Thursday, March 09, 2006

Darwin and Beyond

Yesterday, for a newspaper story I am writing, I spent almost an hour interviewing an evolutionary biologist at the University of Houston. Ricardo Azevedo is co-author of an article recently published in Nature, exploring the evolutionary advantages of sexual reproduction. Why is asexual reproduction, though it persists in a few species of aphids, lizards and other organisms, an apparent evolutionary dead end? Azevedo and his colleagues speculate that sexual reproduction better serves as a “genetic waste disposal” mechanism, helping to protect a species from harmful genetic mutations.

The best interviews turn into conversations, and Azevedo and I quickly discovered our shared enthusiasm for Charles Darwin as scientist and writer. We have both read Janet Browne’s magisterial, two-volume biography of the naturalist, and both of us mourn the quality of most contemporary scientific prose. Our talk sparked a faint memory of a piece about Darwin as writer by the great martyred Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. I tracked it down in The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, published in 1979 by Ardis. In a 1932 article, “On the Naturalists, ” published in the chillingly named Moscow newspaper For a Communist Education to mark the 50th anniversary of Darwin’s death, Mandelstam wrote:

“Darwin’s scientific descriptions are amazingly true to life. He utilizes sunlight, air, and shadows, as well as carefully calculated distances to produce the greatest possible effect in his writing. The result is an intriguing picture of some animal or insect caught unawares, as if on camera, in its most characteristic posture.” To bolster his point, Mandelstam quotes a passage from Darwin’s Journal of Researches describing an elater or click beetle. Of Darwin’s prose style, the poet writes:

“The remarkable prosaic quality of Darwin’s works was preconditioned, to a large extent, by history. Darwin purged the scientific language, eradicating every trace of bombast, rhetoric, and teleological pathos. He possessed the courage to be prosaic precisely because he had so much to say and did not feel obligated to express rapture or gratitude to anyone.” Mandelstam lauds Darwin’s use of “multitudinous examples exploding like cartridges,” and goes on to write:

“Darwin’s attitude toward nature resembles that of a war correspondent, an interviewer, or a daring reporter furtively pursuing a news story at the scene of the event. Darwin never described anything, he only characterized. In this sense Darwin, the writer, incorporated the popular tastes of the English reading public into natural history. We must not forget that Dickens and Darwin were contemporaries and that both were popular with the reading public for the same reason.”

I love the notion of Darwin as war correspondent. This seemingly fanciful image reminded me of another Russian-Jewish writer murdered by Stalin, Isaac Babel. In 1920, Babel rode as a correspondent with the Red Cavalry during their disastrous incursion into Poland. The result was his magnificent collection of stories, Red Cavalry, and, published posthumously, 1920 Diary. All three men – Darwin, Mandelstam, Babel – are united in their courage and, in their different ways, dedication to humane civilization in the face of ignorance and barbarism.

About 15 years ago, while working as a reporter for the newspaper in Albany, N.Y., I was assigned to quickly dig up, from scratch, a feature to run the following day, Thanksgiving. I don’t remember how I settled on the idea, but I visited an apartment house subsidized by local Jewish organizations. Its occupants were elderly recent émigrés from the Soviet Union, soon to be Russia again. They spoke Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish, and most spoke at least a little English. I came to ask what they understood of Thanksgiving, a distinctly American holiday, and what they felt thankful for.

At first they were reluctant to speak, perhaps confused and most likely suspicious, given their experience with men asking a lot of impertinent questions in the Soviet Union. When I figured out that many of the émigrés had come from Odessa, Babel’s birthplace, I brought up his name and Mandelstam’s, though he was born in St. Petersburg.

The old people whispered the names like a furtive prayer: “Babel! Mandelstam!” Some laughed. Some cried. What American knows such things? An old woman hugged me and others shook my hand and patted my shoulders. I had uttered sacred names, and the old people were filled with thanksgiving.

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