. He relied on the postal service to that, delivered by horse power (real horses) or wind power.
Which brings the thought to mind that I like thinking of Darwin as a blogger. Not a blogger in the modern sense of course, but certainly his time’s equivalent. It is important to understand that as I said above, regardless of the way you look at it, Darwin was a prolific writer. If you are interested on knowing more about Darwin’s literary output, there is a very useful website called Darwin Online, which in addition to Darwin’s work in digital form, contains translations, comments by others and many other goodies.
Keep in mind how much he wrote, and let’s forget for a moment that a wired world strongly implies a world with modes of transportation faster that a wind-powered boat. I can certainly imagine young Darwin documenting his experiences wherever the Beagle took him. I also imagine him writing posts describing a new class of barnacle, some observations of earthworms and descriptions on how carnivorous plants captured insects, and that is just for starters. I can absolutely see him tweeting and even taking selfies with fossils and other treasures and posting them. I also think that he would have serialized the Origin. Incidentally, it would stand to reason that if Darwin was a blogger, Alfred R. Wallace would be one too. Maybe that would have changed the course of the history of science so today we’d talk about Wallace’s theory of natural selection… Maybe it happened in an alternate universe. Who knows?
One could not help but thinking what could either of them would have done in this era of instantaneous communication. Of course, I am not taking into consideration the common time sinks that plague us, even those of us (myself included) who use them enthusiastically. Would Darwin or Wallace have posted a selfie on Facebook? As I said above, most likely! I shudder at this thought, and this is coming from someone (yes, me) who took selfies before it was cool, using film cameras too, meaning that I did not know how the selfie came about until after the film was developed! Oh, how my kids make fun of me because of that! But I digress…
At any rate, I think of Darwin as a blogger because he certainly had an interest on sharing his findings with others, peers or not. He clearly thought that natural history was amenable for public consumption. Also, he would most likely would have been an avid googler; this actually makes a lot of sense to me. I found the previous two thoughts in a 2009 blogpost in which several scholars tried to answer the question: Would Darwin blog? In addition to the points above, they present their argument in favor or against the notion of a blogging Darwin. Some of these arguments are more on point than others and some others seem to be talking essentially and peripherally about some other thing, but for the most part, what they have to say is interesting, though rather philosophical.
I, for one, would have loved for the opportunity to write a comment in a post from Darwin. I imagine that quite a few trolls would have welcome the opportunity to do so as well. I think that this would have distraught Darwin, and this is also a speculation for some other time.
So, I am interested in your opinion; would Darwin blog? What do you think?
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