Serial Bus

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We All Came Out From Darwin’s Overcoat!

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Hi! I am a tortoise, my name is George and and I am celebrating the 200th birth anniversary of my good friend Charles Darwin today. I met him for the first time in 1835 when he visited the Pinta island here at Galapagos. The island had long been a haven for my community. According to an old prophecy passed down the generations, strange creatures walking on hind legs (euphemistically called humans) were to arrive on our island one day. We never believed this – Galapagos (which is incidentally named after the first tortoise ever, a la ‘Adam’) appeared so remote that the mere idea of a human being was incredulous. But the chance visit of Charles proved to be an eye-opener for us and personally for me, it was shattering.

The day began like any other. Harriet and I made love in the morning and we had some lovely lettuce as brunch. It was noontime and I was by the beach, basking. Charles came by a small boat. To this day, I am not sure who was startled more – he or me. He seemed like a inquisitive fellow and had obviously not seen anything like me before. He came close to me and I was frightened. I withdrew into my shell. He just walked around me for a while and then took out a tape and began measuring my shell. After a while, he was gone but he left me wondering why the diameter of my shell could be of interest to anyone. 

He came again the next day. Aside from curious glances at me time to time, he devoted his time to observing my other friends such as the finches, sea lions & iguanas. I think I grew kind of comfortable with him by the end of that day and I had the courage to clear my throat and ask him what he was up to. He told me he was developing a theory about where everyone came from. I thought lightly of his answer because it seemed like a very vain preoccupation. As far as I was concerned, we had all descended from Galapagos, the first tortoise, who was created by God. This was an irrevocable truth and nobody on the island ever questioned it. 

Charles was not sure. He proceeded to explain to me how he thought life evolved and how the diversity around us was a result of some sort of struggle for existence. When I didn’t seem convinced, he showed me some samples of mockingbird feathers he had collected from different islands around our own in the past several days. He pointed out how different species evolved different traits in order to adapt to differences in environments, but had a common ancestor. He even attributed my huge shell to an evolutionary need to protect from predators since I couldn’t move fast enough. Although his ideas were very oddball, I was fascinated by them. You could say I was gullible then and blame my youth and rebelliousness. The truth is that it was a eureka moment for me, a kind of consciousness-raising flash. Suddenly, natural selection made sense. 

I figured that if he was so amused by me, may be he would like to meet the rest of my clan. So, I started ambling towards our home and as expected, he followed me. I saw his face awash with excitement when he saw our colony. I don’t think he had ever seen so many tortoises together. I introduced him to Harriet and my pious parents. We talked about his research for some time but I remember that my folks were unimpressed. After Charles left, they spoke to me with great concern. According to them, any theory that discredited our lineage from Galapagos was to be shunned and contained. I couldn’t sleep well that night. I kept thinking about why the talk of evolution sounded so ominous to my folks. Is it because it jolted them out of their peaceful state of veneration towards some Almighty Lord and forced them to question conventional wisdom? I realized that evolution disproved a higher purpose of our existence – our life may just be a game that allowed survival of only the fittest (my phrase, not his). If you believed this, you would have to forsake your faith in God. I wondered what Charles thought about this dilemma. 

Next day, I asked him if his ideas on evolution had led him to disbelieve the existence of God. I think I caught him off-guard by my question and he just mumbled something. Clearly, he had not yet considered the repercussions of his ideas fully. The whole day, he remained in deep contemplation and did not utter a word. His ship departed the next day and I did not see him again.

Since human beings are generally more pious than tortoises, I had expected to hear some sort of explosion (not literally), once Charles got back home and had a chance to publish his findings. But, nothing happened. Apparently, he had sealed his lips and was not going to discuss his big idea with anyone. Then, about 24 years later, he sent me a letter thanking me for forcing him to face the philosophical consequences of his scientific quest. He wrote that he had been in deep moral turmoil since his visit to Galapagos and at one time, he had abandoned the idea of publishing. However, after years of introspection, he was able to exorcise his demons and mustered up the courage to face the truth that lay buried in the vast evidence he had collected. He had just published and as a token of his gratitude, he had enclosed a copy of his book titled ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life ‘. I hope I am not splitting hairs when I say that a shorter title would have been just fine – it was a stupendous work otherwise. 

Today, Charles is no more but his ideas have revolutionized how even tortoises think about ourselves, let alone human beings. There are still a lot of skeptics but one day, they will also realize (and I am paraphrasing what Dostoevsky said about Gogol) that we all came out from Darwin’s overcoat. If Charles were a tortoise, he could have perhaps lived to see this day. Anyways, he is long gone and it seems I am the only surviving living being from his times. In the honor of his birthday, I intend to feast on hibiscus flowers today and bask the whole day on the beach, trying to relive the day I met him. 




Lonesome George

Lonesome George










(Note: Although the supposed author of this post is a fictitious tortoise, it is based on Lonesome George, the famous giant Galapagos tortoise who is apparently the last surviving member of the subspecies Pinta Island tortoise. While Lonesome George is believed to be about 90 years old, his more celebrated peer was Harriet, another Galapagos tortoise who died in 2006 at the age of 175. Harriet was actually 5 years of age when Darwin visited Galapagos in 1835 and according to some accounts, she was inspected by him. And yes, Darwin started as a Bible believer but towards the end of his life, he asserted to be an Agnostic.)


Written by serialbus

February 12, 2009 at 7:06 pm

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