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Deeper Attention: The Soul of Charles Darwin


In the springtime, water tumbles down the flanks Mt Tamalpais in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  My wife and I lived in Mill Valley next to a steep flume that ran with cold, clear water.  Our dog, Kai, was fascinated: he would see a riffle of water jetting out between rocks, and he would try to bite it.  To him, it looked like a thing he could grasp with his teeth as a plaything.  But every attempt frustrated him.  He would keep biting at the water riffle, over and over, unable to comprehend it.

I am not much different than Kai in my inability to apprehend the natural world.  This very morning, I hiked up Ladera Canyon above Ojai and stopped above the creek to gaze at a little waterfall tumbling between pale sandstone boulders.  The shape of the flow the water was constantly shifting, if only slightly, but enough to create an irregular foaming churn below.  Is Ladera Creek an object or an event?  A noun or a verb?  It stays mostly the same, but changes constantly. The water carves out a cleft in my categories.  It erodes my assumptions.

And it is just this mental disequilibrium that draws my attention closer.  A rushing creek on a mountainside invites me to pause and watch the flowing water.  And my awareness of my inability to file this experience in the cabinet of my mind is its own experience, inviting deeper observation.

Charles Darwin was a keen observer of nature.  He was steeped in the scientific culture of his time, which was all about categorization.  He followed in the tradition of Linnaeus, from the 18th century, who came up with the system of naming living things based on their “family trees”.  In 1831, Darwin embarked as a naturalist on a British ship sent around the world on a mapping expedition.  The Voyage of the Beagle is his journal of the journey.

When we imagine Darwin, usually we picture him as an old man with a dour scowl under a hoary beard.  But there is no hint of that persona in his book.  Darwin as a young man was a bold and enthusiastic adventurer.  He ventured into wilderness among hostile native tribes in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and braved raging rivers, waterless plains, austere mountain passes, and a massive earthquake.

And along the way, he catalogued the animal and plant life in great detail.  He studied the geology of each terrain, carefully observing the relationships between the rock layers in different zones, speculating about their origins.  Reading his journal, his amazement at the unique species of animals on the Galapagos Islands is palpable.  He wrote the book before he came up with the theory of evolution, but strong hints of his future discovery abound in The Voyage of the Beagle.

For page after page, the reader is deluged with Darwin’s attentiveness to the details of the natural world.  And then, such accounts are sharply punctuated with his attentiveness to his inner experience.  His outward observations periodically built up and poured out through his emotions, forcing him to pause from his enterprise of Linnaean categorization.

In Brazil, walking through the rainforest, he was overcome with feeling for a whole that was beyond the sum of its parts:  “It is easy to specify the individual objects of admiration in these grand scenes; but it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.”

In Patagonia, walking alone in the desert, he experienced an epiphany:  “All was stillness and desolation.  Yet in passing over these scenes, without one bright object near, an ill-defined but strong sense of pleasure is vividly excited.  One asked how many ages the plain had thus lasted, and how many more it was doomed thus to continue.”

After carefully exploring a mountain in Chile, pondering the enormous antiquity of its underlying granite, his soul suddenly drew him closer:  “The limit of man’s knowledge in any subject possesses a high interest, which is perhaps increased by its close neighbourhood to the realms of imagination.”

He began to question his own ability to comprehend or describe the world he was seeing.  In Tierra del Fuego, he noticed that his perception of the height of its mountains was illusory:  “I was frequently surprised, in the scenery of Tierra del Fuego, at the little apparent elevation of mountains really lofty. I suspect it is owing to a cause which would not at first be imagined, namely, that the whole mass, from the summit to the water’s edge, is generally in full view.” 

After experiencing a tremendous earthquake in Chile, he found himself at a loss for words to describe its devastating effects: “I have not attempted to give any detailed description of the appearance of Concepcion, for I feel it is quite impossible to convey the mingled feelings with which one beholds such a spectacle.”

At the top of the Andes, his heart burst him out of his heady geological analysis:  “I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah.”
On his last sojourn in Brazil, walking through the jungle, he was wistful that he might never see such beauty again.  And he was acutely aware of the limits of his observational powers:  “Such are the elements of the scenery, but it is a hopeless attempt to paint the general effect. Learned naturalists describe these scenes of the tropics by naming a multitude of objects, and mentioning some characteristic feature of each. To a learned traveller this possibly may communicate some definite ideas: but who else from seeing a plant in an herbarium can imagine its appearance when growing in its native soil?”

He ends his journal with this expression of humility:  “…it appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist, than a journey in distant countries…The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulate him to increased activity. Moreover, as a number of isolated facts soon become uninteresting, the habit of comparison leads to generalisation. On the other hand, as the traveller stays but a short time in each place, his descriptions must generally consist of more sketches, instead of detailed observations. Hence arises, as I have found to my cost, a constant tendency to fill up the wide gaps of knowledge, by inaccurate and superficial hypotheses.”

Charles Darwin discovered something even more important than the theory of evolution.  He learned that his careful, systematic observations of nature pointed beyond themselves into endless, alluring mystery.  His attentiveness to nature’s details led him into attentiveness toward the details of his own inner world, which led him to examine his own perceptions and assumptions.  Surely this capacity for humble self-reflection was critical to his ability to discover the theory for which he is best known.

To know something new requires un-knowing that you know it all.  Darwin’s epiphanies deliver the reader into this place of un-knowing, which opens us to the knowledge of what lies beyond.


Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MUSINGS

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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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