In the Beginning…


Katherine Hauswirth


There is a special satisfaction to finally reading a book that has lingered on your “must read” list for decades. I checked off Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species this week, although reading purists might contest the veracity of my claim. The book I read was actually Charles Darwin’s on the Origin of the Species: A Graphic Adaptation, by Michael Keller. I am not sure if such purists would put a graphic adaptation higher or lower on the undesirables list than, say, a Reader’s Digest abridged edition. But the pictures were vivid, and they seemed to pave the way for a warmer read of the deliberately formal text, plus perhaps some insights into Darwin’s background. A hummingbird, bee, and butterfly beckoned me from the verdant green cover.

To me, the words saturated with descriptions from nature were a perfect fit for richly colored images, and though the somewhat technically lacking depictions of human facial expressions were reminiscent of the mass-produced comic books of my youth, overall the presentation made for a satisfying, and refreshingly different, read.

At the forefront of my mind as I read Darwin’s argument for natural selection and survival of the fittest were the creationists who, from what I understand, consider the concept of evolution an affront to the story of earth’s six-day creation in the first book of the Bible, perhaps especially the part about God directly forming man, and then woman, with no interim species in the mix. What had Darwin said to make “evolution” an unhappy word for some? Had he been blatant in antagonizing literal believers of Genesis, or was the perceived threat of his theory mostly unforeseen and unintentional? I found it fascinating to climb inside his mind for a while.

Darwin’s words reveal an innately curious, scientific persona. My favorite of his experiments was when he planted a clod of dirt that had been carried in the claw of a red-legged partridge, yielding eighty-two plants in the harvest. He also stuck a duck foot (mind you, no duck attached) into an aquarium to see what minute life forms might attach to it and thus be transported to new environs. He thought long and hard about the weaknesses in his theory and how they might be addressed; he admitted that there remained plenty of unanswered questions. Keller added a chapter summarizing knowledge that emerged after Darwin’s time, like Mendel’s first forays into genetics and Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, and the illustrator showed Darwin peeking ahead to these future breakthroughs. It was endearing, if a bit corny, to see old Darwin having “aha” moments regarding the continuing scientific explorations of the endless variations in species.

Darwin’s words become especially modern-sounding when read in the context of climate change. The adaptation presents the woodland musk ox, which became extinct with the last ice age, framed by Darwin’s words about the natural time limit on the chance to adapt to the environment: “…for as all organic beings are striving to seize on each place in the economy of nature, if any one species does not become modified and improved in a corresponding degree with its competitors, it will be exterminated.”

I don’t know anything about his spiritual or religious belief system, but Darwin certainly was no stranger to wonder and appreciation. His words in the book’s centerfold wax awe-filled at the complex and timeless interconnectedness of the many lives sharing the planet:

As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.

In parallel with Darwin, who explored how modern man and beast came to be created, I read a novel about what might happen when we presume to become the creator. This book satisfied my son’s need to check something off his own burgeoning “must read” list, headed up by the classic edition of Frankenstein. Words from the early 1800s can be a lot to digest at first when you are ten (or forty-five), so we started reading it together. But soon I took the book off for my own engrossed reading sessions, to be reread at a slower pace (allowing time for explanations) later in the summer with my son.

What struck me about Mary Shelley’s tale was the simultaneous genius and lack of foresight embodied in Victor Frankenstein. Here is a brilliant and devoted scientist who labors feverishly to create a life and then is swiftly and completely horrified when he succeeds. He runs away, hoping to deny away his eight-foot tall, grotesque creation, and he continues to run away for most of the book.

In the novel, there is no such thing as benign neglect. The “monster” the doctor creates begins as an innocent, and he is a sensitive and intelligent soul. He absorbs knowledge of humanity, and longing for connection with it, by secretly observing a rural family. Prescient of Darwin’s work and words that emphasize the essential interplay between living beings, Frankenstein’s monster becomes a true monster because, unlike the rest of us, he can find no connectedness. He begs his creator to fashion him a bride who, albeit hideous, would lend him a sympathetic and understanding presence:

Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence, but his state was far different from mine in every other respect….He was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.

But his appearance instills fear in all who see him, and ultimately even his creator will have nothing to do with him. And this rejection is what actually creates a bitter, haunted soul primed to retaliate against the scorn that’s rained down on him.

I learned in the foreword that some view Mary Shelley’s masterpiece as a symbolic feminist tale, but the implications it contains seem to me much more universal. She painted a picture of unforeseen circumstances that enter the lives of even the most smart, privileged, and educated men—and she might have been conversing with Darwin when she quoted her husband’s poem: “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow/Naught may endure but mutability.” In tandem with this unpredictability, the limits of mankind’s wisdom can spell fierce danger.

Whatever the messages meant by Darwin or Shelley, it’s clear that when we become the creators, we must be careful about what we choose to create, and we must be responsible for the products that spring from us. Both books remind us that, regardless of how life started, it must be a thoughtful, wise, and connected system that allows it to thrive. No doubt both authors would put these traits high on the list of a wished-for Creator, whether or not they chose to believe that one existed.

I like to think that same Creator would want us to keep looking for the “ties that bind,” in science, nature, religion, philosophy, and in the turning world at large. Our origins may not be fully comprehended, but many perspectives can likely agree that we’ve come from the same general direction. We may come to need each other even more as we go forward.

Books mentioned in this column:
Charles Darwin’s on the Origin of the Species: A Graphic Adaptation, by Michael Keller (Rodale, 2009)
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (Penguin Classics, 2003)


Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.




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