Curiosity is one of the most powerful forces that move us. It pushes us to experiment, to get out of our “comfort zone” and, of course, to make big mistakes. It is a double-edged sword that has complicated the personality of countless great geniuses. The same curiosity that made Charles Darwin’s mind shine is what brings us this story, not so told, but equally true. The story of how the most important figure in biology dedicated himself to tasting as many exotic species as he could, putting his health and his own work at risk.
It is common to think that the concept of “evolution” was born with Darwin, but it is a mistake. The idea that some species evolve in others and that we all have a common ancestor is something that we can find in classical Greece. What Darwin did was to propose the mechanisms by which changes occur in a species, natural selection where the most adapted individuals are more likely to reproduce and thus replicate their apt qualities. An idea that other naturalists of the time already suspected, but which Darwin was able to endorse with an extensive work of observation poured over the thousands of pages of his works. In fact, what he raised was full of inevitable “mistakes” at that time, but that over time we have been polishing to design the theory of evolution that we know today.
An “indescribable” owl
In any case, Darwin’s contribution was absolutely key and could only exist thanks to three reasons: that his family had enough money to allow him an idle travel life, his ability to observe and an unlimited curiosity. However, if we review the many biographies that have been written of him, we will find that they refer to a small group of people in Cambridge of which he was part: the Glutton Club. Those individuals could have passed for a group of friends who were left to dine and drink well into the night. But as much as they laughed and counted little battles, there was something different about them or, rather, in their dishes.
The Glutton Club had a clear purpose: to test as many exotic animals as they could find. They say they had the pleasure of sharing a table with all kinds of birds, from hawks to the occasional bittern. The treats followed one another and our friend Darwin enjoyed them as only a naturalist could, savoring the comparative anatomy. He wondered if the flavor could provide information about the species and if two animals of similar taste were related. Those gatherings were a veritable feast of enthusiasm, at least British-style. However, they came to an end because of the main course. Time after the club closed, Darwin still remembered in his letters how much that common tawny had disgusted him (Strix aluco). A kind of small owl of “indescribable” taste for Darwin and that had indigestible a good part of the diners. In any case, that tawny owl may have buried the Glutton Club, but not our story about Darwin’s more Gourmet side.
During his travels to South America, Darwin dedicated himself to capturing every strange specimen he saw with the purpose of sending them to his motherland to be cataloged by experts. If in our time the jungles of America remain a mystery, at that time they were an orchard of species never seen, some small, others not so much. The one in question belongs to this second a bird 90 centimeters high. Today we know him as Darwin’s ñandú (Rhea pennata), something similar to an ostrich, but three times smaller and on the other side of the Atlantic.
Darwin’s rhea was elusive. It had already been described by other naturalists, but nobody had managed to catch one, and that was the new objective of young Darwin, who at that time was barely over twenty years old. Day after day, the search was unsuccessful. After long days without profit, Darwin returned exhausted, with the forces just to have dinner by the fire. One of the star dishes was the rhea, but of a somewhat larger species than they were looking for. Well, that is what Darwin thought he was chewing that day in the camp, the image of the corpse came to mind. He quickly stood up and between shouts made his companions stop eating. This was not a common rhea calf, it was the famous bird that they had been chasing for weeks.
How to solve such mess? Darwin needed that specimen to send to his land so that it could be recognized as a species. What could he do with a handful of spiked bones? Very easy, take them, clean them and classify them. Like a puzzle, Darwin started playing with the food and when he was done, he gathered the remains that were still in the kitchen: bones of the neck, the long legs, the head of the animal and as many feathers as he could. That puzzle was sent to England where, after verifying that it was indeed a new species, it was recomposed with the remains of other similar birds. Mixing Darwin’s leftovers with bones and feathers of specimens of common rhea, they created a taxidermy Frankenstein monster imitating the devoured animal.
However, you have to be fair, anyone can have a mistake, we are not talking about an animal that we would have compulsively eaten gluttony over and over again, preventing live specimens from arriving in Britain, right?
Shot of rust
During his trip through South America Darwin tried all kinds of animals: armadillo, cougar, iguana and, of course, giant tortoise. Darwin tasted his meat made with the technique of “roasting with leather” and drank the urine from his bladders, which he described as “limpid and with a slight acid touch.” From what he wrote, that dinner was nothing special to him, but apparently Darwin’s palate was the exception because the turtles were a true delight.
It is important to remember that Darwin was not alone. He was part of a long tradition of human beings with the urge to ingest what they discover. The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) the loner of Rodrigues (Lonely fishfish), the giant alca (Pinguinus impennis), and Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) Perished largely by our gluttony and other species, such as giant tortoises, were close to following in their footsteps.
Sailors described the meat of these huge chelonians as a succulent delicacy. Easy to digest, light, juicy and full of flavor. Many ships passing through the Galapagos Islands were loaded with a few before heading out to sea again. The turtle was a treasure during the voyages. They hardly needed food or water and they did not disturb the crew. They could have them loose on the deck without it being a problem and kill them when they wanted some fresh meat. In fact, the temptation to turn them into dinner was so great that since their discovery, not a single living specimen arrived in England in almost 300 years, which further delayed their taxonomic classification and, therefore, that they received a scientific name of its own.
However, we must be careful. As much as from a distance the body asks us to ridicule the situation, we have to understand that Darwin was the son of another era. His thinking was ahead of his contemporaries in many things, but in many others it was a product of the century in which he lived. Darwin’s shadow is one of the largest in human history and continues to shelter us two centuries later. But let’s not forget that, behind the white-bearded genius, there was a young man who did not hesitate to taste the urine of a turtle out of curiosity. And what is more human than that?
DON’T NECK IT:
- Darwin proposed the mechanism of natural selection to explain the aspect and behavior relationships he saw between different species. The idea of ”evolution” already existed, what Darwin defined was, in general terms, the mechanism that pushed species to diverge.
- Darwin, Charles, and Frederick Burkhardt. The Correspondence Of Charles Darwin. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
- Darwin, Charles, and Nora Barlow. The Autobiography Of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. W.W. Norton, 1993.
- Eldredge, Niles. Eternal Ephemera – Adaptation And The Origin Of Species From The Nineteenth.