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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

NATURAL SELECTIONS

Of Darwin and Mishima . . .


If I said that I met Darwin last week, you might think I'd gone crazy.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin AP PHOTO

Yet meet him I did, in the flesh.

And if I told you that in this column I was going to connect Charles Robert Darwin (1809-82) with someone apparently completely unrelated — the renowned Japanese nationalist and author Yukio Mishima (1925-70) — I'd forgive you for thinking that I'd completely lost it.

But that is the feat I intend to perform.

OK, so it wasn't Charles Darwin who I met; it was his great-great-grandson, George. But still.

I was at London's Natural History Museum for the launch of "Darwin 200," a program of nationwide events celebrating Charles Darwin's scientific ideas and their impact in view of the upcoming 200th anniversary of his birthday on Feb. 12, 2009.

There were several other descendents of Darwin at the event, including a film-maker and an opera singer. There was also the British government's minister for culture, the president of the Royal Society — and a man dressed in a dodo costume. But we won't go into that.

The celebrations are starting now, several months early, to also take in the 150th anniversary of the world-changing day — July 1, 1858 — when Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace read out their joint paper on natural selection.

All sorts of events are planned. On this occasion, though, when the dignitaries had said their bit, we heard from a group of young poets what Darwin meant to them.

Usually we think of Darwin as he is often portrayed: An old man with a long white beard. It's easy to forget that he was just 22 when he set off on HMS Beagle for a five-year voyage around the world.

One of the poets based her composition on Darwin's relationship with his father. Charles was a rebel. His father was opposed to his son leaving. "You'll become nothing but a rat-catcher," he told Charles.

The poem imagined how the young naturalist must have felt.

Darwin defied his father. Yet the greater rebellion — mounted, effectively, against the Christians' heaven and God — took him the rest of his life to complete.

Few people's lives have been picked over in as much detail as Darwin's, but it was refreshing to hear an interpretation of it from an unusual angle. One of the aims of the events planned is to transmit to young people the continuing importance of Darwin's ideas.

The situation in Britain is in stark contrast to that in the United States, where self-styled "creationists" are still trying to get religion into the science classroom in schools.

A taxonomist who works at the museum told me that Darwin was tucking into his Christmas dinner on HMS Beagle in 1833 when he realized that the bird he was scoffing was a species unknown to science. He preserved what he could of the beast and sent it back to London: It was eventually accorded the name Lesser Rhea — or Rhea Darwinii in the language of Linnean taxonomy.

I thought about this anecdote as I regarded the short-listed entries for "Darwin's Canopy" — a permanent art installation on the ceiling of one of the museum's galleries.

Darwin was nothing if not exact. He took detailed notes of everything he encountered while traveling the world. (He wrote some 14,500 letters during his lifetime, and most of them still exist.)

The brief for "Darwin's Canopy" is to make a work of art that will "celebrate how modern biology is underpinned by Darwin's central idea — evolution by means of natural selection — the idea he used to explain the origin of biological variety, and which has influenced everything from medicine to agriculture, from politics to art ever since."

I lingered by one of the entries, an entomological display of moths, all varying slightly in color and pattern. Darwin's obsession with detail in his notes meant he included precise references to the colors of the animals and plants he observed. And here, finally, is the link to Yukio Mishima.

On top of a stack of books near the moths, I saw one titled "Spring Snow — A Translation." Sure enough, it was the first of Mishima's tetralogy, "The Sea of Fertility." What was it doing here? When I opened it, I was even more perplexed. Inside, instead of words, were swatches of color, more than 600 of them, each labeled, throughout the book, with a page number.

The book, it turns out, is Mishima's novel condensed into a color chart. As a color is mentioned in the text, the artist/translator, Alison Turnbull, isolates it and orders it in her version, making what she calls a "visual essay."

Turnbull was inspired by Mishima's evocative use of color in the novel, and also by the numerous and precise references to color in Darwin's accounts of the voyage of HMS Beagle.

Her entry for "Darwin's Canopy" is titled "Biston betularia (L.) aka The Peppered Moth," and it tells the famous story of how a dark form of the usually white-speckled insect evolved during the Industrial Revolution so as camouflage it against the polluted and blackened trees of its new environment.

Mishima couldn't really adapt to his environment, and famously ended his own life by seppuku ritual suicide in 1970. I'm sure he'd read Darwin's work.

You know those imaginary dinner parties where you select any famous guests to attend? Seeing Mishima at the Natural History Museum in London's upscale Kensington district — and influencing a "Darwinian artist" in 2008, to boot — is about as close to that as it gets.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life)."


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