Thank You Charles – an evolutionary biologist’s journey.

In 2009 my wife Aqila wanted to go to England to see Blur play a concert in Hyde Park.  I was in, under one condition, we take a day for me to go to Darwin’s home in Kent and pay homage to a man who suffered so I could understand.

I love Blur, and seeing them in Hyde Park with 80,000 people was an epic experience. But Blur aside it was time to make my pilgrimage and pay my respects to one of the most influential men in my life.

My Darwin journey started at Westminster Abbey. This is Darwin’s final resting place. I expected to find an ornate monument, but was greeted by a modest stone that simple says “CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809. DIED 19 APRIL 1882.” It was a fitting grave for a man who preferred to be in his study rather than in the spotlight.

I just sort of stood for awhile, looking for some sort of emotional response, but nothing of significance came forth.  It was just a stone, there were crowds of people, crying children, and little atmosphere for reflection.

The next day we took a train, two buses, and walked 30 minutes down a narrow road with no sidewalks to Down House. We took the tour of the house with a small group and I began to feel a tinge of emotion. As we toured from room to room seeing the actual spot Darwin worked I started to get a surreal feeling. The reality of where I was, the significance of this spot to me personally, began to set in.  My whole life has been guided by work that was penned in this very spot.

I finally started to feel the twinges of emotion I was looking for when I stepped onto Darwin’s walking path. This is the famous sand path around the property that Darwin would walk each day, losing himself in thought as he slowly walked the length of his expansive country home. He often stated it was during these walks that he was able to put together the pieces of his theory. It calmed his ailing stomach and let his mind go free.

A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.
A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.

I began to walk the path. I felt an initial giddiness but as I moved further from the house and other people I began to feel it. Soon I had left the crowds behind and I was alone in the woods.  As I walked the path my mind began to wander, I thought of Darwin walking this path as I am now. I thought of natural selection, the origin of humans, and the greatness of his theory…..but then my mind wandered and the world around me slipped away….

…I was in my Catholic school training classes (CCD), in the sixth grade, a nun was scorning me for talking about evolution during class….

…8th grade forced to sit alone in CCD to reflect why I shouldn’t ask the nun how God created us when we evolved from primates…

…I saw myself stomping through local ponds in my hometown collecting anything living and placing them in a coffee can. Marveling at the variety of nature, to young to articulate the beautiful words of Darwin “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved…”

The present world slipped away and I was watching the film of my life play before me. There I was entering college to pursue a career in science…

…sitting in the Smithsonian studying Komodo dragon behavior…

…teaching evolution to seniors in a class I designed as the head of science at a private school….

…and here I am in England….my life, my whole life guided by a theory that was born right here….I became completely overwhelmed…I thought of Darwin walking this path, suffering intense physical and mental pain as his mind penned the words of his life’s work.

I wanted so badly to tell Darwin thank you, that his work answered the question that no one could answer for me during my young life. I knew it could never be. Sadly I kicked a stone on the path on my final lap. Then it hit me. I remembered a snippet I read about Darwin.  He would put a small pile of stones down and would kick them aside as he walked so he didn’t have to be bothered mentally to remember what lap he was on….. and it came full circle……there I was kicking stones on the sand path at Down House….and for a moment….I was as close to Darwin as I could be.  I picked up the rock I kicked and held it, the only tangible connection I would ever have and kept it.

So as I sit here at my desk as Cosmos plays in the background.  My wife occasionally asks me what I am so intensely focused on…

I guess I was just trying to find a way to simply say…

….Thank you Charles, I am eternally grateful. Your suffering put mine to rest.

 

[This is an excerpt from a previous blog most modified for PLoS]

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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