Darwin’s Daily Rituals (and barnacles and sea snails)

Mason Curey’s Daily Rituals drives home a repeated theme in the lives of people who changed the world is: believing what others consider ridiculous required lots of courage.

Darwin is a great example:

Darwin led a double life, keeping his thoughts on evolution and natural selection to himself while bolstering his credentials in the scientific community. He became an expert on barnacles, ultimately producing four monographs on the creatures and earning a Royal Medal for his work in 1853. He also studied bees and flowers and wrote books on coral reefs and South American geology. Meanwhile, he divulged his secret theory to a very few confidants; he told one fellow scientist it was “like confessing a murder.”

I think it’s an amazing metaphor for life in academia: you need to “bolster your credentials” by working on barnacles [1] in order to work on the disresepctful things like evolution by natural selection in your free time.


Preview of Darwin on barnacles. Source

Speaking of barnacles, I can’t resist mentioning what I find to be one of the most terrifying predators on Earth: the dog winkle (nucella canaliculata). (Yes, sea snails can be predators).

N. canaliculata is a predator and feeds on mussels and barnacles by drilling a hole through the shell. Researchers found that the dog winkle was more successful at drilling into the barnacle Semibalanus cariosus when it drills between the lateral plates rather than through them. A toxin is then injected through the hole which causes the barnacle’s muscles to relax and the opercular valves to gape, whereupon the dog winkle can easily consume the soft tissues.[3]

Nucella caniculata 001.jpg
Source: Wikipedia

But it’s nothing next to the tropical cone snail, an organism I was always terrified of when I went snorchling as a small kid. It has a harpoon full of neurotoxins to paralyze its prey. It can SWALLOW FISH IN ONE PIECE. Fortunately, the harpoon is not a long-distance weapon as my childhood self. So, as of 2004, there were only 30 reported instances of human deaths caused by them.

Campbell’s Biology uses these guys to illustrate the importance of the nervous system. I’m sold.

2019-05-03 18_50_43-All Notebooks - ales.flidr93@gmail.com - Evernote.png2019-05-03 18_51_33-All Notebooks - ales.flidr93@gmail.com - Evernote.png

Back to Darwin and his daily habits. Unfortunately, his productivity partly rested on the social norms of his time that made it fine to treat women as audiobooks:

The first, and best, of his work periods began at 8:00 A.M., after Darwin had taken a short walk and had a solitary breakfast. Following ninety minutes of focused work in his study—disrupted only by occasional trips to the snuff jar that he kept on a table in the hallway—Darwin met his wife, Emma, in the drawing room to receive the day’s post. He read his letters, then lay on the sofa to hear Emma read the family letters aloud. When the letters were done, Emma would continue reading aloud, switching to whatever novel she and her husband were currently working their way through.

I’m really glad we have audiobooks now.

Regard for women was not one of Darwin’s fortes in general, as his list of pros and cons of marriage also illustrates. He could have done better on this front: his contemporary John Stuart Mill was already on the case with Harriet Taylor.

Image result for darwin pros and cons of marriage
Darwin’s pro and con list

On a more cheerful note, Darwin suggests that you can do brilliant work with very convenient hours:

At 10:30 Darwin returned to his study and did more work until noon or a quarter after. He considered this the end of his workday, and would often remark in a satisfied voice, “I’ve done a good day’s work.”

[1] I need to read Darwin’s treatises on barnacles. I love the Czech word for them: svijonožci. And those of some of the species: vilejš stvolnatý, “zvláštní paraziti kořenohlavci (Rhizocephala) žijí ve vnitřnostech krabů”.

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