You might assume that Charles Darwin, the famed naturalist, was a vegetarian since he was so enamored with living creatures, but he was just the opposite – in fact, Darwin ate some of his discoveries.
During his journey on The Beagle, he indulged in an array of exotic meats – from puma, which he found “remarkably like veal in taste,” to armadillos and iguanas.
His curiosity even led him to taste the bladder contents of a giant tortoise. Darwin’s palate wasn’t just adventurous; it was scientific. He was known for eating specimens he was studying and trying to describe scientifically.
Modern Biologists Follow Suit
This gastronomic curiosity didn’t end with Darwin. Many modern scientists continue to eat their study subjects, either out of convenience (as with those researching edible plants and animals like trout or blueberries) or driven by sheer curiosity. From bluegill and sea urchin to more peculiar choices like beetles and cicadas, the range of their dietary experiments is vast.
Notably, Richard Wassersug, while conducting a study on the palatability of tadpoles in the 1970s, had graduate students (bribed with beer) taste but not swallow various tadpole species. This experiment, now impossible to conduct due to ethical restrictions, showed that easy-to-catch tadpoles often tasted worse. Wassersug himself described the taste of toad tadpoles as “astonishingly bitter.”
The Drive Behind Why Darwin Ate an Unusual Diet
The motivation behind these gastronomic explorations varies. Sometimes it’s an academic pursuit, as in Wassersug’s study. Other times, it’s a quest to manage invasive species, turning them from pests into menu items. Sarah Treanor Bois, during her Ph.D. research on invasive plants, attended a cook-off featuring dishes made from invasive species like nutria and bullfrog legs. Eating invasives is not just about satiating curiosity but also about drawing attention to ecological problems.
However, the most common reason cited for these unusual diets is pure scientific curiosity. Robert Thorson, a geologist, once tasted 30,000-year-old meat from a giant steppe bison found in permafrost. His verdict? It was stringy and flavorless, with a “pungent rankness.”
Scientists’ Gastronomic Adventures
Why are scientists so inclined towards tasting their research subjects? Mark Siddall, a leech expert, believes it’s about familiarity. Just as an omnivore eats chicken, beef, or pork, scientists consume what they’re familiar with. To a biologist, an organism they’ve studied extensively may not seem so different from regular food. Richard Wassersug views it as a part of being a naturalist. To fully understand and connect with nature, one must engage all senses, including taste.
It’s not just about curiosity but also about a sense of community and perhaps a bit of competitiveness among scientists. The stories of Darwin and others set a precedent, and many modern scientists feel compelled to follow in their footsteps, driven by peer or ‘beer’ pressure.