It has been over 170 years since a young British country gentleman name Charles Darwin set off on his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, and the world is still digesting the results. The Beagle, which had been commissioned by the British Admiralty to explore and chart the coast of South America, employed Darwin as its onboard naturalist. He took to his five year job with gusto, collecting and cataloguing thousands of plant, animal, fossil and rock specimens for the British Museum, and incidentally devising his theory of evolution and natural selection along the way.
Charles Darwin's life and work are the subject of Charles Darwin: Live & In Concert. It's a one-man musical show written and performed by Richard Milner.
Mr. Milner is a historian of science, the author of the Encyclopedia of Evolution, and anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Mr. Milner performs at universities, arts festivals, museums and other venues.
"You might wonder what qualifies me to tell the story of Charles Darwin and evolution. Well I was trained as an anthropologist. In fact you might say I am the very model of a modern anthropologist!" he says.
Phillips: "Tell me a little about yourself and your interest in Darwin how you came to do a musical about what we normally think of as a dry historical figure of science."
Milner: "Well, I set out a few years ago to find Darwin, the man, because the science is fascinating but very dry in terms of human contact. The Darwin I found was a police court magistrate in his spare time and the father of ten children."
"Darwin came from a family of prosperous countryside English physicians, and he was expected to be doctor like father and his grandfather. But he couldn't stand the sight of blood [and] ran out of medical school during an operation"
And then his father suggested he try the next best profession for a country gentleman of that time the clergy. Charles Darwin went to Cambridge University to study theology.
"He thought he'd be a country vicar, which would give him time to save souls and beetles, which was his passion," explains Mr. Milner. "He could talk to people in the countryside and at the same time collect birds and rocks and fossils all around the county."
"But when he was 22 years old, he got a letter from one of his old professors recommending him as ship naturalist for a voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle and he went down to meet the captain Fitzroy. His job was to collect all the plants and the animals and rocks which were new to science in Europe and try to make sense out of all he had seen… sea creatures, giant sloths. He said that was the beginning of his real education!"
After five years on the Beagle, Darwin returned to his home in the quiet English countryside, and got married. "And then he sat down to do something very ambitious. He wrote in his notebook he wanted to discover the 'laws of life.' Little by little he began to see his data point to the conclusion that all living things were related by common descent, that they had been modified from common ancestors, and that we human beings were related by blood to everything that lives," says Mr. Milner. "Every plant, every animal on the earth is part of one great Tree of Life."
"A lot of the ideas that we take for granted today as modern ideas, the idea that we are stewards of the planet, the idea that time is immense and stretches back millions of years, the idea that we are literally related to the other creatures of the earth, those all came to us through Darwin and his circle."
Richard Milner notes that it was Darwin's firm intention to write a big book on all this.
"But he procrastinated. He was nervous," explains Richard Milner. "His wife didn't like the idea that he was giving ideas that might be contrary to the Bible. She was very religious. And so he messed around for twenty years, until all of a sudden he learned that another naturalist called Alfred Russell Wallace, fourteen years his junior, working in Malaysia, independently, had come up with exactly the same theory of natural selection! And I've dramatized how Darwin must have felt when he got that letter from Alfred Wallace."
Richard Milner explains what Darwin's fundamental insight was. What did his revolutionary book, elaborately titled On The Origin of Species actually propose?
Milner: "In Darwin's day, everyone including his captain on The Beagle believed the bible stories literally that all the animals and plants were created instantaneously and within the space of a few days. And Darwin showed us that there was an immense amount of geological time during which all species were related and descended from common ancestors."
Phillips: "Tell me in a nutshell what natural selection is, the idea of survival of the fittest."
Milner: "Natural selection refers to tremendous overproduction in nature. There are fish that lay a million eggs! Plant that give forth a million seeds or spores. Not all of these survive. Even Darwin calculated that elephants, which are very slow to reproduce would soon flood the earth if every one of the young elephants lived. So there has to be some agency, forces that limit populations. There is predation. There is disease. There are environmental changes. And when those challenges occur to survival, only those that are the fittest in that circumstance who are able to survive and reproduce themselves are going to be able to pass their genes on to the next generation. And that is the selection part. Because it is not a random process, and it's not blind chance. It is a selection. Darwin was actually very intrigued as a man living in the countryside with people breeding horses and pigeons and flowers and fruits which he called artificial selection and wrote two books on. That if man in a few thousand years could change a wolf into a dog, or a rock dove into a powder pigeon what could nature not achieve if it is for the good of that species itself, not for man's pleasure."
Phillips: You obviously have a clear admiration for the man. You must think the world of him!"
Milner: "He was one of the great heroes of our time. The man was so complex! He was a rebel in conservative's clothes. Darwin led a very conservative life as a country gentleman. He served on the local court. And yet he knew that from his quiet hilltop, he was shaking the world. The interesting thing is that Darwin could never have foreseen anything like molecular biology and molecular genetics, [and] the study of DNA. Because the mechanism of heredity eluded him during his lifetime. But if you talk to molecular biologists today, they say that's the greatest proof of evolution is the way they conceive the structures of the molecules that make us up evolving and being related back to common ancestors. So whole sciences that didn't even exist in Darwin's day have come to reestablish and prove the basic theory over and over again. The how and why of evolution, the mechanisms of it there are still many, many problems that scientists debate. But that evolution occurs is considered a fact in science, a fact as solid as that apples fall in a Newtonian universe."
Mr. Milner notes that that Darwin's theory of evolution was very controversial in those days, and remains so to this day.
Milner: "The reaction, particularly in America, of organized religion to the teaching of evolution has been a conflict that has gone on for at least 150 years, I guess. And Darwin was aware of it. But I think he would have been surprised by the tenacity of the opposition. Evolution is not a theory for armchair philosophers! Evolutionary Biology works! And it works in very practical ways. When I did the show in Kansas a few years ago where they have laws against teaching Darwin in their school because Creationists have taken over the school boards, it was ironic to discover that just a few miles from where we were in Kansas debating whether Darwin should be taught in the school, there was an agricultural facility at the University of Kansas that does nothing but deal with pests that attack the Kansas crops. And the insects and the beetles are always evolving to be resistant to the pesticides, and the scientists have to keep one jump ahead of their evolution or the Kansas crops would crash. So these people that are fighting Darwin in the schools are totally dependent on his theories for their daily bread. Of course there was a famous trial in Dayton Tennessee in 1925 in which a high school biology teacher named John Scopes was tried for the crime of teaching Darwin in his biology class. And of course, I have a song about that."
Phillips: "Now in this show what are you trying to do? Are you trying to make these theories go down smoother or try to relate or just entertain people."
Milner: "This show is an expression of myself as an artist. I didn't set out to make this show. It just evolved. The show has just been a great blessing to me. I don't try to teach. I try to plant seeds. Maybe some people who saw it will be intrigued enough to read some Darwin, to read the voyage of the Beagle, to look into it if they were brought up perhaps to shun Darwin. Really, I am doing what I say in the show Darwin does when he is collecting."