Sunday 12 February 2017

Darwin's last days

Darwinday today as it was last year and indeed for me every previous year back to 1982 the centenary of Charles Darwin's death. Events that year gave some traction to the canonisation of St Darwin of Downe which is pursued with quite evangelical vigour by some who 'believe' in evolution. When I worked at Evolution Central in a couple of Genetics Departments, I used to bring donuts in to work as a sort of agnostic host. My fellow believers were happy to glom down a donut on Der Tag but generally forgot about the great man for the rest of the year. The trouble is that, to be successful in science, you need to specialise and focus on one area of expertise - like cyanogenesis in plants fr'instance - rather than flitting from one thing to the other as the fancy takes you. I was never a very successful scientist because I was always starting something new before I'd wrapped up and published the previous project. That butterfly mind makes me a successful, or at least prolific, blogger.

As Robert Heinlein said specialization is for insects: you can't understand, let alone explain, evolution unless you know some biogeography, some embryology & development, some taxonomy and comparative anatomy, some geology . . . and some genetics helps too. If you have spent the last 20 years studying mutations in the upstream control control region of a single gene in Bacillus subtilis, you're not going to do well in a TV debate with an intelligent designist.

The final year honours course I taught in Newcastle was a whistle-stop tour marshalling the evidence for evolution a) as Darwin knew it and b) as subsequent developments, like Mendelian genetics, had added to and fleshed out that evidence. Even back then I filled out the Evolution course with nifty anecdotes about mutilated bears and Slijper's goat, rather than sticking strictly to genetics. I was driven to develop, write and deliver that course because one of our students, a biblical fundamentalist [Plymouth Bretheren?] asked me to recommend a book on evolution that she could present at her church's monthly book club. I was completely wrong-footed by this request because, although I could think of a few books, I couldn't there and then convince this young wan that evolution was a better explanation of the marvellous diversity of life than God's Grandeur. And this was just a couple of years after I'd taken BI504-Evolution sitting at the feet of Lynn Margulis in graduate school. Shame on me!

If you ask most biology students - those in the bible-belt of the USA possible exceptions - if they believe in evolution they will say Yes, of course without the least blush of shame that 'belief' is a disturbingly religious word. Furthermore, because they have neither read the Origin of Species, nor taken BI504 or my Evolution from primeval soup to hominid nuts course they are not qualified to assert such a belief because they don't have a coherent bank of evidence to back that belief. Same goes for almost all the teachers of biology in school and college.  Today, in honour of Darwin's birthday you might resolve to read The Origin - you won't be disappointed and you will be blizzarded by quirky facts. If you're French, and that's currently more than half my readers, you might pick up Thomas Glick's The Comparative Reception of Darwin for less than $10. I was lent a copy by Lynn Margulis in the 1980s. That shows that Darwin had a different impact on thinking people on the Continent than in insular Britain where they made Darwin FRS, FLS, FGS and FZS and knighted three of his sons . . . which?:
On dit que Darwin spent 20 years not writing the Origin of Species because he was conflicted by religious doubts and was only goaded into committing his thoughts to paper to avoid being scooped by Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858. That is peculiar because all his children grew up to be agnostics and felt that they had taken that position from listening to their Papa. Nearly 100 years ago a peculiar story was put about that Darwin had a sort of death-bed conversion and invited a bible thumper called Lady Hope to preach to his servants and tenants in the summer house at Downe. The idea of this evangelical busybody pitching up in Darwin's bedroom in the last year of his life to hear his confession has the ring of augmented truth. It's the kind of thing my Great Aunt Lily would have done. That dreadnought lady had a habit of ringing the doorbell of whatever grand house she was passing and insisting on viewing the staircase or the Adam fireplace in the main bedroom. The fact that all Darwin's children [the seven who survived to adulthood are shown above] were adamant that the meeting with Lady Hope had never taken place doesn't fully allay suspicion.

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