Become a Darwinian Traveler

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Charles Darwin's heart was that of an adventurer. On a recent trip to Botswana, a country Darwin was never fortunate enough to have seen (it wasn't even a delineated part of Africa at the time), I was struck by how readily the questions of biology, which popped up during Darwin's travels, are ripe for the asking on a modern safari.

Contrary to the stereotype of a scientist holed up in his laboratory, Darwin went far afield to develop his theories. And the "Absolute Ignorance" that Darwin was accused of in 1868, as stated in Dan Dennett's talk, may be inversely responsible for the Divine Intelligence that forms the basis for scientific reasoning over 140+ years later.

To undertake a voyage circumnavigating the globe in 1831, one needed a traveler's spirit, not simply a scientist's mind. There were a myriad of ways to die from intercontinental travel in the early 1800s, and if Darwin hadn't been up to the task (despite his severe seasickness) it's likely mankind's 'eureka' moment regarding "the origin of species" would have waited decades for a similarly inquisitive mind to make a round the world journey.

In 2013, tackling the peril of maritime adventure aboard a clipper ship to see the world is unnecessary, you need merely board a plane. In eight hours (plus or minus, depending on your starting point) you can find yourself in the Southern Hemisphere, where a shockingly small percentage of humans actually live (less than 10 percent) and where Charles Darwin made a large number of his most startling realizations.

In the flatlands of Botswana where I was just filming, with so few people around, it was quite easy (and natural) to put myself into the mind of Darwin. I saw the world as he would've seen it.

And Darwin's first question would arguably be: Why do zebras have stripes? If survival is the name of the game, why make yourself so conspicuous? This is one of the most asked questions on safari, because until you see it with your own eyes on the African plains, you don't realize how incredibly easy it is to distinguish zebras from afar. They could only be more conspicuous if they had an enormous striped trunk with an elongated neck. Darwin would have had a field day adding zebra stripes to his ideas of evolving creatures if he'd been able to see them interact in the savannah and with their distant cousins. Alas, Darwin got the zebra question wrong, unable to conceive how they could use black and white as camouflage (if only he'd seen them).

We're predators (sorry vegan friends) with predatory eyesight (although evolved to see coloration in a different way than other African predators). The first time you spot a giant zebra herd, it's incredibly easy, being a giant mob of black and white. And then something dawns on you: It's a giant mob of black and white! Even our eyes have trouble distinguishing where one animal begins and another ends, and the idea of evolved camouflage hits you in a 'eureka!' moment. You don't see it in a zoo, you don't see it in a single animal, you don't see it during dissection, nor do you see it at the circus. It requires traveling to the native range of zebras to see that you cannot pick out a single animal from the herd, it's the pattern not the colors. Because a predator can't decide on a specific ambush target, the zebra becomes the fittest: it survives.

Zebras pop out on a Botswanan safari as curiosities of evolution; they're in good company. Darwin would also have seen puff adders puffing, making themselves appear larger when disturbed (nothing cute about that.) In the middle of the Kalahari desert, I saw that dung beetles don't always roll dung: sometimes they steal it (possibly sexy only to Mrs. Dung Beetle). Darwin would have observed the sweetest of maternal instincts: hippo mothers raise boy babies in secret so their aggressive fathers don't kill them. African animals struggling to reproduce beg so many questions, that if we didn't know the answers, we'd be in complete confusion of how any species on that continent could possibly survive. But they do, and they evolved their quirks in order to do exactly that: survive.

Few historians argue that it was Darwin's exposure to living forms (and geologic ones) from all over the planet (his personal observations) which grew the idea of evolution by natural selection inside his mind. Without that round the world voyage, and interaction with specific 'foreign' creatures we all know so well from history (Darwin's finches of the Galapagos), Darwin may have been capable of advancing the science of natural history, but we almost certainly wouldn't revere him as a scientific superstar.

Unfortunately, over 150 years after Darwin's most famous evolutionary treatise we, as a species, still struggle with the power (and simplicity) of his ideas. For those who can't bring themselves to believe in modern evolutionary theory based solely on reading a textbook or hearing it from a scientist, I suggest taking an overseas trip (just like Darwin did).

Darwin's five-year travels merely scratched the surface of animal observation, and he changed the world with what he saw. Think about that the next time you decide whether or not to plan a trip for yourself, near or far.

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