Somewhere in the distant canopy, a howler monkey is howling. It’s a primordial, guttural moan, like an out-of-date soundtrack to the Jurassic. Meanwhile, down here on the forest floor, something is lolloping silkily in my direction. I freeze. It’s a tamandua (the Andrex puppy of the anteater world), and it hasn’t seen me. It’s fixated hungrily on the ground, and, still oblivious, saunters off into the packed undergrowth.
Minutes later, feet immersed in a rocky stream, I’m gazing at the improbable, spindly legs of a giant walking palm. The walking palm is an almost mythical being. It is said that, as the decades pass, the palm strides languidly through the forest by extending its numerous stilts - evolution’s answer to Miyazaki’s itinerant Forest Spirit. I stare at this unlikely nomad, trying to imagine its slow-motion (and controversial) passage through the trees.
Ruining the soundscape, I am loudly and aseasonally humming Good King Wenceslas. This is a dubious attempt to scare off lurking snakes. I feel slightly silly. It clearly isn’t working, because despite the racket I’ve seen two coatimundi, the flash of a deer, a curious-looking capuchin, and a wandering agouti. Snakes aren’t the only vague fear in this forest: ‘researchers,’ reads a serious-looking sign back at the guard’s hut, ‘are reminded of the possibility of encountering live ordnance’. American troops apparently tested their weapons here before dropping them on Vietnam. I decide not to think about it.
Later in the afternoon, the heavens open: as always, the morning sun has fuelled evaporation from the limitless trees, and the lost water has amassed as clouds before returning dramatically to earth. Sheltered slightly by the canopy, I watch an anole lizard position itself grandly on a log, and, as if from nowhere, extend a brilliant, peach-tinted fan of scales from the underside of his neck. He retracts and inflates the elegant billboard repeatedly, only stopping to nimbly chase an upstart intruder from his claimed territory. Is a female lurking somewhere in the shadows, coolly appraising this exuberant display? I do not know.
Maybe rainforests are addictive. I wrote the above in a gush of excitement - in the midst of a torrential storm - after coming in for the night from the forest. I’ve just spent two nights at one of our wettest field sites, and, after working alone in the forest for hours, it’s really hit me just how much there is to see. Perhaps rainforests are like Pringles: once you pop, you just can’t stop…
An interesting question: isn't it a little bit strange that, after thousands of years of intense pondering about where we came from, the remarkably simple solution - evolution by natural selection - occurred independently to a handful of people in one particular society in the space of a couple of decades?
From the workhouse to the forest?
That particular society was, of course, the crucible of modern capitalism: Victorian Britain during and following the Industrial Revolution. This was a world where competition, inequality, and ruthless self-interest (core ingredients of evolution by natural selection) were writ large and writ aggressive. It's not exactly rocket science to suggest that the idea of natural selection could only have been born in a society where the struggle for existence was already in the air - and on the streets.
Richard Lewontin, the controversial Harvard biologist famous for Biology as Ideology, pointed out that this link was to some extent actually acknowledged by Darwin himself. Both Darwin and Wallace report that they came to their revelations after reading the frankly horrible essay On The Principle of Population by an unpleasant curate known as the Reverend Malthus. Observing coolly that the poor were proliferating, Malthus anticipated a so-called 'Malthusian catastrophe', where an over-sized population is cut to a sustainable level by, essentially, a lot of death. Nature works in the same way, remarked Darwin and Wallace: there simply aren't the resources for every animal to survive and reproduce, so - in the free market of nature - only those most capable of surviving and reproducing will in fact do so.
Fast-forward to the 1980s...
In a sense, sociobiology solved the mystery of altruism by refocussing our understanding of the struggle for existence: the real struggle is there, but rather hard to notice at first, taking place between genes. In the evocative words of Richard Dawkins, genes are the 'replicators', and we - the organisms - are the 'vehicles' they've built, machines constructed out of convenience to carry out their interests in the world. Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is the book that absolutely gripped me about biology when I first read it, and it's the reason I decided to pursue biology at university, so I hope you don't mind if I quote a little of it. In a famously stirring passage (which Dawkins later blushed a little at writing), the extraordinary picture that sociobiology painted is captured beautifully:
As with Darwin and Wallace years previously, those working at the coal-face weren't unaware of the political zeitgeist and it's possible influence on science. Dawkins, indeed, has explicitly discussed his bemusement after, in 1979, the neurobiologist Steven Rose declared (a little bit turgidly):
Dawkins' answer was that, of course, 'we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign' (p.xiv of the 30th Anniversary Edition). He certainly isn't a Thatcherite himself (in fact, he's a public supporter of the Lib Dems). In any case, his is a crucial and much-needed point: Social Darwinism is toxic and unacceptable, but that has nothing to do with the science of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biology is concerned only with the natural world. This answer is of course correct. But it doesn't address the uncomfortable question of whether or not right-wing environments have fostered developments in evolutionary theory.
So is there an unconscious link?
I think it's very possible that there is such a link. But then, we should be careful not to draw casual correlations: these very same decades saw the rise of the radical 'Gaia hypothesis' in England and America, a decidedly more hippie vision of the world as a self-regulating entity, a metaphorical Earth Goddess maintaining the conditions for life. We can hardly ascribe that to Thatcher.
There are alternative arguments. The celebrated German biologist Ernst Mayr proposed that the secret to why Darwinism appeared so late in the game was that, ever since Plato, Europe had been in the grip of 'essentialism': the idea that there is, in some sense, a true essence of the camel, a true essence of the duck-billed platypus, and so on. In the famous 'Allegory of the Cave', Plato (through the voice of Socrates) describes a bunch of prisoners staring at a cave wall. On the wall are thrown the shadows of various strange things, but the prisoners - who have been stuck in this cave all their lives - have never seen these things themselves. The things themselves are the 'Forms', abstract, ethereal entities that constitute the true objects of reality. Mayr argued that the 'Theory of Forms' held sway over biology for centuries. We were indisposed to even imagine evolutionary change, because accepting the 'Forms' implies that species are immutable.
The phrase 'evolution by natural selection' has, obviously, two parts: (1) evolution and (2) natural selection. If Mayr was right, then the problem of why Darwinism took so long to appear presumably isn't to do with the fact that natural selection was hard to come up with, waiting to be found by a culture of hyper-capitalism. Instead, the problem would be with the first part: coming up with evolution was the problem, and it was only by the erosion of latent Platonism that it could appear on the scene. Natural selection followed shortly after, a quick and simple solution to a new and pressing question.
Basically it's all apparently very complicated.
This is the point where I throw my hands in the air and decide it's all a bit over my head. Perhaps there is a clear link between politics and evolutionary biology (notwithstanding the all-too-obvious connections with eugenics) - it wouldn't be the first time science and politics were intimately interwoven. But then again, in the bubbling soup of post-Enlightenment exuberance, colonialism, ideology, and frenzied economics of Victorian England and the Cold War west (the latter aided by a sprinkling of counter-culture excitement), perhaps the links between politics and science are just too blurred and subtle to find out. But I'd be really interested to know...!
I'm a biology student, so - obviously - I'm slightly in love with Darwin. And I've recently been exploring these incredible websites: 'Darwin Online' and 'The Darwin Correspondence Project' from Cambridge. Together, they're a pretty much a complete virtual library of everything Darwin wrote, and that was a lot. In fact, I can't believe quite how varied his output was. Besides quietly coming up with the greatest idea in the history of humanity, he was also beavering away on essentially every mystery going, including the origin of coral reefs, the nature of hedgehogs, the arcana of duck skeletons, the geology of the ocean floor, the role of volcanoes, the source of tiny Saharan microbes appearing on ships in the middle of the Atlantic, the size of Jamaican bees, the 'civilisation' of 'South American savages', and whether or not Chinese children pout when grumpy. What a man.
Evolutionary biology was born in the tropics
A bit of background quickly. Around the reign of Queen Victoria, three people suddenly came up with the idea of natural selection independently.
The first was an obscure Scottish writer called Patrick Matthew, who penned a few musings at the back of a boringly technical book on ship-building and then kicked up a fuss when it turned out nobody had actually read them. Let's quietly forget about him.
The second was, of course, the great Darwin himself, largely inspired by his travels in South America.
And the third was Alfred Russel Wallace, an eccentric, spiritual, and bearded English traveller, chasing butterflies alone in the rainforests of the Far East. The great idea came to him - like a revelation - in the midst of a malarial fever on a remote Indonesian island.
It's probably not that surprising that two of these three came to their genius realisations during or after a sojourn in the tropics, given the exuberance of life here. I decided, then, that it would be interesting to use the 'Darwin Online' and 'Darwin Correspondence Project' libraries to delve into Darwin history and find out just what the great man thought of tropical rainforests...
Wide-eyed in the 'primaeval forests'
First things first. In his public account of the three-year HMS Beagle expedition, the young Darwin eulogises the forest:
Young Darwin is full of such wide-eyed wonder at everything. It's fantastic to read The Voyage of the Beagle, because so much of it is packed with excitement and curiosity about the things he finds around him. Decades later, however, after a difficult life as a reluctant revolutionary, the old Darwin is tired and world-weary, and I've found this rather sad passage in his autobiography:
This mournful, aged Darwin goes on to claim that his young excitement 'was intimately connected with a belief in God' and 'did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sense of sublimity' (p. 92). Having painfully lost his faith, old Darwin claims he lost the 'sense of sublimity' too.
I'm not sure quite how much I believe all this. Imagine the fresh Cambridge graduate, standing for the first time on the shores of Patagonia, or the rocky outcrops of the Galapagos, or a ridge surveying a rainforest in Brazil, and it's hard to believe that this energetic genius with such a sense of constant curiosity for the world wouldn't be just as moved as he was, whether or not he had the faith. But who can tell?
In any case, it's true that old Darwin still loved the forests, and, indeed, a mere ten pages earlier in his autobiography he mentions that same 'the sense of sublimity':
Did rainforests sow the seeds of revolution?
Darwin in the rainforest was overwhelmingly excited about the sheer diversity of species. Surely this must have been important in his coming to see the natural world not as harmonious and ordered but as competitive, ruthless, and fundamentally selfish. The manic scramble for light taking place amongst rainforest trees is about as clear an illustration of 'the struggle for existence' as you can get. It's interesting to note, though, that in the final paragraphs of 'The Origin of Species', Darwin doesn't turn to the rainforests for an easy and powerful image of nature's intricacy and diversity. Instead, he picks a scene much closer to home: the woody banks of Kent. Just because they're so wonderful, here are those famous lines:
Jilted by 'the prettiest, plumpest, most charming' girl in the land
There's a further twist to the rainforest tale, argued and laid out in brilliant detail at this link by Eric Simmons. I'll summarise it here. Basically, before he married his first cousin, Darwin had a love interest in the form of a local friend called Fanny Owen:
They should make this into a film.
So the story of Darwin and the rainforests has everything: God, jilted lovers, jealously, and the germs of Darwin's gradual steps towards changing the world. They really should make a film of all this.
Is it a mini handbag? A tiny saddle? A giant hamburger for Lego people? The eye of a Colombian vulture? May I present the seeds with a thousand names...
However, there is very similar genus of legumes called Mucuna, and after a bit of rummaging around I've come to the conclusion that this is Mucuna mutisiana (we'll of course check this with an expert at identification at STRI).
Not to be outdone by Dioclea, Mucana has a lot of quirk going for it too. It's also a seabean, and it's name apparently comes directly from indigenous languages. Some members of the genus are apparently popular amongst the spectacular Morpho butterflies you often see fluttering along trails. The diversity of random uses to which Mucuna has been put are almost ridiculous, including (if we trust Wikipedia here) possibly-hallucinogenic shamanic snuff, herbal remedies for Parkinson's, aphrodisiacs in India, a useful nitrogen-fixer for Guatamalan farmers, a 'cognition-enhancing' drug, and prank powder that makes you itch loads. Which is interesting, because if you'll excuse me, I now need to go and remove a very large number of tiny Mucuna spines from my hands.
Stop press! An hour after writing that, I've just looked inside the pod of another Mucuna, and there was a small, dead scorpion inside... o_O The plot thickens...
Blog belonging to Patrick, studying the weird and wonderful mysteries of neotropical wasps in French Guiana and Panama
Adventures of a
of a young ZOOLOGIST