President Ramaley's Bookshelf: April 2011

Spring semester is more than halfway over. I have been thinking about how soon graduation will arrive and about what it means to be educated. When I start thinking this way, I am inevitably drawn to books that explore both the larger world around us and the complex world within us. I have always learned best when three different things come together in the right way—reading about something, informed conversation and, where possible, seeing something for myself. This pattern can unfold in any combination or order but all three things must eventually happen if I am to make sense of something complex or unfamiliar. Lately, every book I pick up seems to carry some version of the idea of seeing, reading and reflecting, embodied in a story of discovery. The voyage can be high adventure or a quiet reflection on the daily events of one’s own life.

Let us start with high adventure—Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution by Iain McCalman. Darwin’s Armada is the tale of four different long ocean voyages in the 1800’s to remote places on the globe. Each voyage was undertaken as a scientific expedition and each protagonist was serving as a naturalist and a collector of plants and animals to send to scientists back home in England. Each young man carried with him a library of the most challenging scientific works of his time. During his voyage on The Beagle, Charles Darwin pored over one of the most influential and provocative scientific treatises in history, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and another provocative treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus. Influenced by these ideas, Darwin began to see that the physical world was not unchanging but instead continuously sculpted by natural forces. It followed naturally that plants and animals were changing too, driven by another set of natural forces that eventually he would call natural selection.

McCalman’s imaginative recreation of four voyages offers a rare perspective on how many of the things we take for granted today were first seen and understood, and how ideas circulating at the time contributed to how these early observers made sense of what they saw. We are offered the chance to peer into the lives and experiences of four adventurers—Darwin himself and three young men who later became Darwin’s close associates and fellow advocates for the theory of evolution: Joseph Hooker, the botanist; Thomas Huxley, the eloquent and implacable defender of evolutionary theory; and Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection. As you read this book, you can hear the wind in the rigging, the sound of the ship’s bells pealing out the watch, the groaning of a ship under shortened sail in a tempest. In his own way, each man began to see the natural world and our place in that world in new ways that have left an indelible mark on our understandings today. They read, they saw for themselves, and eventually they had informed debates with each other and with their critics.

One wonders, however, what was really going on in the minds of these men as they sailed through unknown waters and set foot on land rarely, if ever, visited by Europeans. We do know that one thing these experiences inspired was a sense of wonder. Shortly after I finished Darwin’s Armada, I had the privilege of meeting Krista Tippett, the host of Speaking of Faith on National Public Radio (NPR), who was on campus to deliver a lecture. Excerpts from her radio program, now called On Being, are captured in her book Einstein’s God, a series of conversations about the connection between our inner lives and the scientific discoveries about the world around us. Her guests talk about the sense of wonder generated by our study of nature.

Although there are still opportunities for adventure and discovery in the natural world, our own inner landscape offers an ever engaging fresh domain for exploration. These landscapes, too, can generate wonder. Reading about inner voyages can have its challenges. In her book entitled How to Live or A Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell provides a wonderful study of the life and thoughts of one of our most famous essayists, Michel de Montaigne, the first to write in depth about his own experiences and thoughts. Montaigne didn’t write about what he was supposed to think or see or feel as was expected of writers in his day. He paid attention to what he really saw and felt and, by doing so, left behind a record that every generation since then has chosen to read in the light of its own time. Intrigued by Bakewell’s book, I downloaded Montaigne’s Essays onto my handy Kindle e-reader and began to read. I confess that I find that reading Montaigne is somewhat like having a conversation with a very interesting but rather odd friend whose thoughts wander about at times and who leaves me a few steps behind him trying to figure out where he is headed. Most of us probably try to tidy up our thoughts when we talk with other people. Not Montaigne!

Together, these books shed an interesting light on some perennial questions about the nature of discovery and journeys through both natural and internal landscapes—How do we learn? How do we make sense of what we see? What can we do with the deep sense of awe that an examined life can engender in us? These questions lead me back to my initial thoughts about graduation day. Have we prepared our students well? Have they learned to be open to the unexpected, to absorb and then reflect upon the daily as well as the sublime?

President Ramaley's Bookshelf: April 2011
April 2011 Bookshelf

 Book: Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution
Author: Iain McCalman

Book: Einstein’s God
Author: Krista Tippett

Book: How to Live or A Life of Montaigne
Author: Sarah Bakewell