When I was writing Charles And Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, a friend said to me, “Charles Darwin must have been one awful guy.” “Why?” I asked, shocked. “Well, survival of the fittest and all that,” she said. I explained to her that Charles was, in fact, an incredibly nice man. I told her that he took more than fifteen years to write The Origin of Species because he didn’t want to offend anyone, especially not his wife, Emma, who was religious, and whom he cherished. Emma was his first reader, his editor, his comma and spelling corrector. She helped him make his arguments about evolution by natural selection clearer and stronger, even though she was worried, as many would be when it was published, that he was taking God out of the process of creation.
But Emma knew that Charles was writing not only from a place of science (oh the research he did!) but also from a place of love for our planet, and the life on it. He studied specimens in his study at home, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of his children. And every day he walked outside and reveled in nature. In the last lines of The Origin he wrote, “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.…”
I love it that Darwin observed nature all over the world—from Galapagos to his own back yard. One of my very first books, written 22 years ago, was about just this. I modeled From Caterpillar to Butterfly on what my son did in class, and which many children still do: watch up-close the miraculous metamorphosis of a butterfly. And at the end of their study (and of the book), the children let the butterflies go, out into the world, where the cycle will start again.
Life on Earth depends on us humans to keep it safe. The more we know about the creatures and plants on the tangled banks, and in the ocean depths, on the mountaintops, and underneath our feet, the more we will treasure our planet. The harder we will work to save it. Science points the way to truth. Love and respect point the way to action.
“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin wrote at the end The Origin of Species.
We must keep this planet healthy and full of that grandeur.
Deborah Heiligman has authored 28 books for young readers, from picture books to middle grade to YA. Her title Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith is a National Book Award Finalist. It also earned a Michael L. Printz Award and was an YALSA-ALA “Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction” Winner. Learn more about Deborah’s broad body of work at www.deborahheiligman.com.