(Host) Recently commentator Ted Levin visited the home of Charles Darwin where he found a surprising example of evolution.
(Levin) The train ride from Monmouthshire, Wales to Shrewsbury, England, along the broad valley of the River Severon, took an hour-and-a-half. I was on my way to Charles Darwin’s birthplace; he’s been a hero of mine since I first studied biology my sophomore year in high school. It was then that I discovered that Darwin had changed our concept of ourselves. Not many in the parade of Mankind could have such a bold claim attached to their resumes,
Four inches of fresh snow covered the ground and etched the tree limbs. From my window I counted a dozen common buzzards – brown, crowsized hawks – each perched like royalty in the crown of a pasture oak. I also saw kestrals hovering; swans and geese floating, flying, grazing; flocks of jackdaws and carrion crows, black against the snow; border collies supervising sheep, and legions of tiny songbirds, too small and too quick to identify from a moving train.
Each creature was as much the essence of the pastoral landscape as the pot is the essence of the potter, the very proving ground of Darwin’s vision. Not only did Darwin demonstrate the reality of evolution – or the unending progression of one species into another; he also showed that natural selection, the survival of the fittest in a particular habitat, was the means. Darwin revealed the kinship of life – past to present, while explaining the nature of biodiversity and extinction.
In his own words, “Can we wonder, then, that Nature’s productions should be far “truer” in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?”
He continued, “It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relationship to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”
From the train, I thought about the hovering kestral and the stationary buzzard, of how natural selection interprets the environment into each bird’s design. Form reflects function. And function reflects the respective roll that each bird plays in the unending drama of ecological life. Each and every species is a work in progress.
Darwin’s home sits on a hill. The outside of the house is brick; inside oak. As though reflecting the nature of his theory, the grounds are fertile and immaculate.
But as though refecting the controversy that still surrounds his theory – five states, most recently Georgia, have excised the word evolution from their science curricula – Darwin’s birthplace is not a world heritage site, nor is it even a national historic site.
It is, truth be told, a taxation office bustling with county employees, whose voices echo down the hallways – an adaptation to changing circumstances – a fact that might have amused Darwin himself.
This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.
Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in natural history. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.