They say the root of genius is sustained obsession, but it can sometimes go awry. Take the little-known story about that venerated biologist Charles Darwin regarding barnacles. He found them so fascinating they retarded evolutionary thought for eight years.
With his great world journey on the good ship Discovery behind him and all the material on hand to arrive at his epoch-changing theory of natural selection, Darwin was sidetracked by these potentially boring little rivets. In hindsight he said it was maybe the silliest thing he ever did.
This was a bit unfair to barnacles. The science writer David Quammen redeemed them in a charming essay, Point of Attachment, in which he explained Darwin’s fascination.
A barnacle hatches from its egg as a tiny, six-legged beastie with one eye. After a few moults it transforms itself into an animal with three eyes, two shells, six pairs of legs and an inclination to give up the roving habits of its youth and settle down. It doesn’t eat: its sole task is to find a suitable neighbourhood in which to attach itself, whereupon it transforms itself into a barnacle which never again moves.
Sometimes that neighbourhood is the hull of a ship, slowing it down and infuriating its captain. Mostly, though, they attach to rocks forming a surface that can slice the bottom out of an unwary vessel.
Quammen speculated that what has become known as ‘Darwin’s Delay’ wasn’t merely the fact that he was fascinated by barnacle reproduction (they have penises up to seven times their shell length), but that, being the reclusive homeboy he was, he identified with their tendency to hunker down and never move again.
However, prodded by an article sent to him by a young naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, which set out the principles of natural selection (and scared Darwin nearly out of his wits), the bearded Victorian got back on track and soon afterwards produced the path-breaking work Origin of the Species.
Hunkering down, however, appeared to be Darwin’s tendency. The last years of his life was dedicated to the life of earth worms. The result, this time, was more fruitful. His worm study is today considered to be the first work in a then-unnamed branch of biology – ecology – and the foundation of both invertebrate ethology and soil science.
About the Author:
Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.
His other books include:
Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.
He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Widerness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.
His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.