Noted Ashland poet and ornithologist Pepper Trail will soon powder his beard white, affect a Brit accent and step into the skin of Charles Darwin to tell the intimate and world-changing story of his discovery of evolution and natural selection — with an emphasis on the retiring Englishman’s struggle with fame and scorn from a Bible-loving society.
“Evolution is such a beautiful idea and fundamental way of understanding the world. He was such a brilliant and detail-oriented man and it’s important to share it,” says Trail, an ornithologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland.
Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” in 1859 disputed religion’s law of divine creation in seven days, positing that all creatures descend from a common ancestor, evolving into distinct species by successfully adapting to a changing environment, a process he called natural selection.
In costume and in character, Trail will dramatize Darwin’s life and findings at 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, in the Meese Room on the third floor of Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University. It is free and public.
The book triggered a huge controversy and, within a few years “went on to universal acceptance, except in parts of the American south,” Trail said, in an interview. “In the educated Western World, the United States is unique in that evolution still threatens religious beliefs. You find no other country where leaders (running for office) refuse to say if they believe it.”
Trail has given his dramatization at many venues, including on natural history expeditions and on a ship in the Galapagos Islands, under the sponsorship of the Smithsonian Institution. Those islands are where Darwin did his main research and got key insights for the theory of evolution.
“It was great, a very rich experience to do Darwin in that context,” says Trail.
The science of evolution explains where different species come from, but can’t explain how the world got here or how life came into being, he notes. “It doesn’t attempt to answer the question of first causes. That’s unknowable. The idea of divine origins can’t be disproved.”
In his one-man play, Trail, as Darwin, talks over many issues of the scientific pioneer’s life, noting he was religious, a member of the Anglican church and often cited the Bible, but parted ways with holy writ over the question of evil.
“He was ultimately willing to challenge the accepted paradigm and had the huge bulk of evidence to back it up,” says Trail, “but, when his favorite daughter Ann, at 10 years old died, suffering terribly from tuberculosis, he couldn’t reconcile that with a benevolent, loving, protecting creator.”
Trail portrays his legendary hero as “pretty conventional, fervently against slavery and spoke up against it, but was no activist. He was well-off and devoted all his energies to scientific pursuits.”
Darwin chafed at a cartoon showing his face on an ape’s body and disowned ideas of “social Darwinism,” which legitimized oppression of the poor because nature had selected them, supposedly, as unfit to survive.
Natural selection is always at work, Trail notes, including in the present machinations of climate change, caused by the planet’s most successful species, humans.
“Many people minimize it by saying it happens all the time and is the way of nature and that’s true to some extent," says Trail, "but the rate of change now is unprecedented in geological history, except when the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs.
“Before now, species always had far longer to adapt. We’re doing it faster with extreme habitat loss. It’s going to be a severe challenge. The rate of extinction will increase, but the complete extinction of life is very unlikely. Humanity’s huge numbers and resourcefulness mean our extinction is not likely, but it’s also not impossible. The population of humans is going to have to be reduced to the carrying capacity of the planet — and there will be a lot of suffering in all parts of the globe.
“I don’t pretend to know how it will go, but the carrying capacity of the planet is being exceeded and the consequences are unpredictable, what with the stress on water and food supplies, combined with the political instability that can bring.”
One big gift Darwin’s theory of evolution gave us, says Trail, is that “He placed humanity in the natural world. Before him, there was nature and there was man and we were apart, on a separate plane of reality. He made us understand we came from the animals and are subject to the same limits of a finite biosphere …There is no escaping that reality.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.