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Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus

Sep 20, 2006 (Morning Edition)

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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:

The kiwis are small — no bigger than an overfed chicken....

A female brown kiwi weighs less than five pounds. Her egg weighs almost a pound — constituting, that is, about 20 percent of her total weight. Among some kiwis, the egg-to-body weight ratio reportedly reaches 25 percent. A female ostrich, by contrast, lays an egg weighing less than two percent as much as herself. Certain other avian species — hummingbirds, for instance — lay more ambitious sing-egg packages than ostriches, but few if any match kiwis. Relative to her body size on a standard with other birds, the brown kiwi's egg is about six times as big as it should be. It contains also a disproportionate allotment of yolk, on which the chick will survive just after hatching. This egg takes 24 hours to develop and, once it has, fills the female like a darning egg fills a sock. Having gorged herself for three weeks to support the growth of such a large embryo, during the last two days she stops eating. There's no room in her abdomen for another cricket.

"Sometimes the egg-bearing female will soak her belly in puddles of cold water," according to one source, "to relieve the inflammation and to rest the weight." She is painfully replete with motherhood.

It seems impossible. How can she carry this thing? How can she deliver? Will it reward her efforts and discomforts, or rip her apart? ...

The point is simply metaphor. Every time I see that X-ray of the mama kiwi, I think: There's Darwin during the years of gestation.

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

In the Spirit of Discovery

To piece together his theories of evolution and natural selection, Darwin relied in part on the observations of amateur scientists. That is, his children, his neighbors and their children and multiple correspondents. Below, links exploring the contributions of other great amateur scientists from the past and organizations that encourage an everyman spirit of discovery:   

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