Darwin's beetle: On geeking out

Paideia I doesn’t fit into neat disciplinary boxes, and that’s the point.  Ranging across literature, history, philosophy and science, it’s not designed to convey "expertise" in any one field but to help students develop the set of portable intellectual tools they need in any major, in future employment and in their lives as adults: strong reading and critical thinking skills, the ability to listen and discuss, and the curiosity to find answers and discern realities for themselves.  But when students ask me, "What is Paideia for?" I tell them it teaches a college student’s most important skill: geeking out.

The best predictor of college success is not test scores, number of AP classes, or even that elusive thing called "intelligence"–it's the ability to fall in love with ideas, to hurl yourself into a subject so fully that it shapes how you spend your time inside and outside of class, reading and thinking and practicing and shaping yourself into a successful member of that field.  In exposing students to such a wide range of authors and texts, from Plato to Martin Luther to Martin Luther King and Mary Shelley, Paideia I gives students lots of chances to geek out, to latch onto a fascinating concept and follow it into a lifelong enthusiasm.  It challenges students and faculty alike to step outside of known disciplinary bounds, learn something we never thought we would, and model that learning for each other. 

This semester, we added a new text, excerpts from Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" (1859).  I was a little worried at first: although I'm a former farm kid, passionate environmentalist and omnivorous reader in the history of ideas, I'm also an English professor.  Would I be able to do justice to Darwin? Would class discussions get bogged down in the misunderstandings of "Darwinism" so prevalent in his time and ours? But in his opening lecture on Darwin, my colleague Todd Pedlar shared this passage from Darwin's "Autobiography":

"[No] pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow.

I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one."

Darwin's beetle

Just like that, my worries were over: I was in the presence of a fellow geek – so geeky that he spent five years as a naturalist on the ship Beagle, traveling round the world, collecting and learning and soaking in everything he could, so geeky that one of his friends even caricatured him riding on the back of one of his beloved beetles. The enthusiasm radiating from the page was utterly winning, slightly self-deprecating but passionately driven by the pursuit of knowledge. I knew I could trust this man. And my trust was not misplaced: over the next couple of weeks, as students and I worked carefully through the text, we came to know Darwin, through his words and ideas, as anything but the cold, hard atheist of stereotype. In their papers and in discussions, my students used words like "gentle," "warm" and "humble," pointing out the frequent occasions where Darwin hedges his conclusions with appropriate scientific modesty and suggests that such modesty is appropriate in the face of all that humans don't yet know and understand–and maybe can never know–about the origins of life on earth. 

But the main word we kept coming back to, in describing Darwin's view of the world, was wonder.  A onetime-potential-future clergyman, Darwin can perhaps best be described as agnostic, although even that label's a bit messy. Yet he never closes the door to beauty, mystery and the need for humans, in our investigations of nature and of our own origins, to open ourselves to the ineffable and challenge ourselves to see how–in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet–"there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy." Even as Darwin describes the "struggle" for life between plants and animals competing for existence, even within "a plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which on an average only one comes to maturity," he refers to "the beautiful and harmonious diversity of nature" and gives a simple, lyrical analogy of life as a giant tree: "As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications." Wonder and humility shimmer around Darwin's descriptions of the living world he so closely observed and so well loved, and they shape his diligent investigations toward the form "into which life was first breathed."

As a mature thinker, Darwin learned to live with uncertainty – even to thrive on it, since it propelled him forward into all he had yet to discover and into the living world that brought him such joy. This spoke powerfully to my students and to me. How can this openness shape our own educations and personal quests? How can we discern meaning, even beauty, amid the confusion of our changing ideas and changing lives, and how we can remain open to, accepting of, and curious about that change? How can we "geek out," like Darwin, taking full advantage of all the opportunities for discovery, challenge and change in front of us at Luther College? I’ve had lots of rich conversations over the years in Paideia I–but this was one I will never forget. And as we prepared to finish our reading of Darwin, I saw in the students' eyes that they felt the same. We had come to know this distant historical figure as a person like ourselves–a humble, rigorous scientist who at heart always remained that excitable undergraduate, popping a beetle into his mouth to keep it and study it as long as he could.

Amy WeldonAmy Weldon, native Alabamian, is associate professor of English at Luther College. Her essays, short fiction and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Best Travel Writing 2012 (Solas Press), Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing (UNC Press), Shenandoah, New Haven Review, Keats-Shelley Journal, The Millions, Bloom, and Southern Cultures, among others. She regularly blogs on sustainability, spirit and self-reliance at http://cheapskateintellectual.wordpress.com.

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Comments

  • October 26 2013 at 4:33 am
    Kristine Kraabel
    When I was contemplating entry into law school and a career in law, one of my mentors told me that going to law school meant getting in touch with one's "geeky side" and learning how to think. How fortunate Luther students are to have this experience in their freshman year! They are even more fortunate to have a professor who isn't afraid to be seen as vulnerable and is wiling to stray outside of her comfort zone. May we all live life popping beetles!
  • October 26 2013 at 9:57 am
    Amy Weldon

    Thank you so very much for these kind words! I feel blessed to have these opportunities to learn and grow alongside my students, and to "geek out" (now) on Dante and Michelangelo.  Yesterday in class, near the end of our first session on Dante, I showed students a picture of Michelangelo's "David" (since we are studying the "Last Judgment" soon, and I wanted to establish these artists' relationship in time and to Florence) and described for them what I had had the privilege of seeing on my study-abroad trip with students this past January: David's expression changes as you walk around him, from defiance to trepidation to fear. I wished it were possible to whisk every single student in the class to Florence with me, right then. But I think we all felt the thrill of learning that, and thinking of how wonderful it is that an artist could create such a "living" face in stone.

  • October 28 2013 at 1:49 pm
    Katy
    And THIS is why I'm going to Luther next year; high schoolers don't seem to care about the actual thought processes involved in learning (just memorizing). My peers are all "smarter" than I am because they have better test scores, or have been on [High] Honor Roll more frequently. But I have had so few conversations with classmates who have, as you said, "hurl [themselves] into a subject so fully that it shapes how [they]spend [their] time inside and outside of class, reading and thinking and practicing and shaping [themselves]into a successful member of that field." I LOVE having that passion that so few young adults seem to have these days.
  • October 28 2013 at 2:04 pm
    Amy Weldon

    Hi, Katy - Thank you so much for taking the time to write this comment and share your thoughts. I couldn't agree more with you that what's important is not racking up scores but learning how to think -- which means learning how to be a real person, in a way you can live with, in, and through for the rest of your life. I look forward to meeting you when you get to Luther! AW

  • November 1 2013 at 11:30 am
    Lori C
    Thank you for this article. As a Luther parent of a freshman currently enrolled in the Paideia program, I know it is challenging and stretching her to think and analyze rather than merely report and recount. As a teacher of AP Lit and Comp students, I am encouraged that what I am doing in my classroom is supported by the expectations of their university instructors; articles like this only strengthen my argument when I respond to 'why do we have to do this?' with 'so the world has thinking inhabitants'.
  • November 1 2013 at 11:39 am
    Amy Weldon

    Hi, Lori,

    It makes me so happy to hear, from a parent's and from a high school teacher's perspective, that what we are doing in our classrooms here at Luther harmonizes with your goals for your students' (and child's) learning! I couldn't agree more that critical thinking is THE survival skill for a twenty-first-century world - this has been the focus of a lot of my own scholarship lately as well. A story I tell students a lot is the fable about the two young fish hanging out in a stream - an old fish swims by and asks them "How's the water?" After she leaves, one young fish turns to the other and asks, "What's water?" You NEVER want to be in the position, I emphasize to my students, of being unable to see and to judge the "water" around you. I'm so glad we are working together on this! Right on! :)

  • November 5 2013 at 5:43 pm
    Todd Pedlar
    Hey Amy, I found another marvelous passage from a completely different person, also "Geeking out"... From Dorothy Sayers's MARVELOUS essay on Dante as a writer, entitled "...and telling you a story": "Coming to [Dante] as I did, for the first time, rather late in life, the impact of Dante upon my unprepared mind was not in the least what I had expected, and I can remember nothing like it since I first read The Three Musketeers at the age of thirteen. Neither the world, nor the theologians, nor even Charles Williams had told me the one great, obvious, glaring fact about Dante Alighieri of Florence -- that he was simply the most incomparable story-teller who ever set pen to paper. However foolish it may sound, the plain fact is that I bolted my meals, neglected my sleep, work, and correspondence, drove my friends crazy, and paid only a distracted attention to the doodle-bugs which happened to be infesting the neighborhood at the time, until I had panted my way through the Three Realms of the Dead from top to bottom and from bottom to top; and that, having finished, I found the rest of the world's literature so lacking in pep and incident that I pushed it all peevishly aside and started out from the Dark Wood all over again." (Dorothy L. Sayers, Further Papers on Dante, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1957, p. 2) Love it! (and the fact that she neglected the bugs, just as Charles neglected his reading!) :)
  • November 5 2013 at 5:50 pm
    Amy Weldon

    Thanks so much for this, Todd! I wonder if these are actual insects, or [depending on when this was written] the German bombs "infesting" parts of England at the time, which were also nicknamed "doodle-bugs." Love the phrase "lacking in pep and incident."

  • November 6 2013 at 1:06 pm
    Todd Pedlar
    Well, 'Doodle-bugs' is also an affectionate term for toddlers, but I don't think Ms. Sayers was talking about them. :) The "Doodle-bugs" = German bombs idea is intriguing - I hadn't thought of that as a possibility. The volume from which the essay in question was published in 1957, the year of her death, but I know the papers were all delivered at various Dante Society meetings she attended. I'll have to poke around for the date of its original release to test your bomb hypothesis. :) (and I'll send you a copy of that essay for future use)
  • November 8 2013 at 3:31 pm
    Shelby
    I just wanted to thank you for this very inspiring and grounding blog post that I could not have read at a more perfect time. I am currently attempting to write a paper that deals with some very deep-rooted issues in society and personal beliefs and, before reading this article, I was overwhelmed by all of my thoughts. Overwhelmed in ways that went beyond my ability to finish a paper, but to who I am and what I stand by. This blog has motivated me when I needed it most and made me remember I am not alone. I can't wait to geek out as I conquer this paper! Thank you.
  • November 8 2013 at 3:44 pm
    Amy Weldon

    Thank you so much for this, Shelby! I have these moments as a writer myself all the time. Very glad that my words have helped you! And best of luck with your paper!

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