Monday, September 16, 2019

Darwin: Citizen Science

After his return to England in 1836 from a five year round the world trip aboard the Beagle, Darwin did not travel again for any extended fieldwork. His home became his study and his laboratory, but he was no lonely isolated genius. His ideas stemmed from data that streamed in from all over the world.

From Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

Down House had become the hub of a correspondence network across the Empire, its tentacles touching every little England. The sack of mail brought gems daily to aid his sexual selection. Botanists from Ceylon to Calcutta sent reports on monkey manes and bearded Indians; mining engineers from Malacca to Nicaragua told of indigenous customs; tile manufacturers in Gibraltar attended to merino lambs; wine exporters in Portugal followed the local tailless dogs; Laplanders measured reindeer horns; New Zealanders heroically tackled the Maori's sense of beauty; and missionaries and magistrates from Queensland to Victoria ceased converting and incarcerating to observe aboriginal ways- with an old Beagle shipmate Philip King helping out. This is what Darwin excelled at: collecting and collating, tracking down facts, verifying,extending his old notebook speculations to embrace the globe.

Darwin had many India connections. His botanist friend Joseph Hooker who had traveled to India in the 1840's had been one source of information on indigenous plants, animals, and people. From 1855 or so, Edward Blyth, curator of the museum of the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta became his chief contact. He struck up a lively correspondence with Darwin. Details about monkey manes and bearded Indians would have come from him.

"his large and varied stories of knowledge, I should value more than that of almost anyone" he wrote of Blyth.

Vikram Doctor has written an insightful essay on Edward Blyth's life. It sketches the sharp contrast between the financially comfortable life Darwin lived in England against the hardscrabble existence of Blyth, who managed to stay on for 21 years in India on a salary of Rs 250 a month, supplementing it with a trade in exotic birds and animals.

A love for natural history drove Blyth on and Darwin benefited from that immensely.

No comments:

Post a Comment