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Walking in Darwin's Shadow

Quentin Keynes isn't a naturalist like his great-grandfather, but intellectual curiosity has led him to pursue subjects that interest him--such as the handwritten letters of his famous relation.

April 23, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Here's nobody standing next to somebody," Quentin Keynes remarks as he stands beside an enlarged photograph of his great-grandfather, Charles Darwin.

Darwin, the man whose theory of natural selection revolutionized the way we think about the origins of the human race and of all living creatures; Keynes, a dabbler who shares with his famous great-grandfather not insights into the origins of species, but rather . . . seasickness.

The photograph of Darwin is part of an exhibit of his landmark publications and deftly penned letters at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Keynes lent a number of the letters for the exhibit.

Tall, stooped, with a shock of silvery white hair flopped over his forehead, Keynes is on a visit to Los Angeles, browsing the showcases at the exhibition. He points out the handwritten letters, adding his own asides. At one display case he pauses to remark on the notation "H.M.S. Beagle" written in a German-language New Testament in the exhibit. "It's one of the only books he wrote that in. He had this on the five years of his trip."

That trip being Darwin's journey around the world on the ship, the Beagle, from 1831 to 1836, where he served as naturalist and captain's companion and where he began formulating his ideas about evolution by natural selection. (And was, for five years, seasick, a condition that has been passed down in the family.)

Why a book in German? "Because he was learning German," Keynes quickly replies. "He found out that German scientists were very important to his ideas, and wanted to correspond with them."

Keynes says upfront that he is neither a trained scientist nor naturalist--as a matter of fact he doesn't really have an occupation--but clearly, he has become something of a personal Darwin expert. He has not just one, but two illustrious relatives: John Maynard Keynes, the economist, was his uncle. ("He was the most brilliant man I've ever talked to," his nephew says, "and he had a very good sense of humor, too.")

Today, Keynes has homes in Connecticut and in London, but seems to go where the wind takes him--traveling, giving lectures and making what he calls "very humble films about expeditions I've made in Africa and remote islands."

Born and raised in England, Keynes didn't fully appreciate his glorious ancestry when he was a young man. As a teenager, he was given a German dictionary owned by his great-grandfather and blithely crossed out the "Charles Darwin" signature on the front page and wrote his own name instead. "Everybody was horrified!" he says, laughing. "I wasn't interested in Darwin then. Gradually, as I got older, I got more and more interested, of course."

Unlike his three brothers, Quentin Keynes did not go to university. He quit school at 16 and gleaned his education from reading, traveling and meeting people. "I liked living at home," he says, "and I had many interests." In 1939 when World War II broke out in Europe, Keynes was visiting relatives in the United States. Through connections, he was able to get a job at the British Embassy in Washington and worked there for three years. "That's the only job I've ever had," Keynes says, then deflects questions about his age and how he makes a living.

His pursuit of the things that interest him have taken him on the expeditions that are the subject of his short, silent 16-millimeter documentaries. Generally, he screens them at schools, museums and to groups interested in natural history, providing a personal narration while the footage unfolds.

"I talk along with the movie in the old-fashioned way," he says. "I think it's the most compelling way. You know, soundtracks and the sound of music and the sound of the wind, it's all very well, but the real story [I tell], people love it!"

One film is about the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin had his epiphany about the workings of natural selection. There the naturalist observed how the same species had slight physical variations from island to island. The Galapagos tortoises had adapted their body size and carapace shape--one type tended to be smaller (less than 200 pounds) and sported a "saddlebacked" shell, which permitted survival in a drier terrain, and sufficient neck extension to nibble on fruits and pads of Opuntia cacti. In an 1860 letter, Darwin wrote, "The only novelty in my work is the attempt to explain how species become modified, & to a certain extent how the theory of descent explains certain large classes of facts."

Keynes naturally feels a special attachment to the Galapagos, although he has only been there twice. ("Now nearly 45,000 people go every a year," he laments. "I feel terribly guilty--I'm sure this film makes everyone want to go there, [but] at the same time, I don't want them to go there!")

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