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Author Pays Tribute to Darwin in Encyclopedic Book, Musical Stage Show


Richard Milner and his Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z

Richard Milner and his Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z

Charles Darwin's groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species was first published 150 years ago, November 24, 1859. Educator and author Richard Milner has spent his career promoting Darwin's discoveries in writing, lectures and a one-man stage show. The writer explores the thought of the famous naturalist in a new book called Darwin's Universe, and he continues to entertain audiences.

Charles Darwin's groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species was first published 150 years ago, November 24, 1859. Educator and author Richard Milner has spent his career promoting Darwin's discoveries in writing, lectures and a one-man stage show. The writer explores the thought of the famous naturalist in a new book called Darwin's Universe, and he continues to entertain audiences.

For those lucky enough to see one of Richard Milner's performances, Darwin's explorations on the survey ship H.M.S. Beagle and his struggles to publish his ideas come to life through music.

"I was lying awake with a dismal headache and my sleep was put off by anxiety.
For I feared that my plan of explaining how man had evolved would provoke notoriety.
I had left London town for the village of Downe and a home that is quiet and regal.
Yet I get no repose and I can't even doze without dreaming I'm back on the Beagle.
We are rounding the Horn in a furious storm."

Milner says he loves to perform his comic songs, wearing a 19th century bowler hat and cape, personifying Darwin. And his newly published book, an exploration of the Darwin's influence on science, philosophy and popular culture, is the culmination of a lifelong interest in the thinker.

"The book is Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z, and it is a life's work," said Richard Milner. "People ask me, 'How long did it take you to write that book?' The answer is, 'Sixty-eight years.'"

The book consists of 600 essays by Milner - some done in consultation with other experts in the many fields shaped by Darwin's thinking . . .

" . . . such as animal distribution, animal behavior, plant physiology, geology, botany, paleontology," he said. "He was trained in none of these, and yet he changed every single one of these fields."

Richard Milner as Darwin

Richard Milner as Darwin


On stage, Milner tells the story through music. Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection inspires some tunes, and episodes in his life inspire others.

"For example, when Thomas Henry Huxley first read The Origin of Species, his first thought [was], 'Well,' he said, of course, 'How extremely stupid [I am] not to have thought of that myself.' And so, I wrote the song called 'Why Didn't I Think of That?'", said Milner.

"How incredibly stupid not to have thought of that myself.
Of course, of course, it must be so.
I should have seen it long ago.
'Twas adaptive radiation that produced the mighty whale.
His hands have grown to flippers and he has a fishy tail.
Selections made him streamlined for his liquid habitat.
Why didn't I think of that?"

Some songs are written in the music hall style of British composers Gilbert and Sullivan. Others are American blues. One, a kind of prehistoric love song, is in the style of the French romantic singer Maurice Chevalier.

"When you were a tadpole and I was a fish,
in the oceans of Cambrian time.
And side by side, in the ebbing tide,
we swam through the ooze and the slime.
You winked once at me.
And I blinked back at you,
as we clamored through salt marsh and fen.
You good-looking creature. I just had to meet you
'cause I loved you even then."

Darwin knew his ideas on evolution would upset the religious establishment and he delayed publication of his work for more than 20 years. As a result, he was almost upstaged by a younger colleague, Alfred Russell Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution through his own research.

"And so based on that moment, I wrote a song called 'Let him be first.'

After all, he'll be the most hated and reviled man in all of England.
Let him inform the human race that it came down from the trees.
And he can tell the bishops they are kin to chimpanzees.
Let him be first."

Milner says Darwin's ideas upset old orthodoxies, but that he embraced the uncertainty and excitement of science.

"The spirit of discovery and adventure," said Richard Milner. "The spirit of exploration of our natural world. The spirit of trying to wrest from nature the facts of how it operates, wherever they may lead."

Milner recently presented his show at the Linnean Society of London, where the revolutionary ideas of Darwin and Wallace were first presented in 1858. He was worried about the reception he would receive.

"I do a lot of comic material in the show," he said. "It's kind of irreverent. Well, the British scientific establishment roared with laughter."

Richard Milner is working on his next book, which explores the art of Charles R. Knight, the American painter of dinosaurs, ice age mammoths and saber-toothed cats, whose work adorns the walls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago and other institutions.

Milner plans to keep promoting Darwin's legacy on stage through comic music.

"There was an ancient monkey with a long and curly tail.
This ape evolved into a man. He's teaching now at Yale.
A chimp could pass for upper class in gloves and a cravat.
Why didn't I think of that?
The struggle for survival lies outside the jungle too.
Just take a look at parliament. It's better than a zoo.
We're at each other's throats, just like the bulldog and the cat.
Your ideas on evolution will create a revolution.
Why didn't I think of that?"

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