On The Theory of Natural Selection As It Pertains to My 10 Month Old Daughter

Two Great Thinkers: Alfred Russel Wallace, and my kid, Aniko J Newsom
Two Great Thinkers: Alfred Russel Wallace, and my kid, Aniko J Newsom

My wife recently returned from a pre-school presentation thrown by a local “mommies group”. Here in LA, as in most other places in the USA, one is expected to begin panicking about school immediately after your kid parts ways from her placenta. I get it. Now that 1% percent of the population has successfully procured most of the booty, its kill or be killed at the waterhole. But man, even lion cubs spend a LOT of time messing around, chasing flies, scaring dogs; you know, kid stuff. When do our kids get to wander in the woods, turn over rocks, and chase frogs along creek banks and lie on their back, staring at clouds? Since when  did we adopt the imperative to fast-track toddlers toward their degree? Don’t all kids need time to wander? Were it not for wanderers, who would have brought us the theory of natural selection? Darwin? No! Well, not entirely…

Alfred Russel Wallace, 1862
Alfred Russel Wallace, 1862

Last weekend, I had the unexpected pleasure of attending a symposium at UCLA about a hugely influential but, until recently, obscure man, named Alfred Russel Wallace.  Wallace’s profound impact on our basic understanding of the natural world cannot be overstated.  A man of humble origins, little education and limited means, Wallace, after a string of odd jobs, became a self-taught biologist of the rarest sort.  While his well-healed peers speculated from drawing rooms or gazed from the safety of their boats, Wallace got his hands dirty. On his first journey in 1848, he, his brother, and a man named Henry Bates explored the central Amazon, collecting specimens and living off the land with the native populations.  The journey was ultimately a disaster by any account, in that his brother died from fever and Wallace’s ship, filled with specimens, burned and sank in the middle of the sea. He and his crew floated for 10 days in the open sea before being saved, and once on dry land, Wallace swore he’d never wander the woods again. But of course, being the deeply curious iconoclast he was was, he did. And that journey, changed history.

Plate- "Poison dart hunting" from AR Wallace's journey into the Amazon
Plate- “Poison dart hunting” from AR Wallace’s journey into the Amazon

Wallace used his data from the Amazon to finance a  staggering 8 year exploration, from 1854 to 1862, of  the oceans, mountains and jungles of The Malay Archipelago, formerly known as the “The Dutch East Indies”.  The epic expedition included Malaysia, Singapore, the islands of Indonesia,  and the island of New Guinea, and resulted in the book, The Malay Archipelago. Wallace’s discoveries were so vast and so broad, that it would be impossible to list them here, but it’s safe to say, it’s one of the most important works regarding our natural history.

From Wikipedia:

It was published in two volumes in 1869, delayed by Wallace’s ill health and the work needed to describe the many specimens he brought home. The book went through ten editions in the nineteenth century; it has been reprinted many times since, and has been translated into at least eight languages.

The book described each island that he visited in turn, giving a detailed account of its physical and human geography, its volcanoes, and the variety of animals and plants that he found and collected. At the same time, he describes his experiences, the difficulties of travel, and the help he received from the different peoples that he met. The preface notes that he travelled over 14,000 miles and collected 125,660 natural history specimens, mostly of insects though also thousands of molluscs, birds, mammals and reptiles.

Lepidoptera- from the study of Alfred Russel Wallace
Lepidoptera- from the study of Alfred Russel Wallace

Not bad for an uneducated, lower class kid from Wales.  And here’s where the plot thickens. Wallace, having no audience of his own, sent his theories to Darwin while he was living in the archipelago. Darwin, nervous to publish due to the conservative nature of the scientific community, read Wallace’s work and well, basically shat himself. Wallace was not just reaching Darwin’s conclusions, he was outpacing him. Darwin had no choice but to take Wallace’s revelations on natural selection, animal mimicry and geography’s impact on species and present them, along with his own, to the  scientific community.  Minds were blown. And though Darwin has just recently been cleared of outright stealing from Wallace, there is no doubt that Darwin’s masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” owes a monstrous debt to the vast and ambitious work of Alfred Russel Wallace.

And all this brings me back to my daughter, Aniko.  I keep thinking about what’s lost when kids are always under an adult’s supervision, from cradle to college. When I was a kid, me and my friends would race to the woods that bordered our New Jersey development and get lost for hours. We’d explore the ruins of old farms, wade into Walker’s Pond after Painted turtles and make forts from downed trees. We got scrapes, bruises and even broken bones, but we lived.   The world was full of mystery and darkness and our minds were on fire. It’s a different time, sure. But how do we keep that fire alive now? Granted, at 10 months, our daugther needs us, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But this whole process of planning for the future seems to leave room for so few holes, so little getting lost. What, I wonder, would Wallace do?

Aniko J Newsom
Aniko J Newsom at work.

5 thoughts on “On The Theory of Natural Selection As It Pertains to My 10 Month Old Daughter”

  1. I know a lot of grown up homeschooled kids now, who are kicking it out of the park. Self-Confidence, curiosity and wilderness adventures seem to be the winning combination. And access to great museum programs and parents who garden…

  2. David,
    I read your post from beginning to end…fascinating! Also love the pictures of your darling baby, Aniko.
    Much love,
    Sally

  3. David & Sian – our boys thrived pre-K-12 at a Waldorf school – I know there are 3 in LA. The preschools at a Waldorf School are just magical and completely lo-tech. Fast forward from those little munchkins in nursery school: Joe got his BS in Physics and is applying to grad school in Quantum Computing, and Caleb is a sophomore studying Architecture and Design at UMASS Amherst, both of them full of passion and with a serious love of and capacity for learning.
    Below is a recent article from our local paper that was very gratifying for a lot of Waldorf parents who have to endure people telling them their kids will be technologically left behind – when in fact the kids at Waldorf learn at such a highly creative and experiential level, they are so deeply grounded in nature and the natural world, that technology handily becomes their tool and not their master.
    Plus both boys still knit their own fucking winter hats and mittens – how cool is that? 😉 (And they have physically done/learned the entire process from shearing the sheep, cleaning and carding the wool, spinning the yarn, to knitting all kinds of things!)
    Yeah there are some kooky parents at Waldorf schools, but there are kooky parents at ALL schools. But the teachers believe each child has a unique destiny and they don’t automatically expect that destiny to fit the typical mold of what current society defines as success. They nurture the unfolding of the child’s own spirit and own gifts.

    Enjoying your thoughtful blog! Blessings…
    Kate
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  4. First of all, Happy New Year!, my brother! You already know my thoughts on creating education fresh for each soul coming into this plane. Not necessarily home school for all, just conscious creative education where you can do it, support it, make it happen. Public school was a model from totalitarian states way back. How to condition good producers, consumers, and tax payers of the state. It is imperative, as I think you already know to be part of a network of similar thinkers. Aniko’s education will evolve and grow as her inspiration and yours does. Our kids mostly grew up outside the box, and were encouraged to follow their inspiration to learn wherever it led. This is the natural path. Goes without saying, a grounding in the truth that they are spirit and not matter really adds rocket fuel to that learning!

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