My love for Charles Darwin is quite obvious to anyone who knows me or reads my blog, however, on the eve of my departure for the Galapagos Islands, I feel the need to explain my devotion. I admire Darwin for the obvious reasons: he’s often regarded as the ‘founder of evolutionary biology’, he was one of the greatest naturalists ever to live, his contributions to science and society are ineffable, etc. However, for me, this connection to him runs even deeper than my passion for science and nature.
Many times throughout my life I have found myself finding unexpected parallels between me and this man that lived two centuries ago. Despite being separated by time, distance, and cultural/social differences I feel a connection to the scientist, and the human, of Charles Darwin. There are some links between our lives that are shallow (like his undergraduate work with marine invertebrates) and others that are integral to our character (psychological disorders), but all of them have been serendipitous.
I, like Darwin, had a natural inclination and curiosity for science which was fostered by a caring mentor, his was the botanist (and professor) John Stevens Henslow, mine was my high school biology teacher Dr. Christine Funk. Darwin was known by his fellow pupils as “the man who walks with Henslow”, I was known as “the girl who’s always in Funk’s classroom”. Much like Henslow, Dr. Funk guided me through the world of biology and encouraged my interest in the subject, many times indulging my many questions about the natural world with nothing but patience and pride. Dr. Funk may not have written to Robert Fitzroy to recommend me for an expedition, but she did (and still does) write me many a letter of recommendation for scholarships, programs, and fellowships. Like Darwin, I will always remain grateful to her for guiding me towards my destiny, encouraging my passion, and aiding me through the awkward years of my life.
On December 27, 1831 Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle and left on a naturalist expedition, he was 22 years old and was in his last year at university. I will be leaving for my journey to the Galapagos today (12/29/2015), almost exactly 184 years after Charles, I’m also in my early 20’s and am in the final year of my undergraduate studies. I suppose if I’m Darwin in this analogy then the professor accompanying us on our study abroad trip (Dr. Andrew Martin) is Captain Robert FitzRoy. Though I doubt Andy and I would disagree heatedly over the subject of slavery and the nickname “Hot Coffee” (due to FitzRoy’s temper) doesn’t fit Andy’s laid back personality very well.
Relationships with mentors and dates of travel aren’t the only things Darwin and I have in common, in fact, they are the least important traits we share. Perhaps the greatest connection I have with the Father of Evolution are his flaws, his issues, his humanity. Many modern writers and physicians have attempted to posthumously diagnose Darwin’s well recorded physical ailments. Some have suggested he suffered from Crohn’s disease, others are adamant he was infected with Chagas disease when bitten by a kissing bug aboard the Beagle, and some even suspect lactose intolerance. However, the most compelling explanation for his physical and mental anguish is severe anxiety. If you also have anxiety and you read his books, journals, personal letters, etc. you will recognize yourself in Darwin.
For example, he made an extensive pro and con list when considering marriage, something anyone with diagnosed OCD can relate to. He was also extremely neurotic; he did not like when his schedule was interrupted or when unforeseen issues arose. Barloon and Noyes, famous psychologists, diagnosed Darwin with severe panic attacks after examining his personal correspondence and doctor’s notes. Others have suggested he may have also suffered from agoraphobia as he rarely left his property and would become extremely nervous if he did so. He also seemed to have been frightened to be left alone, commenting on his ‘nervousness’ when Emma (his wife) was not around.
I look back on notebooks from freshmen year of college that are full of my obsessive lists about pursuing medical school or graduate school, molecular biology or evolutionary biology, etc. I too have suffered from severe panic attacks, some brought on by obviously stressful situations, and others that seem to come out of nowhere. Even while preparing for this trip I am reminded of my irrational fear of being far away from my significant other and my aversion to leaving my home to somewhere out of my comfort zone.
The thing I love most about Darwin is that he is a perfect example (Albert Einstein being a close second) of a ‘real scientist’. He was a giant in his field, who still felt very small and alone. He has gone down in history as one of the great minds, however when he was alive he doubted himself every day. He was the man who unveiled the secrets of human evolution, and yet he never lost his humanity. He reminds me that success is not synonymous with flawlessness, confidence is not always consistent in an individual, and that passion can overcome fear.
Though details of our voyages will inevitably differ (our trip probably won’t take five years) I hope, and expect, that this trip will be regarded as an integral part of my career and life.
I do wish I could also bring home a tortoise named Harry*.
*later corrected to Harriet