Saturday, February 14, 2009

Repost: Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent

In honor of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, I am reposting this review of Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, an examination of how birds shaped Darwin's thought during his travels in South America.

Lately the theory of evolution by natural selection has been in the news. There have been attempts in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere to have biology curricula diluted or altered to remove evolution or teach it alongside "alternative" theories, usually some form of creationism. Such attempts have mostly been quixotic wastes of taxpayer money, but in the meantime have generated heated arguments. One thing that tends to get drowned out in the attacks on "Darwinism" is the man himself: who was Charles Darwin, and how did he come to the conclusions he put forth in Origin of Species?

One new book to fill that void is Lyanda Lynn Haupt's Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks. As the author states at the outset, this book is not a true biography or a explanation of the theory of evolution. Rather, it is a sympathetic look at how Darwin grew from an "enthusiastic amateur" to a "professional scientist" during the course of his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle from 1831 to 1836. To do this Haupt relies on Darwin's Diary from the voyage, as well as a collection of records published as the Ornithological Notes, to trace the young Darwin's reaction to the birds he encountered and how they shaped his thinking.

When Darwin sailed from England, he had little background in the study of birds. Soon, though, he found himself captivated by birds, and this is reflected in the pages of his journals. As he traveled along the east coast of South America, he recorded a greater amount of detail on birds, eventually including notes on voice and behavior. It is no wonder that he would fall in love with birds on a voyage to South America, the continent that can claim the most recorded bird species. One species that particularly impressed Darwin was the Andean Condor both for its graceful soaring and for the ability of large flocks of condors to converge suddenly on a fresh corpse. For other species Darwin's close observations led him to see elements of human personality, something that modern-day birdwatchers can appreciate.

Birds play an important role in Darwin's argument in the Origin of Species due to their diversity. The Greater and Lesser Rheas are a prime example of two closely-related species that developed in different geographical areas. The fourteen species of finch that Darwin found on the Galapagos Islands are an exemplar of diversity in a limited area to take advantage of different food sources. These finches have come to play a greater role in retrospect than Darwin originally realized at the time. His diaries from that visit show more interest in mockingbirds and tortoises. In fact, the finches look so dissimilar that Darwin did not realize that all belonged to the same genus until he had time to study the specimens in England.

Ultimately, Haupt did not intend this book to focus solely on Darwin. The account of Darwin's voyage serves as a springboard for reflecting on questions faced by those of us interested in the natural world. A central principle of the theory of evolution by natural selection is that humans and other organisms exist on a continuum and evolved by the same means. This implies first that a human-centered view of the universe is incorrect, and second that God is not an active interventionist. For the nineteenth century, both implications were shocking; even now they cause great resistance from religious groups and others. (This, by the way, is a problem mainly for biblical literalists, and not so much for other religious approaches.) From an ethical standpoint, common descent suggests that we humans need to ensure that our actions do not upset the delicate ecological balance.

Darwin's journals are presented as a model for modern naturalists. (What Haupt means by a naturalist is open to question; she suggests that Darwin's experience on the voyage may be more akin to amateurs than professional scientists today.) The first is to pay attention to detail. Darwin followed a principle that nothing is beneath notice. In his work it was reflected in the careful and exhaustive studies that he made of barnacles and pigeons to support his conclusions. In his journals it appears in his careful recording of minute details about a bird's appearance. A second is that individual organisms are valuable as individuals, but each should be studied in the context of its environment. Finally, study of nature should lead to reflection on the human role within the ecosystem - and to better choices in how we live.

As much as I enjoyed reading this book, I have some reservations about Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent. The first is her tendency to insert narratives from her own life, some of which seem to add little to the story. Each chapter of this book contains at least one lengthy passage in which Haupt narrates a story from her own life. In some cases this helps to move the narrative forward. When she describes her first sighting of a black-necked stilt, for instance, it helps the reader understand Darwin's reaction to South American representatives of the genus Himantopus. In other cases the purpose of these narratives is less clear, and they serve as more of a distraction. A related problem is the tendency to engage in long philosophic digressions, such as her application of Buddhist philosophy to Darwin's study of vultures and condors. Like the personal narratives, these are less help than hindrance.

My second main reservation is that Haupt frequently appears to indulge in historical fiction. At the very outset she announces her intention to use imagination "as a bridge across the spaces," and she makes good on this promise. For example, we read passages like this: "Darwin liked what he wrote. But then, no, he hated it. He wrote again the next day. The fact that he did not indulge in tracing of his own interior 'process' in the diary itself does not make his struggle with that process any less real, or even less present on the page." (p. 46) Haupt rarely signals where her portrait of Darwin is firmly based on his writings and where her imagination takes hold; passages like the above do not inspire confidence.

A final issue of concern is that Haupt appears to have a chip on her shoulder when it comes to modern biology. She seems to be most upset with the use of mathematical models instead of field observation. The accuracy of her portrayal of modern biology is something that I cannot judge myself. I would be interested to hear what professional scientists think about this.

Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent is a fun read and at the same time raises some compelling questions. It made me want to travel to see some of the sights Darwin described in his journals. I would recommend this book to people who are interested in understanding what made Darwin tick, who wish to read about the questions that Haupt raises, or who simply enjoy travel narratives. Readers looking for a full account of the voyage or an explanation of the theory of evolution would do better with a different book.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks. New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2006. Pp. 276; map and illustrations. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 0316836648.