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Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus

Sometimes a great, earth-shaking, new idea in science can be created in the most homespun ways.

Listen to my Morning Edition piece to hear how Charles Darwin and his butler dropped asparagus into a tub and how Darwin and his oldest son studied dead pigeons floating upside down in a bowl to test ideas about evolution.

These stories come from a short, elegant study just published by W.W. Norton, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen.

Quammen describes what happens when a meticulous, shy, socially conservative man comes up with a revolutionary, new, dangerous idea. Darwin gets so nervous thinking what he's thinking, yet he is so sure that it's a promising idea. He can't let it out but he can't let it go. Instead, he spends years, decades even, checking and double checking his evidence. He wanted to be surer than sure about his ideas on natural selection. But, of course, in science you can never know what you don't know, and so painfully, gingerly, and on occasion delightfully, he tried to anticipate his critics and get his idea ready. But it was slow to gestate. Very slow.

Here, in an excerpt, Quammen compares Darwin's launching the theory to a kiwi laying an egg:

Reprinted from 'The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution,' by David Quammen. Copyright (c) 2006 by David Quammen. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Robert Krulwich's reports are available as podcasts: Hmmm.... Krulwich on Science.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.