Fact-Checking, Truth, and Moral Certainty

In the climate of recent presidential campaigns, including the present one, a new imperative has, of necessity, emerged: That of independent “fact-checking” the statements and pronouncements of candidates. It is both fascinating and disturbing how often bald-faced lies and distortions of the truth are put before the voting public – from both major party candidates – even though the perpetrator is often caught on tape saying the very thing later denied. Is there no shame?


Have you ever been inconvenienced by illegitimate charges to your credit card which required a replacement card? It is actually becoming difficult to find anyone who has not. Inconvenient? Yes. Getting worse in this internet age? Yes. The cost to government, financial institutions, and to each and every one of us who must deal with the upsurge of fraud and identity theft is monumental. We pay dearly with our time, energy, and money for credit-bureau monitoring, anti-virus software, and fraud recovery efforts. I maintain that the prosecution and punishment of such fraud is woefully inadequate to serve as a creditable deterrence to anyone tempted steal and defraud.

Have Truth and Honesty in All Things Become Old-Fashioned Notions?

It troubles me greatly that truthfulness and a personal sense of honor are ever scarcer commodities in America, not just in the political arena, but in our everyday encounters. Survival in America demands constant fact-checking because mis-representation from advertisers, politicians, bankers, and outright con-artists is on the upsurge in this society as is outright fraud.

The latest Wells Fargo Bank scandal is but a recent example. As I understand it, bank employees, with the allegedly tacit knowledge if not encouragement of upper management, opened unauthorized and unwanted new accounts at the bank in the name of current account holders. This, presumably for the sake of garnering money bonuses paid for generating “new business.” Seriously? Dozens of lower-level folks have been fired, and the CEO forced to resign, but the real question, here, is “Who will go to jail” for the significant fraud perpetrated? The answer? Probably no one, despite the seriousness of the allegations.

This is the path commerce in America has increasingly followed: The wealthy accused hire the best, high-priced lawyers to wrest unwarranted perpetrator leniency from our system of justice which should instead be serving notice that unscrupulous behavior will not be tolerated.

 As is almost always the case, those responsible in upper management at Wells who escape jail will, undoubtedly, become comfortably “retired” with pre-negotiated, guaranteed millions in their pocket despite “stiff” fines from the government for their naughtiness. The ordinary workers at Wells who were allegedly coerced by management to implement such a scheme have been fired and will fare much worse. No wonder folks are growing wary of “the system” and the lack of any real deterrence emanating from enforcement to discourage those tempted to take advantage of the public. Expect more of the same until the America demands and exacts justice in such cases.

Monitoring congressional hearings, such as that recently held to question the CEO of Wells Fargo, is usually an exercise in viewer frustration as often hapless members of Congress meander through poorly thought-out questions for those called before them to testify. Also in play is the public’s awareness that, lurking in the shadows, is the strong possibility that the congressional folks have, in the past, been bought and paid for by lobbyists representing the very entities and people being investigated by them. At best, it often seems as if our congressional “watchdogs” doing the interrogating are more interested in a beneficial television photo-op than really insuring justice.

Senator Elizabeth Warren was the glaring exception, recently, as she tore into the Wells Fargo CEO for his evasive responses to her pointed questions. At one point, she asked him for a yes or no answer to her very specific question. When he went into evasive/deflection mode for the second time, she promptly cut him off and declared, “I take that as a NO!” and forged ahead with her no-nonsense questioning. Hooray for Ms. Warren and her refusal to be deterred from her fact-finding! If a straight answer to pointed questions is not forthcoming, the person under oath should be made to “twist in the wind” until the question is addressed.

America has many complex challenges and problems. Truth and honesty in all things are necessary if we are to make any progress in addressing our country’s issues. We do not have the luxury, time, or money in this society to stop and fact-check everything, all the time.

 While these virtues should certainly start at the top with our elected officials, such attitudes must be embraced as well by us, the public at large, in our everyday dealings with one another – all the while demanding it of our government and corporate leaders.


It seems that the Gordon Gecko greed creed which declares “Greed is Good” has become the rallying cry of the new ethics in American business and government along with “Do Whatever It Takes to Get Yours.”

 If you have any doubt about current trends, you had best take the time to step back, take a good look around, and do some honest reflecting. What will it take for we the people to judge our fellow humans not by their position, their material trappings, their “engaging” personalities, or the color of their skin, but by the demonstrated content of their character…and their honesty in all things. We must not tolerate anyone who flagrantly behaves poorly in that regard.

Inclusion, Not Diversity: Martin Luther King’s Most Enduring Quote and Legacy

There is a new trend afoot in America’s racial/ethnic relationships which draws from the message inherent in my favorite quote of Martin Luther King Jr.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”


The new catchword in America today is “inclusion” as opposed to “diversity.” On one level, diversity in America is a good thing; on another level, it is not. King’s quote for the ages has been widely interpreted by liberals and conservatives, alike, often in support of their own viewpoints and agendas. I feel I can best express the point of this post by stating my own personal attitude re: King’s expressed hope.

For me, categorizing whole groups of people according to impressions or statistical norms is not where I am or where I want to be. Although that is not to say that well-documented ethnic socio/economic realities have no validity or value as remedies for social issues, statistical generalizations should carry no weight when it comes to one-on-one interpersonal relationships across racial/ethnic lines. Whether friend, associate, customer, salesperson, handyman, or casual acquaintance, my governing impression of another person centers first and foremost on their perceived character. Color of skin, accent, clothing, etc. have no effect on my relationship with that person once a level of mutual respect, good will, and trust has been established. Dr. King’s “content of character” phrase resonates loudly and clearly.

That approach, to me, is the very kernel of the meaning of “inclusion.” First and foremost, inclusion implies membership in the fraternity of all human beings possessing good character and a willingness to better themselves through hard work. Demonstrating those qualities should be – no, must be – sufficient to guarantee acceptance by all quarters of American society regardless of one’s race, or cultural background. Inclusion in that sense seeks to blur lines of division among us whereas diversity tends to emphasize or at least retain them.

The extent to which America can embrace Dr. King’s character-based vision or not will determine the future of race relations in this country. King’s criteria for judging people imposes a significant mandate on minorities as well as on mainstream, white America. While being other than white should never impose societal barriers nor foster discrimination, neither should it provide a convenient umbrella for sheltering those who would not measure up using Dr. King’s “content of character” yardstick.

I believe that a diverse America makes for a more interesting and dynamic society than does population homogeneity and that the historical roles of the Native-American, the African-American, and the great immigrations from Ireland, Italy, Poland, etc. should be an integral part of our country’s history. In that vein, such diversity should increasingly become more a facet of purely historical interest and significance and less a political wedge than is currently the case. And America must learn the valuable lessons inherent in that history.

The societal problems of America will not be solved by top-down governmental policies coming from Washington; lasting solutions can emerge only from a grass-roots, person-to-person embrace of Martin Luther King’s entreaty, that all our peoples will “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Trumping even the central message of Dr. King’s great “I have a dream” speech is the (hopefully) governing tenet of all organized religion which beseeches us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

hr-icrcm-stools1In contrast to the social distinctions highlighted by focusing on diversity, a true national unity based on the spirit of brotherhood and the pursuit of common goals is necessary to carry the day. That is the message of “inclusion” as opposed to that of “diversity” which too often emphasizes our divisions.

Opposite: The original lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina where, on February 1, 1960, four black college students took their seats and demanded service at the then-segregated counter. More recently, the store has been a museum celebrating the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement which took place there.

The Coming Decline of College and Professional Football; The Resurgence of Track and Field

The decline of college and professional football as we know it is now underway and fast gaining momentum. The reality is undeniable – virtually a “no-brainer.” Here are the key reasons for the trend:


Football, especially at the college and professional levels, is a dangerous sport. In the professional ranks, football played over a career lasting more than seven years often exacts severe penalties in the form of lifelong disabilities, minor and major. Listen carefully and heed the testimonials of many professional players who retire in their thirties and live the rest of their long lives enduring disability and pain from the injuries and general wear-and-tear suffered during their football careers.

The most recent data regarding the cognitive effects of concussions and repeated head trauma is the most damaging of all to the future of the game. “Better helmet design” is not a viable solution to this problem. One might be tempted to rationalize the problem by invoking the arguments that not all players suffer cognitive issues later in life, and there will always be professional athletes willing to trade the risks for a lucrative career. One might argue that embracing football’s risks is one of the grown-up choices one makes in life – let the athletes decide! But football’s dilemma is not that simple.

Here is what will happen – is already happening – that portends the decline of the sport: Parents will increasingly be unwilling to expose their young students, at the high school level and earlier, to the risks football entails.

Without active high school programs to function as a junior farm system for the colleges and universities, the pool of talented college athletes will diminish. Without enough good athletes participating in high-visibility college/university programs, the professional level will suffer. Simply put, the current popularity and “success” of football at the college and professional levels cannot survive a crumbling foundation at the high school level, and that is precisely the current trend as parents and students weigh the risks and order their life-priorities. The turn-out for high school football has notably declined in the past two years since concussion data has been made public.

MONEY: Yes, the root of much if not all evil! When is the last time you have attended a major college football game? Was it a great experience, well worth the individual ticket price of $40 to $90 for mediocre seats? As a life-long college football fan following, among others, my alma mater, Stanford University, here is a summation of my experiences with the college game:

-Very high ticket prices today even for mediocre seats, most all of which are now “reserved.” Gone are the general admission end-zone seats which were, until recently, readily available on game day for a family-friendly price of $15.

-Want to bring your youngsters to a college game despite the high cost? Gone also are the sun-drenched Saturday afternoon game days at places like Stanford Stadium, the setting for so many of my football memories involving great players and big games. Today, you and your children will more likely than not be filing into a college stadium for a 7 pm game on a cool fall evening – bed-times for your children be damned. For the first several decades of its existence, the old Stanford Stadium seating 80,000 did not even have lights!


Stadium-goers can thank television, the sports networks, and big money for relegating the truest and most faithful fans to second-class status. Games today are scheduled exclusively for television and the big money the networks bring to the athletic conferences and schools.

-Oh, and speaking of television: For fans attending the game, expect, in addition to exorbitant parking fees these days, lots of dead-time throughout the game in order to parade the line-up of lengthy television commercials. Games today are drawn-out affairs because of this. Not so very long ago, the infrequent sight of television vans outside Stanford Stadium was exciting, indicative of national attention on a particularly important game to be played that afternoon. Today, PAC 12 conference games are routinely televised; no longer is that a plus for the fans in attendance. Rather, it is bad news for the reasons just cited. Bottom line: Too many games on television, too much exposure, too much money in the sport…just TOO much!

-The last, but certainly not the least of issues: The charade of college football as a sport played by “student-athletes” simply cannot be ignored even by the most die-hard of fans. The reality today is that many college/university football programs are more representative of an NFL farm system for aspiring professional athletes than a legitimate student-athlete endeavor. Graduation rates for football and basketball players are pitifully poor for many colleges and universities – even some “elite” ones. I am pleased that Stanford University is not one of those whose athletes are “in school” to play ball. Stanford runs an exemplary athletic program despite being caught in the cross-currents of today’s money/sports realities.

The Money

-A sure indicator of the excesses inherent in today’s system is the fact that the highest paid employee at the big football schools is…the head football coach! Salaries in the millions of dollars are becoming common. Neither the presidents of those same universities nor renowned Nobel laureate professors on the faculty come close to earning as much as the head coach at the big football factories. Success on the football field translates into big bucks for the school from influential alumni donors who live vicariously vis-à-vis football success on game-day, ethics be-damned. The whole situation is really quite pathetic and hypocritical! Click on the two links at the end of this post to previous blog posts of mine which cover the corrosive effects of money on football today in more detail.

Take Care of Your Body, Especially the Brain and Knees!

A00680F01[1]Have you ever sat in a doctor’s exam room waiting for his/her arrival and noticed the anatomy charts which are often present on the walls? Inevitably I am amazed at the miraculous intricacies that reside within the eye, the inner ear, and even the knee. The knee: A remarkable example of bio-engineering, is it not? Whenever I see the “knee picture,” I cannot help but shudder in revulsion at the thought of the damage a bad football hit can and very frequently does inflict on such a remarkable natural creation. Were I the parent of young boys, I would discourage them from playing tackle football for the sake of their knees alone. I am the grandfather of two young boys, quite certain that their parents will not support football as a sporting activity for either of them. What are the alternatives?

The Resurgence of Track and Field for Youngsters

I heard a news report the other day that high-school enrollments in track and field now exceed declining football enrollments for the very first time. Nothing could please me more as a former high-school hurdler on the San Mateo High track team…way back in 1958! The present trend reflects both the new concerns with football and a re-discovery of the virtues inherent in the sport of track and field. Youth soccer has already made great inroads as an alternative to football, but I see track and field as the long-ignored venue that offers even more variety and opportunity to young athletes. I was dismayed while watching the Rio Olympics that so many track events were run to less than capacity crowds. That never was the case in my day and probably would not have occurred in a European Olympic venue. Track has been off the radar screen for a long time in the USA, but all good things have a habit of returning to favor. I believe that track and field’s time has come again as a great alternative to youth football.

When I was in high school, track and field had an avid following in this country. In 1962, my father and I attended the two-day track meet held in Palo Alto, California between the USA and the Soviet Union. The competition engendered huge national/international interest and filled the old Stanford Stadium to its 80,000 seat capacity for both days. I was thrilled to witness the Russian star, Valery Brumel, set the then-world record in the high-jump at seven feet, five inches.

500c3ff4d4f90.image[1]I was recently surprised when my eldest granddaughter, Megan, announced she was attending track camp this past summer. She has just entered high school this fall and plans to run track, possibly the hurdles – like Grandpa! Megan worked hard all summer on conditioning at track camp, and I was impressed by her dedication and the fact that other of her friends were also going out for track. I suspect Megan and her friends are fashionably riding the cusp of a new wave – the coming resurgence of track and field as a great sport for youngsters – boys and girls. Nothing would please me more.

My Favorite Track Event: The High Hurdles

Alan_Track_1X_Crop   Xiang Liu_1_04OC








Me – Burlingame High Track, 1958                              Liu Xiang – Athens, 2004


Click on the links, below, to go to the post archives on my Home page for these pertinent posts:

-College Football Today: Running Toward the Wrong Goal (9/1/13)

-Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students? (11/1/14)

-Life-Lessons Learned from Playing Sports (2/2/14)

Fifty Years of Marriage…and Five Days More!

Five days ago, it was precisely fifty years since Linda and I married in Santa Barbara, California – on August 20, 1966. Last Saturday, we celebrated the occasion at the Shadowbrook restaurant in nearby Capitola, near the beach at Santa Cruz. These pictures, taken fifty years apart, book-end our fifty-year journey together.

IMG_6894 Shadowbrook_1A 8_20_2016









The weekend was spent with our immediate family members at a rented house on the beach at Santa Cruz. Our four grandchildren, ages seven to fourteen, had a great time on the beach building sand-castles and playing tag with the active surf on Saturday. That evening, we had a fabulous dinner experience at the picturesque Shadowbrook restaurant, long a prime attraction in the beach town of Capitola.


During dinner, our son-in-law, Scott, asked if I had any advice on how to reach the 50th anniversary of a marriage. I replied with little hesitation: “Pick the right one (partner) from the start! That choice is the most important decision you will ever make in life.”

Another truism to keep in mind: A successful marriage is the union of two inevitably imperfect people who are dedicated to the notion of a lifetime bond and are determined to overlook the nagging annoyances sure to emanate from both parties.

The key to success remains making a wise choice, one based on all the right criteria. Practical considerations are paramount, but a relationship without “sizzle” is off to a poor start.

I Knew Linda Was the One the First Night We Met!

In May of 1965, my good friend Gil, told me about a big apartment complex party to be held that afternoon/evening across the street. He suggested we go over and check it out. We each had an apartment on California Steet in Mountain View, Ca., a professional “singles row” if ever there was one.

I told Gil I had a slight headache (which I did) and did not feel like going. He convinced me to go over at least for a while, so we did. We were not there long when a trio of good-looking girls walked toward our table. I noticed one, in particular, the tall, cute one with the long legs! As they approached our table, a trio of guys engaged the girls in brief conversation, leading to an invitation to “come up to our place and see our etchings!” Gil and I shrugged and smiled as they all left on their “art appreciation” mission. It was not long at all before the girls were back, heading our way, once again. Gil hollered out something to them, probably about the “art show” and the etchings. The girls laughed, and I asked the tall one named Linda if she would like to dance. We danced one number, and then another, and then another.

Two o’clock in the morning found us at the far periphery of the patio party dancing the last number of the night before saying goodnight. We had danced the whole night through and had done a lot of talking, and I liked everything about Linda!

The next morning, without much sleep, I traveled north to Burlingame to meet my parents at an open-house, a home they were considering for purchase. I recall as if it were yesterday standing in the kitchen and telling my parents that “I think I met my wife last night.” My parents bought the home, and, after a fourteen-month courtship, Linda and I began our fifty-year journey together. In a wonderful irony, we both have many precious memories of time spent over the years with my parents in that beautiful little home.

A short postscript: I have always prided myself on “knowing a good thing when I see it.” That held true for the woman I married. It also proved to be true for the 50th anniversary card I gave her last Saturday. I purchased it over fifteen years ago…because I really liked the format and the beautiful sentiment it contains. As a bonus, the card is glitter-free, a rarity on today’s card racks – don’t get me started! Purchasing that card so early-on validates my faith and optimism that we would still both be here, together, to celebrate as we did last Saturday.


The Iconic P-51 Mustang: The Fighter That Destroyed Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Won the War

Last month, I had yet another opportunity to ride in and fly one of the most iconic military aircraft of all time, the North American P-51 Mustang. Sadly, it did not happen. Maybe next year!


The chance to ride in a P-51 materializes yearly when the Collings Foundation and its “Wings of Freedom” nationwide tour of restored World War II aircraft lands at nearby Moffett Field. For nearly a week, the public has the opportunity of getting up-close-and-personal with several “survivors” from the mass post-war scrapping of airplanes which defeated Hitler and Japan not so long ago.

The Betty Jane P-51 is a flying survivor from 1945, one of the very few Mustangs outfitted with two seats and dual flight controls (that’s her pictured above in a Collings Foundation photo and below, in one of mine). For $2200 along with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” attitude, a visitor can reserve a half-hour ride over the San Francisco bay area in that venerable war-bird along with the opportunity of briefly guiding her through a gentle turn or two.


Linda and I took our two young grandsons to Moffett for an afternoon of gawking at and clambering through the foundation’s B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers. These two aircraft were the major weapons used to dismantle Hitler’s war machine by destroying German factories, airfields, and infrastructure. Implementing a revamped allied strategy in late 1943, these four-engine airplanes commenced attacking the civilian populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden in a successful effort to erode the German people’s support of Hitler’s war effort. The Collings Foundation’s B-24, Witchcraft, is the lone remaining flying example of its genre (close to nineteen-thousand of them were built during the war)!


The B-17 Flying Fortress was the more storied of the two workhorse bombers early in the war, and the Foundation’s Nine O’Nine is a beautiful example. It was anticipated that the multiple 50 caliber machine guns protruding from the aptly named “Fortress” would provide an adequate defense against German fighter-interceptors. That soon proved to be misplaced idealism as the Luftwaffe and flak from the ground took its toll on the “heavies.”



But the airplane on the tour that, as in years past, captured my imagination even more than the others, was the Betty Jane. The P-51 Mustang rapidly became the best friend of the B-17 and B-24 bomber crews who flew mission after mission in large formations from their airfields dotting Great Britain’s countryside. Their destination: Targets deep into German airspace. Earlier in the war, the slow-flying four-engine bombers and their deadly cargo were initially escorted during the long flight into Germany by allied fighter planes like the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a plane of limited flying range and mediocre maneuverability. Typically, well before the heavy bombers reached their targets over Germany, the fighter escorts were forced to break-off and return to base due to their limited range (fuel). At that point, the bomber formations became sitting ducks for the agile and deadly German fighter planes which came up to meet them.

The P-51 Mustang: Just-In-Time Delivery to Allied Fighter Groups

The deeper the penetration into German airspace, the greater the allied bomber losses. The turning point came during the infamous raid over Regensburg, Germany, where 60 bombers were lost, each with a ten-man crew – 600 men. Just at this critical point, the newly-developed P-51 Mustang reached operational status and became available to the fighter groups based in England. Designed from the get-go to be a superior fighter, the P-51 was just that. With its fine maneuverability and the powerful, in-line, twelve cylinder, liquid-cooled engine conceived by Rolls-Royce but built under license by the Packard motor car company in the United States, the Mustang was superior to its German counterparts, the Messerschmidt Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190.

357th Gun Film

 A German Me 109 caught in the gun cameras of a P-51

 Critically important was the Mustang’s superior range, aided by external, under-the-wing, drop-tanks carrying fuel. Now, the bombers had an escort fighter which could not only accompany them deep into German territory in a defensive, protective posture, but could inflict losses on the Luftwaffe as its pilots attacked the bomber formations. In this dual sense, it can justifiably be said that the P-51 both destroyed the Luftwaffe and won the war by allowing the “heavies” to reach and destroy their targets.

At about that time, allied commanders expanded bombing targets to include the populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden. Late in the war, General Jimmy Doolittle also famously altered the successful defensive role of the P-51 from solely  a long-range bomber escort by ordering the fighter groups to adopt a more offensive posture, attacking Luftwaffe fighters wherever they could be found. The mandate was to leave the bomber formations, when feasible, and destroy the German interceptors before they could locate and reach and the bombers. Doolittle wanted to strafe and destroy German planes on the ground – at their airfields – when possible. The goal: To gain complete air superiority prior to the planned ground invasions central to D-Day. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen by D-Day, thanks in large part to the effective dual role of the P-51 both as bomber escort and Luftwaffe killer.

Firing-Up the Big Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.


Lt. Jim Brooks and his P-51, February – 1945

Perhaps next year, when the Collings Foundation tour returns, I will have an extra $2200 to go up in Betty Jane as well as the requisite moxie to do so. I cannot think of a greater, more meaningful thrill.

Charles Darwin’s Journey on the Beagle: History’s Most Significant Adventure

In 1831, a young, unknown, amateur English naturalist boarded the tiny ship, HMS Beagle, and embarked, as crew member, on a perilous, five-year journey around the world. His observations and the detailed journal he kept of his various experiences in strange, far-off lands would soon revolutionize man’s concept of himself and his place on planet earth. Darwin’s revelations came in the form of his theory of natural selection – popularly referred to as “evolution.”

H.M.S. Beagle_Galapagos_John Chancellor

Since the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species in 1859, which revealed to the scientific community his startling conclusions about all living things based on his voyage journal, Darwin has rightfully been ranked in the top tier of great scientists. In my estimation, he is the most important and influential natural scientist of all time, and I would rank him right behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein as the most significant and influential scientific figures of modern times.

Young Charles Darwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1825 to pursue a career in medicine. His father, a wealthy, prominent physician had attended Edinburgh and, indeed, exerted considerable influence on young Charles to follow him in a medical career. At Edinburgh, the sixteen-year old Darwin quickly found the study of anatomy with its dissecting theatre an odious experience. More than once, he had to flee the theatre to vomit outside after witnessing the dissection process. The senior Darwin, although disappointed in his son’s unsuitability for medicine, soon arranged for Charles to enroll at Cambridge University to study for the clergy. In Darwin’s own words: “He [the father] was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which seemed my probable destination.”

Darwin graduated tenth in his class of 168 with a B.A. and very little interest in the clergy! During his tenure at Cambridge, most of young Darwin’s spare time was spent indulging his true and developing passion: Collecting insects with a special emphasis on beetles. Along the way, he became good friends with John Steven Henslow, professor of geology, ardent naturalist, and kindred spirit to the young Charles.

Wanted: A Naturalist to Sail On-Board the Beagle

On 24 August, 1831, in one of history’s most prescient communiques, Professor Henslow wrote his young friend and protegee: “I have been asked by [George] Peacock…to recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt. Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America [the coasts of South America]. I have stated that I considered you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation. I state this not on the supposition of ye being a finished naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in natural history.” Seldom in history has one man “read” another so well in terms of future potential as did Henslow in that letter to young Darwin!

Charles’ father expressed his opposition to the voyage, in part, on the following grounds as summarized by young Darwin:

-That such an adventure could prove “disreputable to my [young Darwin’s] character as a Clergyman hereafter.”

-That it seems “a wild scheme.”

-That the position of naturalist “not being [previously] accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition.”

-That [Darwin] “should never settle down to a steady life hereafter.”

-That “it would be a useless undertaking.”

Darwin 1840_RichmondThe young man appealed to his uncle Josiah Wedgewood [of pottery family fame] whose judgement he valued. Scientific history hung in the balance as Uncle Josiah promptly weighed-in with the senior Darwin, offering convincing arguments in favor of the voyage. In rebuttal to the objection from Darwin’s father that “it would be a useless undertaking,” the Uncle reasoned: “The undertaking would be useless as regards his profession [future clergyman], but looking upon him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him the opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few.” Enlarged curiosity, indeed! How true that proved to be. The senior Darwin then made his decision in the face of Uncle Josiah’s clear vision and counsel: Despite lingering reservations, he gave his permission for Charles to embark on the historic sea voyage, one which more than any other, changed mankind’s sense of self. Had the decision been otherwise, Darwin’s abiding respect for his father’s opinion and authority would have bequeathed the world yet another clergyman while greatly impeding the chronicle of man and all living things on this planet.

On 27 December, 1831, HMS Beagle with Darwin aboard put out to sea, beginning an adventure that would circle the globe and take almost five years. Right from the start, young Charles became violently seasick, often confined to his swaying hammock hanging in the cramped quarters of the ship. Seasickness dogged young Darwin throughout the voyage. I marvel at the fortitude displayed by this young, recently graduated “gentleman from Cambridge” as he undertook such a daunting voyage. Given that the voyage would entail many months at sea, under sail, Capt. Fitzroy and Darwin had agreed from the start that Charles would spend most of his time on land, in ports of call, while the Beagle would busy itself surveying the local coastline per its original government charter. While on land, Darwin’s mission was to observe and record what he saw and experienced concentrating, of course, on the flora, fauna, and geology of the various diverse regions he would visit.

St. Jago, an island off the east coast of South America was the Beagle’s first stop on 16 January, 1832. It was here he made one of his first significant observations. Quoting from his journal: “The geology of this island is the most interesting part of its natural history. On entering the harbour, a perfectly horizontal white band in the face of the sea cliff, may be seen running for some miles along the coast, and at the height of about forty-five feet above the water. Upon examination, this white stratum is found to consist of calcareous [calcium] matter, with numerous shells embedded, most or all of which now exist on the neighboring coast.”

Darwin goes on to conclude that a stratum of sea-shells very much higher than the current water line speaks to ancient, massive upheavals of the earth in the region. From the simple, focused collector of beetles in his Cambridge days, Darwin had now become obsessed with the bigger picture of nature, a view which embraced the importance of geology/environment as key to decoding nature’s secrets.

In a fascinating section of his journal, Darwin describes his astonishment at the primitive state of the native inhabitants of Tierra Del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. From the journal entry of 17 December, 1832: “In the morning, the Captain sent a party to communicate with the Fuegians. When we came within hail, one of the four natives who were present advanced to receive us, and began to shout most vehemently, wishing to direct us where to land. When we were on shore the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking and making gestures with great rapidity. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” A separate reference I recall reading referring to Darwin’s encounter with the Fuegians stated that he could scarcely believe that the naked, dirty, and primitive savages before his eyes were of the same species as the sherry-sipping professors back at Cambridge University – so vividly stated.

On 2 October, 1836, the Beagle arrived at Falmouth, Cornwall, her nearly five-year journey circumnavigating the globe complete. Throughout the trip, Darwin recorded life on the high seas and, most importantly, his myriad observations on the geology of the many regions visited on foot and horseback as well as the plant and animal life.

I often invoke the mantra to which I ardently subscribe: That fact is always stranger than fiction…and so much more interesting and important. Picturing Darwin, the elite Englishman and budding naturalist, riding horseback amidst the rough-hewn vaqueros [cowboys] of Chile speaks to the improbability of the entire venture. When studying Darwin, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that his equable nature and noble intents were obvious to those whose approval and cooperation were vital for the success of his venture. That was particularly true of the seaman crew of the Beagle and of Capt. Fitzroy whose private cabin on the ship, Darwin shared. Fortunately, Fitzroy was a man of considerable ability and efficiency in captaining the Beagle. He was, at heart, a man sensible of the power and importance of scientific knowledge, and that made his less admirable qualities bearable to Darwin. The crew made good-natured fun of the intellectual, newbie naturalist in their midst, but spared no effort in helping Darwin pack his considerable array of collected natural specimens, large and small, in boxes and barrels for shipment back to Professor Henslow at Cambridge. Many of these never arrived, but most did make their way “home.”

When Darwin returned to Cambridge after arriving back home at Cornwall, he was surprised to learn that Professor Henslow had spread news among his friends at Cambridge of the Beagle’s whereabouts in addition to sharing, with his university colleagues, the specimens sent home by his young protegee. Darwin had embarked on the Beagle’s voyage as an amateur collector of insects. Now, to his great surprise, he had become a naturalist with a reputation and a following within the elite circles at Cambridge, thanks to Professor Henslow.

Charles_Darwin_seated_crop[1]Once home, Charles Darwin wasted little time tackling the immense task of studying and categorizing the many specimens he had sent back during the voyage. By 1838, the vestiges of natural selection had begun to materialize in his mind. One situation of particular note that he recorded in the Galapagos Islands fueled his speculations. There, he noted that a species of bird indigenous to several of the islands in the archipelago seemed to have unique beaks depending upon which island they inhabited. In virtually all other aspects, the birds closely resembled one another – all members of a single species. Darwin noticed that the beaks in each case seemed most ideally suited to the particular size and shape of the seeds most plentiful on that particular island. Darwin took great pains to document these finches of the Galapagos, suspecting that they harbored important clues to nature’s ways. Darwin reasoned that somehow the birds seemed to be well-adapted to their environment/food source in the various islands. Clues such as this shaped his thought processes as he carefully distilled the notes entered in his journal during the voyage. By 1844, Charles Darwin had formulated the framework for his explanation of animal/plant adaptation to the environment. Except for one or two close and trusted colleagues, Darwin kept his budding theory to himself for years to come for important reasons which I discuss shortly.


Darwin published his book, Journal of Researches, in 1839. The book was taken from his copious journal entries during the voyage; within its pages resides the seed-stock from which would germinate Darwin’s ultimate ideas and his theory of natural selection. This book remained, to Darwin’s dying day, closer to his affections and satisfaction than any other including On the Origin of Species.



What Is the Essence of Natural Selection?

Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed that species are not immutable across time and large numbers of individuals. There appear random variations in this or that characteristic in a particular individual within a large population. Such variations, beginning with that individual, could be passed along to future generations through its immediate offspring. In the case of a singular Galapagos finch born with a significantly longer and narrower beak than that of a typical bird in the species, that specimen and its offspring which might inherit the tendency will be inevitably subjected to “trial by nature.” If the longer, narrower beak makes it easier for these new birds to obtain and eat the seeds and insects present in their environment, these birds will thrive and go on, over time, to greatly out-reproduce others of their species who do not share the “genetic advantage.” Eventually that new characteristic, in this example, the longer, narrower beak, will predominate within the population in that environment. This notion is the essence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If the random variation at hand proves to be disadvantageous, future generations possessing it will be less likely to survive than those individuals without it.

Note that this description, natural selection, is far more scientifically specific than the oft-used/misused phrase applied to Darwin’s work: theory of evolution. To illustrate: “theory of evolution” is a very general phrase admitting even the possibility that giraffes have long necks because they have continually stretched them over many generations reaching for food on the higher tree canopies. That is precisely the thinking of one of the early supporters of evolution theory, the Frenchman, Lamarck, as expressed in his 1809 publication on the subject. Darwin’s “natural selection” explains the specific mechanism by which evolution occurs – except for one vital, missing piece… which we now understand.

Genetics, Heredity, and the DNA Double Helix:
 Random Mutations – the Key to Natural Selection!

Darwin did not know – could not know – the source of the random significant variations in species which were vital to his theory of natural selection. He came to believe that there was some internal genetic blueprint in living things that governed the species at hand while transmitting obvious “familial traits” to offspring. Darwin used the name “gemmules” referring to these presumed discrete building blocks, but he could go no further in explaining their true nature or behavior given the limited scientific knowledge of the time.

James Watson and Francis Crick won the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for their discovery in 1953 of the DNA double helix which carries the genetic information of all living things. The specific arrangement of chemical base-pair connections, or rungs, along the double helix ladder is precisely the genetic blueprint which Darwin suspected. The human genome has been decoded within the last twenty years yielding tremendous knowledge about nature’s life-processes. We know, for instance, that one particular – just one – hereditary base-pair error along the double helix can result in a devastating medical condition called Tay-Sachs, wherein initially healthy brains of newborns are destroyed in just a few years due to the body’s inability to produce a necessary protein. Literally every characteristic of all living things is dictated by the genetic sequence of four different chemical building blocks called bases which straddle the DNA double helix. The random variations necessary for the viability of Darwin’s theory of natural selection are precisely those which stem from random base-pair mutations, or variations, along the helix. These can occur spontaneously during genetic DNA replication, or they can result from something as esoteric as the alpha particles of cosmic radiation hitting a cell nucleus and altering its DNA. The end result of the sub-microscopic change might be trivial, beneficial, or catastrophic in some way to the individual.

Gregor Mendel: The Father of Genetics…Unknown to Darwin

In 1865, a sequestered Austrian monk published an obscure scientific paper in, of all things, a regional bee-keepers journal. Like Darwin, originally, Mendel had no formal scientific qualifications, only a strong curiosity and interest in the pea plants he tended in the monastery garden. He had wondered about the predominant colors of the peas from those plants, green and yellow, and pondered the possible mechanisms which could determine the color produced by a particular plant. To determine this, he concocted a series of in-breeding experiments to find out more. After exhaustive trials using pea color, size of plant, and five other distinguishing characteristics of pea plants, Mendel found that the statistics of inheritance involved distinct numerical ratios, as for example, a “one-in-four chance” for a specific in-breeding outcome. The round numbers present in Mendel’s experimental results suggested the existence of distinct, discrete genetic mechanisms at work – what Darwin vaguely had termed “gemmules.” Mendel’s 1865 paper describing his findings, and the work behind it cements Mendel’s modern reputation as the “Father of Genetics.” Incredibly and unfortunately virtually no one took serious notice of his paper until it was re-discovered in 1900, thirty-five years after its publication, by the English geneticist William Bateson!

Original offprints (limited initial printings for the author) of Mendel’s paper are among the rarest and most desirable of historical works in the history of science, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the rare book/manuscript market. We know that only forty were printed and scarcely half of these have been accounted for. Question: Did Mendel send an offprint of his pea plant experiments to Charles Darwin in 1865, well after the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species in 1859? An uncut [meaning unopened, thus unread] offprint was presumably found among Darwin’s papers after his death, according to one Mendel reference source. Certainly, no mention of it was ever made by Charles Darwin.

 It is an intriguing thought that the key, missing component of Darwin’s natural selection theory as espoused in his Origin of Species possibly resided unread and unnoticed on Darwin’s bookshelf! And is it not a shame that Mendel lived out his life in the abbey essentially unknown and without due credit for his monumental work in the new science of genetics, a specialty which he founded?

Darwin’s Reluctance to Publish His Theory Nearly Cost Him His Due Credit

Darwin finally revealed his theory of natural selection to the public and the scientific community at large in 1859 with the book publication of On the Origin of Species. In fact, the central tenets of the book had congealed in Darwin’s mind long before, by 1844. He had held the framework of his theory close to the vest for all that time! Why? Because to espouse evolutionary ideas in the middle of the nineteenth century was to invite scorn and condemnation from creationists within many religions. No one was more averse to a more secular universe which promoted the notion of a less personal creator, one which did not create man and animals in more or less final form (despite obvious diversity) than Emma Wedgewood Darwin, Darwin’s very religious wife. She believed in an afterlife in which she and her beloved husband would be joined together for eternity. Charles was becoming less and less certain of this religious ideal as the years went by and nature continued to reveal herself to the ever-inquiring self-made naturalist who had set out to probe her ways.

To espouse a natural world which, once its fundamental constituents were brought together, would henceforth change and regulate itself without further involvement by the Creator would be a painful repudiation of Emma’s fundamental beliefs in a personal God. For this very personal reason and because of the professional risk of being ostracized by the community of naturalists for promulgating radical, anti-religious ideas, Darwin put off publication of his grand book, the book which would insure him priority and credit for one of the greatest of all scientific conclusions.

After stalling publication for years and with his manuscript only half completed, Darwin was shocked into feverish activity on his proposed book by a paper he received on 18 June, 1858. It was from a fellow naturalist of Darwin’s acquaintance, one Alfred Russel Wallace. In his paper, Wallace outlined his version of natural selection which eerily resembled the very theory Darwin was planning to eventually publish to secure his priority. There was no doubt that Wallace had arrived independently at the same conclusions that Darwin had reached many years earlier. Wallace’s paper presented an extremely difficult problem for Darwin in that Wallace had requested that Darwin pass his [Wallace’s] paper on to their mutual friend, the pathfinding geologist, Charles Lyell.

Darwin in a Corner: Academic Priority at Stake
Over One of the Great Scientific Breakthroughs

Now Darwin felt completely cornered. If he passed Wallace’s paper on to Lyell as requested, essentially making it public, the academic community would naturally steer credit for the theory of natural selection to Wallace. On the other hand, having just received Wallace’s paper on the subject, how would it look if he, Darwin, suddenly announced publicly that he had already deciphered nature and her ways – well before Wallace had? That course of action could inspire suspicions of plagiary on Darwin’s part.

The priority stakes were as high as any since the time of Isaac Newton when he and the mathematician Gottfried Liebniz locked horns in a bitter battle over credit for development of the calculus. It had been years since Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle which began the long gestation of his ideas on natural selection. He had been sitting on his conclusions since 1844 for fear of publishing, and now he was truly cornered, “forestalled,” as he called it. Darwin, drawing on the better angels of his morose feelings, quickly proposed to Wallace that he [Darwin] would see to it that his [Wallace’s] paper be published in any journal of Wallace’s choosing. In what became a frenzied period in his life, he reached out to two of his closest colleagues and trusted confidants, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice. The two been entrusted with the knowledge of Darwin’s work on natural selection for a long time; they well understood Darwin’s priority in the matter, and he needed them now. The two friends came up with a proposal: Publish both Wallace’s paper and a synopsis by Darwin outlining his own long-standing efforts and results. The Linnean Society presented their joint papers in their scientific journal on 1 July, 1858. Fortunately for Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace was of a conciliatory nature regarding the potential impasse over priority by way of his tacit acknowledgement that his colleague had, indeed, been first to formulate his opinions on natural selection.

Nonetheless, for Darwin, the cat was out of the bag, and the task ahead was to work full-steam to complete the large book that would contain all the details of natural selection and insure his priority. He worked feverishly on his book, On the Origins of Species, right up to its publication by John Murray. The book went on sale on 22 November, 1859, and all 1250 copies sold quickly. This was an excruciating period of Darwin’s life. He was not only under unrelenting pressure to complete one of the greatest scientific books of all time, he was intermittently very ill throughout the process presumably from a systemic problem contracted during his early travels associated with the Beagle voyage. Yes, the expected controversy was to come immediately after publication of the book, but Darwin and his contentions have long weathered the storm. Few of his conclusions have not stood the test of time and modern scrutiny.

The Origin was his great book, but the book that was the origin of the Origin, his 1839 Journal of Researches always remained his favorite. Certainly, the Journal was written at a much happier time in Darwin’s life, a time flush with excitement over his prospects as a newly full-fledged naturalist. For me, the Journal brims with the excitement of travel and scientific discovery/fact-finding – the seed-corn of scientific knowledge (and new technologies). The Origin represents the resultant harvest from that germinated seed-corn.

“Endless Forms Most Beautiful” –
Natural Selection in Darwin’s Own Words

In his Introduction to the Origin, Darwin describes the essence of natural selection:

“In the next chapter, the struggle for existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born that can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently occurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

Darwin and Religion

Charles Darwin, educated for the clergy at Cambridge, increasingly drifted away from orthodox religious views as his window on nature and her ways became more transparent to him over the decades. Never an atheist, his attitudes were increasingly agnostic as he increasingly embraced the results of his lifelong study of the natural world. The Creator, which Darwin believed in, was not, to him, the involved, shepherd of all living things in this world. Rather, he seemed more like the watchmaker who, after his watch was first assembled, wound it up and let it run on its own while retreating to the background.

 Another viewpoint, which I tend to favor and which may apply to Darwin: God, whom we cannot fully know in this life, created not only all living things at the beginning, but also the entire structure of natural law (science) which dictates not only the motion of the planets, but the future course of life forms. Natural selection, hence evolution as well, are central tenants of that complete structure of natural law. The laws of nature, which permanently bear the fingerprints of the creator and his creation, thus enable the self-powered, self-regulating behaviors of the physical and natural world – without contradiction.

 Charles Darwin: Humble Man and Scientific Titan


In writing this post, my re-acquaintance with Darwin has brought great joy. Some years, now, after initially reading the biographies and perusing his works, I re-discover the life and legacy which is so important to science. His body of work includes several other very important books beside his Journal and Origin. Beyond his scientific importance and the science, itself, lies the man himself – a man of very high character and superb intellect. Darwin was gifted with intense curiosity, that magical motor that drives great accomplishment in science. Passion and curiosity: Isaac Newton had them in great abundance, and so, too, did Albert Einstein. Yet, Charles Darwin was different in several respects from those two great scientists: First, he was fortunate enough to have been born to privilege and was thus comfortably able to devote his working life to science from the beginning. Second, Darwin was a very happily married man who fathered ten children, each of which he loved and doted upon. Third, Darwin’s character was impeccable in all respects. His personality was stiffened a bit by the English societal conventions prevalent then, but his humanity shows through in so many ways. His struggle with religion is one most of us can relate to.

Reading Darwin’s works is a joy both because he was an articulate, educated Englishman and because the contents of his books like the Journal and Origin are easily digestible compared to the major works of Newton and Einstein. Like Darwin himself, my favorite book of his is The Journal of Researches, sometimes referred to as the Voyage of the Beagle. What an adventure.


The “sandwalk” path around the extended property of his long-held estate, Down House. Darwin frequently traversed this closed path on solitary walks around the estate while he gathered his thoughts about matters both big and small.

Reason and Reflection Is Back!

Alan KubitzTo all the readers of my blog, Reason and Reflection: I am pleased to announce that my blog site is emerging from a quasi-hibernation that has been in effect these past several months. After more than two-and-a-half years of posting weekly pretty much without fail beginning in February of 2013, some 136 posts in all, the need arose to spend considerable time for the past several months on personal/family matters, hence only three posts were offered so far in 2016. At this time, I am ready to resume doing what I enjoy doing, and that means writing about things that interest and excite me or about relevant happenings in this world of ours. My future intent is to post at least every two to three weeks without a fixed time-table.

This new phase will begin with a brand new post tomorrow, June 14. It features Charles Darwin – his personal story and his contributions to natural science. Look for it tomorrow: I think it will be worth your time.  

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Please let me know what you think. You do not need to be a listed follower in order to comment. Don’t try spamming because WordPress will filter it out automatically. I always respond to legitimate comments, so at the end of each post, either look for a “comment box” or a small “Leave a reply” to click on for commenting.

Just one more thing: On my home page, you have access via my archives to every one of my 136 posts. Go ahead and look, and if you like what you see and read in my posts, let your friends know about this site which resides at :                                                   http://www.reasonandreflection.wordpress.com