When the news came in America that Finnish schools promoted free play over homework, education seemed under attack. How would climbing trees and playing tag be more pedagogical than being sent home to read a children’s version of Shakespeare or watch a cartoon based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution? It is perhaps not education, but rather this notion of expertism, the reliance on the input of experts, of big figures of arts and sciences, which is under attack. A twilight of the idols, as Nietzsche once put it. That said, by revisiting one of these idols, Charles Darwin, I do not seek to challenge this contestation of expertism, but rather uphold it… Darwin, too, would have given Finnish schools his full blessings.

I choose Darwin specifically in this context because our collective imaginary of him, often strictly as a white-bearded, beer-bellied and humorless intellectual, may in part be stemmed from this obsession with expertism – that the thoroughly-thought and complicated theory of evolution could only have been bestowed upon a man who had himself suffered a serious evolution of his own complexion. To debunk this myth, this article focuses not on Darwin’s landmark work, On the Origins of Species, in which he details his theory of evolution, but on a much earlier work, The Voyage of the Beagle, based on a journal he kept during a discovery trip around the world, which he began at the young age of twenty-two.

One ought not to expect this boyish explorer to have been necessarily regarded as a scientific prodigy from the onset. In fact, in his Autobiographies, the Brit looks back at his father’s mortifying words to him as a child: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family,”(10).

Indeed, as a child and even later on as a 22-year old grown up during his voyage around the Pacific, Charles Darwin remained just that, a boy with his eyes always scanning the sky and his hands always ending up inside the turf. The account of his voyage reads more like fiction than fact, with detailed descriptions of his surroundings. Even “watching the habits of an Octopus” fascinated him (45).

Darwin’s interest in his surroundings, and how fruitful this habit will later be for his theory, validates Finnish schools’ belief in more play time for children, who may become as inquisitive about nature as a young Charles had been. Critics of such mode of learning, though, would point out that even in nature escapades, children need a guide – once again an expert who would explain to them why that apple, for example, falls from the tree they are climbing.

These critics admittedly highlight the weakness of learning by one’s self. Who could validate our thoughts about our surroundings? Who will contest them when we conjure up wrong conclusions about them?

These fears are perfectly valid, and in exploring the spontaneous thoughts of a young Charles, one could see that ignorance is very much present. For example, about a fish that emits a strange, “carmine red and fibrous secretion,” Darwin admits that he is “quite ignorant of the nature and use of this secretion,” (52). In this case, one might imagine that proponents of expertism are right in that students need a higher reference, an explanation to their observations.

That said, within Darwin’s candor of his own ignorance, we find the missing drawback of such expertism – a careful hesitance to declare certain ideas as absolute “truths”. Indeed, in the age of fake news, not merely with the proliferation of political conspiracies on Youtube but even of scientific ones with the strange rekindling of a flat Earth theory, it is worth learning from non-experts who are not ashamed of their ignorance, such as a 22 year old Darwin, who, in his journal, by the way, through a quick search on its digital version, is shown to have used the term “probable” 38 times, “probably” 101 times, and the auxiliary “may” an astounding 324 times. This hesitance is central in scientific inquiry, and it reminds us of how often teachers beg their pupils, again and again, to not be shy to ask questions, even if they will strike as ignorant to the rest of class.

The prioritizing of questions, rather than answers, is very much present in Darwin’s voyage, precisely because he was no expert in geology or biology at the time. That said, though the journal was never meant to contain any signs of evolution or other scientific theory, it ends up, in retrospect, and especially thanks to Darwin’s questions, rather than his answers, becoming a masterpiece of scientific revelations. About the granitic formation along the coast of Brazil, for example, the British explorer astutely wondered whether this was “produced beneath the depths of a profound ocean.” This, accompanied with other observations about the diversity of igneous rocks, would inspire much later, in 1996, scholar Paul N. Pearson to write about how Darwin’s speculations, in modified form, “lie at the heart of the modern science of igneous petrology.”

Thus it is the young naive explorer’s questions that inspired almost a hundred years later another author to reflect upon these observations’ revived relevance. Ignorance might as well be relative to time and be proven, as with Darwin, as revelatory for future ages. Arrogance as with expertism, on the other hand, could be proven, as it has so often been in the realm of science, as complete ignorance in future times.

Though Darwin’s questions about all aspects of his surroundings during his voyage could have indeed been the basis of a myriad of future theories, it is precisely his own later theory of evolution that finds its earlier ingredients in his spontaneous observations. For example, when wondering about the abnormally-large species of rodents he encounters, Darwin reflects: “What cause can have altered, in a wide, uninhabited, and rarely-visited, the range of an animal like this?” (86)

Here, a young Charles is indeed pointing at evolution, without realizing it. In fact, in our exploration of this 22-year old’s inner dialogue, we find Darwin not only refraining from answering such previous questions, which could have helped him elaborate an evolution theory right away, but we even, at one instance, slap our heads seeing him dismiss such kind of thinking. Indeed, musing about the causes of extinction in Argentina, Darwin does not focus on any kind of natural selection imposed by the environment – in fact, he says that “it does not seem a necessary conclusion that the extinction of species should exclusively depend on the nature of their country,” (166).

Should we expect any conclusions from a 22-year old who has yet so much to see? Indeed, Darwin pursues this sense of curiosity throughout his five-year voyage, even upon his arrival at the Galapagos Islands, which many sources in popular culture attribute, though wrongly, to be the location where the theory of evolution had somehow magically dawned upon him.

This commonly-held falsehood is based on the overall assumption that the Galapagos Islands had, in 1835, welcomed some well-established European expert, who, with his mastery, would, with a few glances, conjure up a theory that would revolutionize human history.

The idea that the now-touristic archipelago of Galapagos had in fact won its renown from a reckless young adult explorer who had absolutely no idea what he was doing at the time is today inconceivable to many, especially to those who could never see past the older, bearded portraits of Charles Darwin.

The young explorer’s behavior in the Galapagos, in fact, echoes his father’s description of him as a child, who cared for nothing more than “shooting, dogs, and rat-catching.” Darwin had indeed preserved this playful boyish attitude, by taunting the island’s tortoises, throwing its lizards onto the shore, and jumping at birds. What, then, is the use of this attachment to one’s youthfulness, as with the Finnish schools’ prioritizing of play time over homework?

The result of this playful attitude, at least with Darwin, would bear the seeds of his grand theory of evolution. His taunting of the island’s tortoises had indeed led him to test how quickly the animal would cover itself inside its shell. Similarly, when he kept throwing a poor lizard onto the waters of the shore of Galapagos, he noticed how, every time, the reptile would be possessed by an alarming fear of danger, as though of potential sharks, and frantically rush up the shore. Finally, his jumping on birds fell under this same interest in the defense mechanism of animals, which brought to his attention the unusual naivety of the birds of the islands compared to those in England. Darwin writes: “We may, I think, conclude; first, that the wildness of the birds with regards to man, is a particular instinct directed against him, secondly, that it is not acquired by them in a short time, even when much persecuted, but that in course of successive generations it becomes hereditary,”(289).

Reading Darwin’s remark about a changing hereditary instinct caused by the outside world might bring readers to shout out “Eureka!” since a direct correlation to this hypothesis would be some kind of genetic transformation or evolution – but this theory would only materialize only sometime after the voyage is complete.

It seems almost impossible to imagine this version of Charles Darwin today, perhaps except someday in Finland. What if young Charles, instead of developing his cravings for running around the wildlife and observing animals, had been forced to be stranded between the walls of his classroom in daytime and the walls of his own room finishing up homework in the evening?

More importantly, what if he had been brought up in a know-it-all age where creative questions and imagination ceded their mystical appeal to straight-forward answers and one dimensional idols, a society that encourages us to purse the ends of education – an Ivy League status, a secure job, a good pension – rather than its playful and joyful unfolding, a path that Charles Darwin made the most of, one question at a time.

Even Leonardo da Vinci is a pertinent example for effective education – the artist and scientist was barred from schools because he was an illegitimate son, and he spent most of his time exploring the nature around him and observing the birds in the sky… until he created his own flying machine.

A bit more playtime for our children would then seem advantageous… apparently with all the tree-climbing it involves, it would surely help them better reach for the stars.

Rayyan Dabbous is the Lebanese author of Syrians for Sale, Lebanese Style (2018) and the founder of Boumerang Foundation, an organization promoting citizen engagement. 


Photo: Victor R. Ruiz, Natural History Museum. London. CC.