Category Archives: history

Darwin was a Geologist too!

In an autobiographic note Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 – 1882) remembered a childhood wish:

It was soon after I began collecting stones, i.e., when 9 or 10, that I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something about every pebble in front of the hall door–it was my earliest and only geological aspiration at that time.

Darwin today is mostly associated with terms like natural selection and evolution, but his first scientific achievements and publications were dealing – even against his own preconceptions – with geology.

A good history lesson for your Sunday. Well worth reading.

Posted via email from Darwin’s Bulldogs

What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

Today, I am pleased to share with you the following essay by Eric Michael Johnson, who reminds us of the human history of Yosemite, and what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. This guest post is part of Eric’s Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.

The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below.

All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.

Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians’ own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above.

“Charge, boys! Charge!!” bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles.

“So rapid and so sudden were the charges made,” wrote the chronicler Lafayette Bunnell, “that the panic stricken warriors at once fled from their stronghold.” Savage’s men fired indiscriminately into the Ahwahneechee camp, a people who had called this valley their home for centuries.

“No prisoners were taken,” recalled the witness to these events, “twenty-three were killed; the number of wounded was never known.” All in all, it was a successful mission. However, the author noted that even more “savages” could have been hunted down and murdered had the fire not raged so out of control as to spread down the mountainside endangering their own camp. As the ragtag militia fled downhill to rescue their supplies the Ahwahneechee survivors escaped further into the mountains, little knowing that they would never be able to return home.

One month later, on January 13, 1851 by order of the governor and through a special act of Congress, the Savage militia received federal and state support to “punish the offending tribes” in the region now called the Yosemite Valley. For the leadership of California’s newly established government the approach for dealing with the native population had become a “war of extermination.” For more than a decade afterwards the land between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers remained under permanent military occupation until it became the first state park in US history to be ceded by the federal government.

I was raised in the mountains of Northern California and walked the trails near the site of this tragic massacre as a child. But I had never heard of John Savage nor the terrible events that lay behind the formation of Yosemite National Park, a picturesque symbol of the conservation movement and a vacation resort for millions. Rather it was John Muir, that noble wanderer and founder of the Sierra Club, whose name was synonymous with this national treasure. When my brothers and I climbed out of the family station wagon to witness the majesty of this glacier carved valley, it was Muir’s name that adorned the signs along the manicured trails and the celebrated volumes in the gift shop. If the indigenous population was mentioned in any of the brochures or trail guides I have no memory of it and I left with no indication that the region had once been inhabited. The impression I received was that Yosemite had always been a pristine wilderness, as sparse and pure as the Ansel Adams portraits that hung on my family’s wall for years afterwards.

But it was this skewed interpretation of wilderness that John Muir had successfully promoted, a vision that has haunted the conservation movement ever since. In his famous nineteenth century travel writings in the Sierra Nevada mountains Muir described Yosemite, not just as a picturesque marvel of nature, but as something divine that was beyond human frailties. The landscape of the “Sierra Cathedral Mountains,” was a “temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” he wrote. It was a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of man is visible upon it.”


[T]he main canyons widen into spacious valleys or parks of charming beauty, level and flowery and diversified like landscape gardens with meadows and groves and thickets of blooming bushes, while the lofty walls, infinitely varied in form, are fringed with ferns, flowering plants, shrubs of many species, and tall evergreens and oaks.

It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels, he did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley it’s park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.

Yosemite Valley / Image: Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855.

“At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”

However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later he found that Yosemite’s open meadow land had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.

“Native Americans’ uses of fire pervaded their everyday lives,” explains UC Davis ecologist M. Kat Anderson, whose research appears in the edited volume Fire in California’s Ecosystems. These ranged from setting fires to keep the land open and aid in travel, a wildlife management tool to burn off detritus and increase pasturage for deer, as well as for fire prevention purposes.

“Native Americans thoroughly understood the necessity of ‘fighting fire with fire,'” Anderson says. “Their deliberately set fires were often designed to preclude the kinds of catastrophic fires that regularly devastate large areas today.”

These fires may also have played an important role in promoting biodiversity. In 1996 Anderson wrote the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s final report to Congress (pdf here), co-authored with CSU, Fresno archaeologist Michael Moratto. In their report the authors state that most plants useful to the tribes of the Sierra Nevada were shade-intolerant varieties that required regular burning in order to thrive. These species included deer grass for use in basketry, edible native grasses, as well as a variety bulb, corm, and tuber species. By setting intentional fires throughout the forest “gaps or grassy openings were created, maintained, or enlarged within diverse plant communities,” the authors wrote. “The result was that plant diversity was maximized.”

However, for Muir, as it was for many conservationists in the nineteenth century, these fires were “the great master-scourge of forests” and extinguishing their fury would be his divine mission. “Only fire,” he wrote in 1869, “threatens the existence of these noblest of God’s trees.” It wasn’t enough to simply keep loggers and shepherds from degrading the forest. They needed strict and unyielding protection. To that end Muir would advocate federal forest protection and fire suppression measures with every politician and government official who might listen.

At times, as friends noted, Muir’s zeal to protect forests overshadowed all other concerns. In a revealing moment described by his close friend Mary Louise Swett, written to Muir’s fiance four days before their marriage, Mrs. Swett impressed upon the young woman her future husband’s intensity.

“I hope you are good at a hair splitting argument,” she wrote. “You will need to be to hold your own with him. . . He told Colonel Boyce the other night that his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination.”

In contrast to Muir’s advocacy of exclusion and suppression, Yosemite Park officials praised the logic of regular controlled burns “when the Indians were Commissioners” and stated that “absolute prevention of fires in these mountains will eventually lead to disastrous results.” But, for Muir, “the best service in forest protection — almost the only efficient service — is that rendered by the military.” Without enforcing the power to seal off protected forests from encroachment Muir feared that his ultimate goal of preservation would fail.

“One soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun,” he wrote, “would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices.”

In the end Muir’s position won out, supported as it was by such figures as then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, General William Jackson Palmer, and Captain George Anderson, the military official recently charged with protecting Yellowstone National Park. For those critics who still maintained that Indian-style fires should be employed in Yosemite, Muir had an alternative solution as he made clear before a meeting of the Sierra Club on November 23, 1895.

“Since the fires that formerly swept through the valley have been prevented,” he said, “the underbrush requires much expensive attention that will call for the services of a skilled landscape artist.” However, these funds never materialized to the extent that Muir imagined. As a result, the once park-like expanses of the Yosemite he had heralded soon became overcrowded through unchecked growth. At the same time, the United States was saddled with the high costs of suppressing every fire that ignited because the build up of fuel on the forest floor now threatened to wipe out the entire region.

Yosemite Valley in 1866 and 1961.

The conservation decisions of the nineteenth century have left a lasting legacy that is still felt today. In a study that appeared in the March, 2010 edition of Ecological Applications (pdf here), Penn State researchers Andrew Scholl and Alan Taylor published their analysis of how successful this fire suppression policy ultimately was. The authors sought to test the claim that intentional fires had been a widespread feature of Native American stewardship. To accomplish this they collected data throughout a 2,125 hectare region of the Yosemite National Park including the number of different species, the density by which trees were packed together, and their age as revealed through boring into trees to remove core samples.

You might also want to check out The Camp Fire – Paradise, Butte County CA and see how a small maintenance check could have prevented millions of damage in property and life.

These core samples that Scholl and Taylor collected revealed the environmental history of every tree in their survey. Because tree ring shows evidence of environmental conditions at the time that section was exposed to the outside world, by analyzing these tree cores they were able to identify both when a fire took place and how widely it had spread based on the fire damage recorded in the rings. Furthermore, if one region contained significantly younger trees than another, it would indicate evidence of a serious fire that had wiped out entire sections of forest. In the end, the researchers were able to construct a map of forest change between the years of 1575 – 2006 and the impact that fire had on forest biodiversity.

The results of this analysis were highly significant (p < 0.01) and found that shade-tolerant species such as White fir and incense cedar had increased to such an extent that Yosemite Valley was now two times more densely packed than it had been in the nineteenth century. These smaller and more highly flammable trees had pushed out the shade-intolerant species, like oak or pine, and reducing their numbers by half. After a century of fire suppression in the Yosemite Valley biodiversity had actually declined, trees were now 20% smaller overall, and the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires than it had been before the United States expelled the native population.

However, based on the rotation of historic burn sites throughout the forest, it left no question that the fires had been intentionally set rather than the result of random lightening strikes or other accidental burns. Native American groups had profoundly altered the landscape of the Yosemite Valley in ways that were both advantageous to them as well as to the local ecosystem as a whole. They were successful stewards of the forest, not because they had no impact on the environment, but because the forest was their home and they relied upon it for every aspect of their lives. In support of these findings two additional studies, one also in Yosemite and one along the California coast, came to similar conclusions. Despite John Muir’s passionate desire to protect Yosemite’s magnificent trees, after 100 years of conservation the overall density among the 14 most abundant large-diameter species had declined by 30%.

For Muir and his nineteenth century contemporaries, conservation meant “government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains.” This continues to be the standard model for conservation around the world. However, as in Yosemite, the global conservation effort has focused their attention on the idea of pristine wilderness to the exclusion of all other concerns, including those of the people who have lived there for centuries.

In 2003 the harmful effects of these policies were denounced by indigenous delegates from around the world when they presented a joint declaration before the Fifth Parks Congress then being held in Durban, South Africa.

“The strategy to conserve biodiversity through national parks has displaced many tens of thousands of very poor park residents, transforming them into conservation-refugees,” they announced. “First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.”

However, just as there could have been for the Ahwahneechee in 1851, there is also an alternative today. Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, along with her colleague Tanya Hayes at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, conducted a study in 2007 (pdf here) that compared vegetation patterns throughout 84 forests in 15 separate countries, only half of which were under national protection. In a direct rebuff to the claims of conservationists, they found no significant differences in vegetation density between forests that were protected and those that were not. However, there was one criteria that made a difference: the direct involvement of local and indigenous populations. Those regions where local groups were able to define the rules for how their forest was managed had significantly higher vegetation densities than those that didn’t, regardless of their protection status.

Vegetation Density Associated with User Group Right to Make Rules.
From Ostrom and Hayes, 2007.

“The above findings clearly contradict the belief that protected areas are the only way to conserve forests,” they wrote. In so doing they offer an opportunity to change course on a policy, well intentioned though it may have been, that led to the expulsion of native peoples and the commitment to an expensive conservation strategy that has had little result. In other words, it’s time for the exclusionary approach of John Savage and John Muir to be tossed on the fire.

In July, 1929, seventy-eight years after the Ahwahneechee people had been driven from their homeland, a frail, elderly woman quietly processed acorns on the valley floor. Her weather worn face appeared thin, yet firm like crumpled paper. She was a living record of the trials her people had suffered ever since they were herded into open air prisons at the point of a bayonet. As she sat, pulling back broken shell from acorns like damaged fingernails, a curiosity-seeking tourist offered her a nickel if she would serve him. I can only imagine the lifetime of rage she must have felt in that moment.

“No!” she cried. “Not five dollars one acorn, no! White man drive my people out–my Yosemite.”

Her name was Maria Lebrado, but she had once been known as Totuya. She was the granddaughter of Ahwahnee Chief Tanaya, a revered leader who had attempted to shield his people from harm only to witness the murder of his son and the loss of everything he held dear. Now the last remaining member of her tribe, Totuya had returned home in order to die.

During her brief stay she was interviewed at length by a Mrs. H.J. Taylor and given a tour of the lands she had not seen since she was a child. However, as she looked out upon what her beloved Yosemite had become, she cast her glance down in disapproval. What had once been a wide open meadow used for games by her entire village was now an overgrown field, pockmarked with thin trees and scrub brush.

“Too dirty, too much bushy,” she explained sadly. After centuries of care the land she cherished had been allowed to lay dormant and unused, the fire needed to bring this valley to life having been extinguished long ago. Her beloved Ahwahnee was lost.

The immortal HeLa cells and their source, Henrietta Lacks

ABC World News aired this story last Sunday, which includes a short interview clip with Rebecca Skloot, whose book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is just hitting the stores. And yes, the woman’s name is Lacks – but lame as it seems, the ABC website and video have misspelt it!! The story itself is quite remarkable, and really well told. I will try to post a review of the book here as I’m hoping to finish reading it soon.

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

A People’s History of the United States – read it and add your own voice

1. Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress

2. Drawing the Color Line

3. Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

4. Tyranny is Tyranny

5. A Kind of Revolution

6. The Intimately Oppressed

7. As Long As Grass Grows Or Water Runs

8. We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God

9. Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom

10. The Other Civil War

11. Robber Barons And Rebels

12. The Empire and the People

13. The Socialist Challenge

14. War Is the Health of the State

15. Self-help in Hard Times

16. A People’s War?

17. “Or Does It Explode?”

18. The Impossible Victory: Vietnam

19. Surprises

20. The Seventies: Under Control?

21. Carter-Reagan-Bush: The Bipartisan Consensus

22. The Unreported Resistance

23. The Clinton Presidency and the Crisis of Democracy

24. The Coming Revolt of the Guards

24. The 2000 Election and the “War on Terrorism”

You have this book on your shelf already, heavily dogeared and annotated, don’t you? No? If not, you better get a start on this real history of this nation, not the imperial history sanctioned in the formal textbooks! Thanks to the History is a Weapon website, you can also read the entire text online via the above links, but you’re better off getting an actual copy (or several to share!). Read it and weep, for the voice we have lost today with the passing of Howard Zinn. Read it and raise your own voice and follow his path, for he showed us how not to let the victors in history silence the rest of us!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Darwin’s Brave New World – Extended Trailer

Does this look exciting, or what? That trailer sure sucked me in much more energetically than either of the trailers for Creation or Darwin’s Darkest Hour. Hopefully the whole thing delivers on what the trailer promises. Too bad, therefore, not to see any US air dates at the end there, although our neighbors to the north will get to see it, having helped produce it. I hope it does get here eventually. PBS, are you paying attention?

On the rise and fall of human diversity

Over the past week or so, in the Human Ecology class, we’ve been doing a rapid survey of human societies in terms of their cultural/ecological core, discussing the key elements of the main types of society and its governance of natural resources: hunter-gatherer, horticulturist, pastoralist, agrarian, and industrial. As a supplement to my lecture and the class discussions we’ve had (and because my throat didn’t feel up to speaking for 75 min today), I also found three videos of TED Talks that take us through another sort of rapid tour through the trajectory of human diversity from when our first ancestors gazed upon the African savannah to the societal collapse that may soon be upon us if we don’t get our own collective together and rethink ow we govern our natural resources.

First, we have Spencer Wells taking us through the population genetics of human origins. Next, National Geographic’s Wade Davis takes us on a global tour of human cultural diversity at its peak, and laments the rapid loss of languages and cultures we’ve seen in the recent past. And to round things off, Jared Diamond speaks of the complete collapse of some earlier complex societies, and what lessons they hold for us as we rush headlong towards the cliff ourselves. Look below the fold for these videos.

Ken Burns to show America’s National Parks on PBS this fall!

Now here’s something to really look forward to in the fall television schedule: Ken Burns, the acclaimed documentary historian of many important aspect of American life and socio-cultural-political history has finally turned his famous camera lens onto this country’s natural heritage, specifically the parts that people have chosen to protect for posterity in The National Parks, America’s Best Idea. The US is, in some ways, a birthplace of modern National Parks set up by democratic governments, and this model has influenced conservation strategies worldwide, for better or for worse. Given Burns’ background, it is hardly surprising that this documentary will focus not just on the natural beauty and wildlife of the Parks, but more on the people involved in creating and sustaining them:

Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales — from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska — The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is nonetheless a story of people: people from every conceivable background – rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy. It is a story full of struggle and conflict, high ideals and crass opportunism, stirring adventure and enduring inspiration – set against the most breathtaking backdrops imaginable.

[via The National Parks: America’s Best Idea | PBS]

The website for the show has a number of interesting video clips – here’s one from an affiliated station:

And here’s another clip with a short interview with Burns:

And according to the Sierra Club, which is an outreach partner for the documentary series, many local PBS stations are airing a special “making-of” show this Sunday, on May 24th! KVPT, the Fresno affiliate at channel 18, has it listed at 9:30 PM.

On Darwin, Lincoln, and modern life

Struggling to fall asleep last night with this nasty cold-flu thing that has me in its grips for the past several days, I happened upon the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. I’m not a regular viewer of this show, what with Rose’s penchant for giving so much air time to that airhead pundit Thomas Friedman (64 appearances!!! really need that much hot air, Charlie?!). But Rose does get some excellent guests from time to time, and provides space for a deeper conversation than the typical tv talk-show – one has to give him that! And last night was just such an occasion, for Charlie had on the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, discussing his latest work: “Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life”, which sounds absolutely fascinating. I was pleased to discover just now that the Charlie Rose show offers entire programs online, allowing me to embed this interview below. The first half is what really gripped me, with Gopnik talking about Darwin and Lincoln — men born in a cosmic coincidence on February 12, 1809 — as embodying the twin pillars of the modern world: science and liberal democracy. So true! This is really well worth listening to when both these figures loom so large in our consciousness in this month of their bicentennial. The second half is about a more recent interesting figure, the late writer John Updike. Here, watch the whole thing:

Now I’ve got one more “short” book to add to my reading pile – terrific!

Evolution as a path to emancipation

One of the worst canards that the creationists like to throw at Darwin is that his theory led directly to the 20th centuries atrocities of Stalin, Hitler and the holocaust. The most egregious and blatant example of this was in Ben Stein’s propaganda piece last year. I wonder what these people will have to say to this new perspective on what motivated Darwin to develop his theory of evolution and search for a common ancestor for all human beings, and other species:

“It makes one’s blood boil,” said Charles Darwin.

Not much outraged the gentle recluse, but the horrors of slavery could cost him a night’s sleep.

He was thinking of the whipped house boy and the thumbscrews used by old ladies in South America, atrocities he had witnessed on the Beagle voyage.

The screams stayed with him for life, but how much did they influence his life’s work?

Today you can still read of Darwin’s “eureka” moment when he saw the Galapagos finches.

Alas, his conversion to evolution wasn’t so simple, but it was much more interesting. It didn’t occur in the Galapagos, but probably on his arrival home.

And new evidence suggests that Darwin’s unique approach to evolution – relating all races and species by “common descent” – could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs.

[via BBC NEWS | Darwin’s twin track: ‘Evolution and emancipation’]

Darwin wrote with considerable feeling about his experiences among the natives of South America, as in this passage from “The Voyage of the Beagle:

“On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip…”

As the BBC article, and the new book, traces some of the less well-known aspects of his life-story, it is worth remembering that Darwin had another, less luminary mentor: a freed slave who taught him taxidermy and likely planted the seeds of longing for the lush tropical forests of distant South America five years before he got the famous invitation to join the Beagle’s voyage. During February-April 1826 young Charles spent a significant interlude with:

John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana, South America, taught Darwin taxidermy. The two of them often sat together for conversation, and John would fill Darwin’s head with vivid pictures of the tropical rain forests of South America. These pleasant conversations with John may have later inspired Darwin to dream about exploring the tropics. In any event, the taxidermy skills Darwin learned from him were indispensable during his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle in 1831.

Another remarkable chapter from the life of a remarkable man, who was way ahead of his times. Another reason to celebrate the man… but I’m not holding my breath for the creationists to stop vilifying him, much less join the celebration.