Sunday, June 01, 2008

Tortoises, moving plants, and Darwin

I finally visited the New York Botanical Garden and saw Darwin's Garden exhibit (see an earlier post on it). It is fantastic! The exhibit really highlights Darwin's patience and his attention to details. One easily forgets how much of his work was centered around plants - especially on plants with rapid movements. Of course, Venus flytraps and some other carnivorous plants are in the exhibit. However, I really liked Mimosa Pudica (yes, you can touch its leaves in the exhibit - and see it respond to touch. I found it quite entertaining...). If you live in New York city or are planning on visiting there, do check out Darwin's Garden. It's there through June 15th.

On a related note, here is a nice article about Darwin's book, The Voyage of the Beagle:
Its language is that of a young man intoxicated by the tropics ("To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again") and careless of the risks ("Upon landing I found that I was to a certain degree a prisoner . . . a traveller has no protection beside his fire-arms"). The youthful Darwin was a master of unadorned English. He took with him more than geology textbooks: "Milton's Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton."
On learning about evolution from culinary experiences:

Knowledge was mightily advanced on the expedition, but quite how it influenced his thinking is often misinterpreted. Darwin spent only five weeks of the five-year adventure in the Galapagos, with just half that time on visits to islands. He scarcely noticed the finches and lumped their corpses together into a jumbled mass. In fact, the local tortoises were more important. On the island of James he "lived entirely on tortoise meat . . . the young tortoises make excellent soup." In those lumbering creatures, Darwin saw, without realizing it at the time, his first hint of evolution, for animals from James were subtly distinct from those on Indefatigable and Albemarle nearby. In a rare conjunction of taxonomy with gastronomy, he noted that the James specimens were "rounder, blacker, and had a better taste when cooked" -- which at the time seemed little more than a curiosity but was in fact his introduction to the biology of change.

And again, here again it shows his focus away from large animals:

Much of his work was not on animals but on rocks; and in a few short weeks in the Andes (and a few days on the tiny island of Cocos-Keeling) he worked out how coral atolls were the product of small creatures that labor to stay near the surface while their basalt foundations sink beneath. The idea was dismissed as absurd until the drills of the military during the H-bomb tests on Bikini revealed the hidden foundations predicted a century before.

The Beagle book was the first step to our understanding why the world is how it is. Its last few pages have a strikingly modern resonance, for they predict what our native planet may soon become. A few months before returning home, the ship dropped anchor at St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, one of the most isolated islands in the world. Darwin was delighted by the place: Its volcanic mountain rose "like a huge black castle from the ocean." He admired the "English, or rather Welsh, character of the scenery" and noted to his surprise that the vegetation, too, was decidedly British, with gorse, blackberries, willows and other imports. On his first day, Darwin found the dead shells of nine species of "land-shells of a very peculiar form" (one of few mentions of snails in his entire writings) and noted that specimens collected from one location "differ as a marked variety" from others picked up a few miles away -- another hint of evolution. All apart from one were extinct and had been replaced by the common brown snail of English -- and American -- gardens.

Read the full article here.