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Highway One – Darwin




For a nerd, arriving in a city named after a scientist is kind of a fun moment.

We, the confused and bewildered people of Earth, live in cities named after emperors like Constantinople, gods like Athena, we have cities named after other cities or towns, like New York or Perth.

We even live in cities and towns which are named after some really strange abstract crap – who exactly thought that Broken Hill was a good name?

And here in Australia they will name a dry creek bed after just about anything. I have seen Big Mabel Creek, Small Mabel Creek, Cheese Tin Creek, Black Heart Creek and not one of them had a single drop of water in them.

Why is there no city of Newton? Why can’t I move to a metropolis called Fraunhofer? Sure there is a Wegenerstraβe in Vienna, but that’s just one street for the dude who discovered that the continents were all moving around.

Why is there no Chandrasekarville? Yes there was a Fermilab, but why is there no Fermi City? And if I could move to the suburb of Feynman in the town of Dirac, I would do it.

So, with so few places named after any nerds at all, I admit that I got a lot nostalgic for arriving in Darwin… before ever actually arriving in Darwin. I don’t know if it is possible to have pre-cognitive nostalgia, I am not a psychic because psychics are not real, but I absolutely gave it my best shot.


In any case, Darwin is a fine, stately and optimistic name for anything which has importance and needs a bit of extra gravitas: a bridge, a river, hey why not a church? A goldfish. A beagle… it is certainly a wonderful name for a city and especially a city which survived a cyclone only to grow back a lot stronger and more suited to its environment. Just consider this: no matter which side of the evolution vs creationism debate you personally stand on, Charles Darwin was still right and here stands a new, modern city upon the remains of a city which was selected out of existence by Cyclone Tracy.

That’s why Charlie Darwin gets a whole city and it is also why God isn’t cited in modern biology journals.

Being here in this nerd city suddenly makes me wonder whether upset American evangelicals cross it off their travel itinerary when they visit Australia. If so, more places should be named Darwin.

There should be Darwins all over the United States especially. There should be Darwins all over the Middle East. Everywhere you turn there should be another Darwin River or a Darwin Creek… what about Darwin Lake, Point Darwin, Cape Darwin, Darwin Reef, the Darwin Desert…

Today of course the intellectual legacy of this one man seems almost too obvious to make a fuss about. The more you think about evolution the less you have to think about whether it is true or not. It is not an especially hard set of concepts to wrap your head around, it is so logical it is axiomatic, that is to say, logical people can accept natural selection and notions of fitness of survival without a lot of need for debate.

What seems so strange really is that it took nerds like Darwin and Wallace to independently come up with these simple but radical ideas, it seems more than a little odd that before the late 1800’s, there was no precurser to the theory of evolution to speak of. It has its beginnings in the writings of Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus.

Prior to that there was no sense in which the natural world and the species of the world were envisioned as coming from any process we could ever understand. All ideas of inheritance were wrapped up in notions of fate, divinity, God creates continually and that is the cause of everything.

Different species simply were created as different species and if you wanted to know why there were tigers and lions and leopards, someone would throw a Bible at you and point at the first book of Moses.

All over the world, the scripture might change, a Koran here and not a Bible, some vedas there and not a Koran, perhaps a septuagint or one of the several books of the dead, irrespective of the text, the creation and all diversity of all life was always explained by higher powers toying with their pet universe, we humans were not animals and not a part of that kingdom. Except of course in Aboriginal and Amerindian philosophy whereby humans and animals are not only the same basic thing, all children of the Earth, animals are also personal totems, they are integrated into the spirit of a person. As one man I met put it, ‘I am a dingo, it is my totem’.

The Judeo-Christian God’s special trick of making animals for kicks in the first six days of the universe was a sufficient explanation capable of satisfying hundreds of generations.

Then came Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin and the study of biology, once a system of taxonomy, suddenly became a process, any living system was in and of itself now regarded as changing and shifting in time. The great advance might be logical, it might even be obvious with hindsight but if it is so obvious to us now it was just as obscure to our billions of ancestors, for whom the wonder of life was only ever explained by the word God, leaving no room for any questions, but an open door to a sense of awe and wonder.

That insight into mechanisms of suitability and survival, that is a deep understanding of all organic processes. It is, in a sense, all you ever really need to know about biology to know nearly everything there is to know about biology. From there it only gets more sophisticated as mechanisms of inheritance and notions of selection and expression are talked about in terms of highly detailed chemistry: DNA, RNA, mRNA, tRNA, codons, proteins and ribosomes… all the jargon just elaborates on the ideas of Darwin. It is, in a sense, the best evidence going that the theory is absolutely flawless.

So though we have complicated knowledge of biochemistry and the chemical basis of life, it is a set of ideas which absolutely anyone can grasp which is the key. It is the key which unlocks an entire science. It is so very lovely that an ordinary person like myself who knows almost no biology or chemistry can still understand these core ideas and begin to look at the complexity of the world with the eye of imagination, to see the astonishing cleverness of the mechanisms of inheritance and survival.

The kingdom of natural selection is the one true god and Darwin was her prophet.

That ingenious insight, so ingenious it feels obvious, and that phenomenal daring to suggest the obvious to a generation of people who were unwilling to see it, that is why this wonderful man deserves a beautiful city named after him.

And Darwin most certainly is a very, very beautiful city.


* Apologies to Wolfgang Pauli




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9 Responses to Highway One – Darwin

  1. Awesome shots mate, and I love the narrative about it being nerd city 🙂 epic photos though, seriously.

  2. Avonia says:

    I had a house in Faraday St for a while – does that earn me nerd points? … and my name is also a genus of succulents – that sort of covers off physics and botany … and some people would say psychology is a science too! 🙂

    Anyway, enjoy Darwin. I only spent a few days there but I loved it. Be sure to feed the fish at Doctor’s Gully if you haven’t already. It’s magic!

    Did you approach Darwin through Litchfield? There’s some fantastic waterfalls you can swim at there.

    • Bart says:

      You were always a supernerd, Vonnie. For a start you are a word nerd straight from the top shelf where only the most esteemed word nerds can ply their trade. I had no idea your name was also a genus of succulents. How bad is that? All these decades and I had no idea.

      And I caught Litchfield Park on the way out. Just writing a post about it actually – had a rather fun time there. It’s amazing all right. I thought it was good when I saw the four metre tall termite mounds. Then I saw the falls. Just stunning. I was stunned anyway.

      And the Litchfield park rangers saved me twice, once from myself (I locked my keys in the car) and once from getting stuck there during a major storm (apparently there was a regional cyclone warning but genius here missed it).

      Left Darwin Sunday. Am now in QLD, Mt. Isa to be exact. Here a few days – need some car repairs and then am off to Townsville.

  3. Avonia says:

    Be sure to visit the Daintree while you’re there.

    I confess I’m also a small fishing village in Pennsylvania… on my bucket list of places to visit now I’ve discovered it.

    • Bart says:

      Will be in Cairns about this time next week and will definitely be going a bit further North just to see the Daintree. Have had a few people recommend it now. Even in a huge country with a lot of places boasting a lot of natural beauty it sounds like it could be kind of special.

      Hey, there’s a small story from the road which I feel sure you will enjoy.

      Just pulled into Tennant Creek after a day of filming and quite a few hours of night driving, which is never too smart. Called up a mate on the phone and was chatting away when I see this small dog, a small terrier, full of beans and super confident, he starts barking at a passing, four carriage long road train laden with what would have to be a few hundred tonnes of cargo. The massive road train passes by and that terrier instinct just kicked in. This cute little dog started giving chase to scare off this massive beast of a vehicle, barking the whole time, quite ferocious he was. Happy too if the frequency of the tail wag is any measure. After about a hundred metres of chase the road train was considered non-threatening and on the run – it had been told – and so that tiny terrier claimed victory and jogged back to his spot by the roadside.

      Couldn’t stop laughing for a good minute. Thinking about it – I will never lose the glorious image of that dog claiming victory – still cracks me up.

      Stuff like that, the things that don’t appear on maps, things which are both unexpected and yet also kind of inevitable with hindsight, they are some of the most fun things of all about travelling.

  4. Avonia says:

    Too gorgeous!! ‘The thrill of the chase’ seems a hackneyed and pale descriptor for such joyous doings.

    Yes, as one travels life’s highways one must, indeed, remember to stop and smell the roses.

    Crikey! I’m full of cliches tonight!! Probably burned out any good lexical energy I had writing an ‘Evaluation, reporting and accountability’ section today.

    Do you remember the cartoon on ‘cow’ philosophy where the cow-guru is imparting wise counsel to remember to stop and ‘eat’ the roses? I have a feeling you introduced me to it – maybe it was a Gary Larson?

    I feel very ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ hearing of your travels…

    I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
    Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
    And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city,
    Through the open window floating, spreads it foulness over all.

    Hmmm… ‘In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Bartholomew’… 🙂

  5. Avonia says:

    Btw, ShiftyJelly do a great weather app with a ‘follow me’ function and automated BOM severe weather alerts. It come in use if you’re going to travel in the far north during the cyclone season.

    • Bart says:

      Oh cool thanks! Chances are pretty good that kind of app would be really handy because it is already starting, there are a few signs of it. For one thing the Leichhardt river is dry as a bone but the air is pregant with water and it rains hard one day in two. The dry river bed tells you it’s not been raining that hard for very long, the frequency and ferocity of the rain tells you the dry season is over.

      A bloke at Pine Creek said he’d never seen the water level of the man made lake so high. I asked how long he’d been coming to Pine Creek. He said 15 years. The Larrakia radio station in Darwin posed the question of whether it was the rainiest november on record. That was when november was three weeks old. It seems that the wet season started earlier than is usual perhaps.

      As to clichés, though they may be hackneyed, they are devastatingly appropriate a lot of the time and the thrill of that doggie giving chase to that evil behemoth, and his sense of triumph as well, it is undeniable. I suspect he chases as many as he has energy to manage. It made the little guy so happy and it tickled me for life.

      Pretty darned sure it is a Larson cartoon and i definitely do remember the line about stopping and eating the roses. Would say definitely a Larson cartoon but the old memory is not what it once was. That man was a genius at anthropomorphising cows, snakes, bacteria… Etc etc etc… so it has all the hallmarks.

      I am currently sitting in a car where a dingy ray of moonlight has yet to creep, where the nostril burning smell of petrol and fumes from Mt Isa waft through an open door.

      I’m about to light a cigarette which stands to actually improve the air quality here. What’s odd is how quickly you get used to the aroma of sulphides, i have to think about it to notice it now but my first thought was, hello Kwinana. This is my fourth night here in Mt. Isa and my last. Next stop: somewhere.

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