Darwin's Very Bad Day: 'Oops, We Just Ate It!' : Krulwich Wonders... When young Charles Darwin set out on the Beagle, near the top of his wish list was a rare and coveted bird: the lesser rhea. The bird had been sighted by a French rival — but never caught.
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Darwin's Very Bad Day: 'Oops, We Just Ate It!'

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Darwin's Very Bad Day: 'Oops, We Just Ate It!'

Darwin's Very Bad Day: 'Oops, We Just Ate It!'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We all have good days; we all have bad days. This next story is about the great scientist Charles Darwin on, well, I guess you'd have to call it a bad day. Here's our science correspondent, Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: We all know that when Charles Darwin was a young man, he had a grand adventure sailing the world on a British ship, the Beagle, collecting plants, collecting animal specimens. But there was a moment on that trip - it was a meal, actually, dinner on January the 3rd, 1834, when Darwin made a mistake. A very, very unfortunate mistake.

I've asked two biographers, Lyanda Haupt and Eric Simons, to set the scene. So, Lyanda, on this particular evening, Darwin, he wasn't on the Beagle, right? He was on the coast of Argentina?

NORRIS: Yeah, yeah, coast of Argentina.


NORRIS: It's evening, they're sitting around. And let's remember, we're not talking about...


NORRIS: We tell stories about Darwin, we always picture the big, bearded guy, right?


NORRIS: But this is 24, 25-year-old Darwin.

KRULWICH: So, he's pre-big beard. He's with his shipmates. And Eric, they're near the beach, I guess?

NORRIS: You know, sitting around a campfire and pink, kind of, rocks running off into this just flat plain.

KRULWICH: And the cook comes out, and he says, okay, it's time for dinner and Darwin, without realizing what's about to happen, Darwin nods.

NORRIS: And decides, okay, let's eat.

KRULWICH: Now, before I tell you what happened next, let's back up a little.

NORRIS: When Darwin left on the journey, he assumed that he was going to set up shop as a clergyman when he got home.


NORRIS: But more and more, he was launching this secret plot that he was not going to be a clergyman - that he was going to be a man of science. And so, he started, you know, writing letters, sending parts of his journals home, sending specimens home, and having friends sort of publish these and get the word out, so he could start becoming famous before he got home.

KRULWICH: But as it happens, there was another young, wannabe scientist - this one from France, Britain's great rival - who had just completed a six-year tour of the world.

NORRIS: Yeah. Alcide D'Orbigny.

KRULWICH: Is that how you say it?

NORRIS: D'Orbigny?

KRULWICH: D'Orbigny, maybe.


KRULWICH: So, Mr. D'Orbigny is this kind of sinister competitor with Darwin, who has been dispatched by the French government to collect animals in Patagonia and to catalog them.

NORRIS: And D'Orbigny arrived home just as Darwin was sort of setting out, and D'Orbigny started publishing, you know, everything that Darwin wanted to publish.

NORRIS: And he says, man, this guy's going to get all the good stuff before we do. And so, he's quite worried about ...

KRULWICH: Which he kind of does, right? I mean, D'Orbigny was...

NORRIS: Yeah, he did.

KRULWICH: D'Orbigny brought 10,000 specimens from South America back to France. But there was one creature he didn't get. It was on his list - the South American version of an ostrich, with a strange cry.


KRULWICH: Like an incoming missile. It's called a Lesser Rhea.

NORRIS: And they're large. They're two or three feet high. And they run really fast.

KRULWICH: And no European had ever caught one, not even Mr. D'Orbigny, right?

NORRIS: And this was the big - not even Mr. D'Orbigny. And this was the big thing and Darwin was really into this idea. He said, I'm going to go get the first one.

NORRIS: He thought, you know, this could be his claim to ornithological fame.

KRULWICH: But the bird was really hard to catch. At one point, some gauchos, cowboys, taught Darwin to chase the bird with a bolas - a kind of a lasso that you wrap around the bird's legs.

NORRIS: Darwin took a hand at that, too, and whirled the bolas around his head and threw it, and managed to snare his own horse's legs.


NORRIS: Tripped his horse.

KRULWICH: So, no ostrich there?

NORRIS: No. No ostrich there.

KRULWICH: He just couldn't catch the thing.

NORRIS: He had tried hard.

KRULWICH: Plus, they came in two sizes, both called Rheas. The one Darwin wanted was not the Larger Rhea, it was the Lesser Rhea. And the two were really hard to tell apart - which is why, on January 3rd, 1834, Darwin makes his mistake. He'd been out that day, and on his way back to camp...

NORRIS: He runs into his friend Conrad Martens.

KRULWICH: Conrad's his shipmate, and he's carrying something.

NORRIS: He says, hey look, I just shot some game, you want this, or should we eat it for dinner?

KRULWICH: So, Darwin looks quickly and he says, ah, let's eat it. So, the cook cooks it up, and he serves it.

NORRIS: And Darwin's about halfway through his meal.

NORRIS: And they're eating and all of a sudden, Darwin jumps up and yells, wait, stop.


NORRIS: He realized at that moment, and he says...

KRULWICH: What do you mean? That the bird that they were eating was the one he was seeking?

NORRIS: Exactly.


NORRIS: And he had seen it. (unintelligible)

KRULWICH: Is it already, like, in the pot and everything?

NORRIS: It's cooked.


NORRIS: It is cooked and eaten. So, he went to the kitchen mess and he found, you know, the neck bones, the head, the feet, any pluckings of the feathers. And he took all of these, you know, bits and pieces of the poor Rhea, and he packaged them up, and he sent them to London.


KRULWICH: So, you know, he fished out - did he take stuff off people's plates? I guess he must have, if they had both.

NORRIS: He took- if there were bones, he took them. He took every little bit that he could find.

KRULWICH: And he mailed it all to a friend, a taxidermist in London by the name of John Gould.

NORRIS: Gould knew exactly what to do about this. He constructed a bird out of wire and wet skin that he had. And then he pasted on any feathers that Darwin had provided of this bird. And then he stole matching feathers from other birds and the much more common Greater Rhea, of which there were several specimens, so...


KRULWICH: Having, in effect, reconstructed the bird from stew, when Darwin came back from his trip, Gould formerly presented the bird at a special ceremony of the Zoological Society in London and announced that since Darwin had caught the bird, it should be named in his honor, Rhea darwinii.

NORRIS: And Darwin, you know - no, no, it's too much. But, of course, he was thrilled with it.

KRULWICH: Wait, wait, wait, wait a second. What about the French guy who had already at least described...

NORRIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Back in France - the French version of the London Zoological Society published in their magazine that Alcid D'Orbigny had described the bird, and D'Orbigny himself named it Rhea pennata, pennata meaning feathers. So, the people...

KRULWICH: Okay. So, now we have a contest, don't we?

NORRIS: Now we have - yeah, now we have a little...


NORRIS: Well, they were battling for ostrich supremacy.

KRULWICH: It is England versus France. It's Darwin versus D'Orbigny. It's, I've got the specimen and you don't. Although don't you think that if the specimen that Darwin got was taken out of some stew...


KRULWICH: And was wearing some other feathers from some other bird, that maybe he didn't - really shouldn't win, you know?

NORRIS: Yeah, you know...


KRULWICH: Because the French do stick with pennata, the British stick with darwinii, but then time passes - is that we say in the story?

NORRIS: Yeah, time passes.

KRULWICH: And when scientists later weighed Darwin's claims against D'Orbigny's, you know what? The bird today is not officially called darwinii.

NORRIS: Its scientific name is pennata.

KRULWICH: So the French - the French won. And Darwin, well, did he get his name on any bird? Is there any animal...

NORRIS: Yeah. There's a little...

KRULWICH: Oh. So, let's hear the consolation prize. What does he have a name for?

NORRIS: Oh, dear. He's got a little, partridge-like bird. Is it the Lesser Tinamou?

KRULWICH: Well, actually, it's a little less than the Lesser Tinamou. Darwin's name is now on a very teeny bird called the Least Tinamou. It's not what he hoped for. But you can't have everything.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

BLOCK: Eric Simons' new book on Darwin is called "Darwin Slept Here." Lyanda Haupt's book is "Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent."

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