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Old 12-31-2008, 10:09 PM   #1
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Charles Darwins 200th Birthday

This year is going to be the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the species, consequently 2009 is the international year of Darwin; before some posters make a charge of idolatry it's worth highlighting the meticulous observation and evidence based reasoning which Darwin is a model of, and the incredible shaping power that natural selection has had on our vision of the world (from common decent to the biological implications of deep time). He wasn't a God or a prophet, but a man who was able to study, and question, and follow his chain of reasoning to it's inexorable end-point; and that spirit of free inquiry is something that we should all celebrate.
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Charles Darwin was one of those rare individuals who devoted themselves entirely to the pursuit of knowledge, to the detriment of everything else in their lives. He was, and remains, one of our greatest ever thinkers - a man whose discovery changed the way we see the world.

As a lifelong naturalist myself, he is not only a personal hero but the root from which all my own professional studies stemmed. Which is why I feel it so important to celebrate the anniversary of his birth - if only because I fear many of his core discoveries are in danger of becoming muddled through the prism of modern spiritualism.

For there are plenty of people today - not all of them religious fundamentalists - who seem to think Darwinian evolution cannot explain why, for the most part, humans are a uniquely civilised species.

After all, they posit, how can Darwinism explain empathy, charity or self-sacrifice? How can it explain the 'good deeds' of humans, whether religious or not?

With its emphasis on 'the survival of the fittest', isn't Darwinism simply an excuse for rampant capitalism and personal greed?

To answer this attack, we need to take a closer look at the biology of our species. In our ancient past, when we were evolving as a tribal species, the competition between individuals had to be tempered by a greatly increased urge to cooperate with our companions if our tribe was to flourish.

By a division of labour and by assisting one another, we also helped ourselves to succeed. And one of our great survival weapons was our ability to communicate with one another in much greater detail than other species.

When we developed language, we also became greatly interested in symbolism. The word 'tree' did not look like a tree or sound like a tree, but it nevertheless conjured up an image of a tree in our minds.

Making one thing stand for another in this way was a habit that spread through all aspects of our lives. If we feel protective towards a kitten, it is because the little animal acts as a symbol of a human child and stimulates our parental urges.

If a nun sees each human being as one of 'God's children', then she will want to help them all, as though they were real children. Our good deeds are extensions of our powerful parental feelings, or our inborn urge to co-operate with the members of our tribe.

We are not helpful to one another because of some sophisticated moralising, but because we have evolved that way. It is as much a part of our animal nature as is our urge to compete with one another.

That is the way we are, and there is no need to introduce the pious teachings of the Church to make us good - it is already in our genes.

Creationists will have none of this, and insist that all of nature is the work of what they now call an 'intelligent designer'.

If such a being existed, this monstrous designer would have to accept the responsibility for having created all the wonderful life forms we see around us, and then of cruelly inventing countless unspeakable agonies for them in the shape of leprosy, cholera, cancer, syphilis, plague, malaria, AIDS, fevers, parasitic worms and the rest.

What a charmer this designer must be; creationists are welcome to their hideous creation.

No, Darwinian competition is a much more reassuring scenario. In this, we will, as a species, devote more and more energy to defeating these viruses, bacteria and other parasites. Eventually, we will eradicate them.

We will refuse to accept that it is God's design that we should be made to suffer from these afflictions forever more. We will do our best to improve our lot on this small planet, and to see ourselves as part of a larger, natural environment.

Then, one day, when a major crisis occurs - a massive epidemic that nearly wipes us all out, or a huge asteroid that strikes Earth - we will be ready to evolve a little further and to survive this disaster because natural selection will be able to find just enough of us who can cope with whatever new environment comes our way.

Sooner or later, inevitably, there will be a gigantic planetary upheaval of some kind and Homo post-sapiens will eventually emerge from the chaos.

Let's just hope that it turns out to be Homo super-sapiens, and not Homo sub-sapiens.
DESMOND MORRIS: Two centuries on, a salute to Charles Darwin, a hero for our age | Mail Online

In addition, somebody took the time to upload a terrific TV series from the 70's depicting the Voyage of the Beagle, it combines 19th Century period drama with scientific naturalism, rendering it awesome
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Old 12-31-2008, 10:16 PM   #2
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The theology has not caught up with the science, or to be more concise, the biology has not caught up with the physics.

Soon, Morris and his ilk will be redundant.
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Old 12-31-2008, 10:23 PM   #3
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I'm not so sure about that, of course biology is a result of chemistry which is a result of physics; but studying the higher level emergent properties of physics (such as life) can reveal things which would be practically impossible to derive from first principles.

I don't think that a theory of everything would defeat the purpose of biology, just as biology doesn't defeat the value of the humanities.
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Old 12-31-2008, 10:24 PM   #4
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The theology has not caught up with the science, or to be more concise, the biology has not caught up with the physics.

Soon, Morris and his ilk will be redundant.
I will elaborate on what I mean, to avoid seeming gnomic.

Few biologists have ever heard of the EPR paradox or the Aspect experiments, nor taken the trouble to study developments in physics in, what, near on a century now.

One of the biggest conceits of our age is to elevate specialism - i.e., division of labour (and it's amusing to see Morris specifically refer to this, with approval, in his essay) - to a fetish.

NB: I am not attacking Darwinism. Morris's reductionism, I do object to.
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Old 12-31-2008, 10:49 PM   #5
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Specialisation is a double edged sword, the reality is that the state of knowledge between disciplines is so great, and time constraints so large, that most people (and we are talking smart people here) can't become expert in multiple fields. It isn't impossible to specialise in one field and be somewhat competent in others, but it demands a style and attitude which isn't really taught today. It is specialisation, and the rise of the professional scientist, which has driven advances in most fields and industries. We can't all afford to be polymaths, or even convincing dilettantes, that may also lead to some nasty turf wars (I'm looking at the physicist Lois Alverez, who echoed Rutherford when he called palaeontology mere stamp collecting).

You have referenced Snow's essay on 'The Two Cultures' before, and that raised some really important issues. I think that science has a lot to offer culture, and being knowledgeable in the humanities is rewarding for its own sake (and in the case of philosophy it can help you do better science by identifying fallacies).

I will say that for my discipline, palaeontology, the traditional archivist is a dying breed; institutions are getting rid of collection managers, and to have any shot at an academic career one must bring more diverse skills to the table. Which for me means that I am experimenting with computer modeling of evolutionary systems in a relatively abstract fashion in the hope of deriving some robust patterns that I can relate to the fossil record (I have about a meter thick stack of books which I am gradually getting through, which are multi-disciplinary from genetics to game theory). This takes up my spare time, time which might otherwise be spent with a girlfriend or getting drunk, between full time work and family life it's really hard to afford to diversify. Now that project is a collaboration, with a mater who is doing a PhD in dark matter, and there are ideas floating around with a multimedia artist I know for some collaboration, all of these things take up time, and questions of time management are definitely going to come to the fore over the next few years.

Darwin is interesting in that he was a broad naturalist, he was a geologist before he was a biologist, and wrote on diverse topics. Although Desmond Morris isn't exactly a closed minded scientist when it comes to culture either.

/I will mention that I obsessed over the EPR paradox when the first "faster than light" experiments were done, where the group velocity exceeded the signal velocity, thus validating a speed limit for information and prohibiting time travel. Although one interesting thing about evolution is that it could happen in other possible worlds, or simulated worlds, evolutionary systems are not entirely conditional on this universe and could function elsewhere.
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Old 12-31-2008, 11:14 PM   #6
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Now that project is a collaboration, with a mater who is doing a PhD in dark matter, and there are ideas floating around with a multimedia artist I know for some collaboration, all of these things take up time, and questions of time management are definitely going to come to the fore over the next few years.

I look forward to this.
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Old 12-31-2008, 11:20 PM   #7
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Indeed, curiosity and interest are important emotions, I just don't know why so many scientists fail at using them to engage to public, to put us in our place and give some idea about vast swaths of space and time.

I also must pimp Melvyn Bragg's radio show "In Our Time", it podcasts such a range of issues, and keeps you interested.

BBC - Radio 4 In Our Time - Home Page
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Old 12-31-2008, 11:22 PM   #8
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I read a very interesting book a while back, called 'Evolution', by Stephen Baxter. He's a science fiction writer and it was an attempt - probably not all that successful - to cobble the evolutionary story into a novel. Anyhow it got very interesting toward the end, where it veered into future speculation.

It posited that some sort of event in the mid 21st century (possibly environmental instability and resulting war which went nuclear) wiped out a significant portion of humanity. Humanity would bounce back, you'd think. But travelling forward first millennia, then millions of years, the story speculated that our numbers just couldn't keep up with the vermin. We evolved for speed and not-being-noticed by predators. The brain became an unnecessary drain on resources. Five million years from now, in this fictional story, descendents of the rats have taken the place of the old huge land mammals, or possibly dinosaurs. The post-humans aren't much more than monkeys.

It's dispiriting, but interesting.
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Old 01-01-2009, 06:51 AM   #9
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Indeed, curiosity and interest are important emotions, I just don't know why so many scientists fail at using them to engage to public, to put us in our place and give some idea about vast swaths of space and time.

I also must pimp Melvyn Bragg's radio show "In Our Time", it podcasts such a range of issues, and keeps you interested.

BBC - Radio 4 In Our Time - Home Page
And as it turns out the first episode of the year covers Darwin
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Melvyn Bragg looks back over Charles Darwin’s life and asks why Darwin’s writing remains such a profound influence on our understanding of the natural world. The series describes Darwin's education at Edinburgh and Cambridge. It discusses how the voyage on the Beagle influenced the longer-term development of Darwin’s ideas about evolution and goes on to grapple with what Darwin meant by 'evolution by natural selection'. The series concludes with Darwin's later years. Melvyn reviews his final publications and stresses the importance of his enormous scientific and personal correspondence.

As Melvyn develops his own ideas about Darwin, he talks to academics and scientists, all of whom have specialist knowledge of Darwin’s life and work. These include biographer James Moore, biologist Steve Jones, paleobiologist David Norman, librarians Judith Magee and Colin Higgins, garden curator Nick Biddle, zoologist Jenny Clack and botanists Johannes Vogel and Sandy Knapp. Melvyn also talks to Jim Secord and Alison Pearn, both from the Darwin Correspondence Project.
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Old 01-01-2009, 07:12 AM   #10
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James Moore and Adrian Desmond have a new book on Darwin which comes out next month, they worked on an awesome Darwin biography in 1991 (called Darwin, well worth the read) and are interview here, the book investigates Darwin's anti-slavery attitudes
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A Conversation with Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

What was the initial spark that inspired you to write a book arguing such a revolutionary thesis?
We asked the big question in our 1991 Darwin biography: "Why did such a rich and impeccably upright gent go out of his way to develop such a subversive and inflammatory image of human evolution? He had everything to lose!" But we only partially answered it, showing how Darwin covered his tracks and kept ominously quiet for thirty years on the subject, before publishing The Descent of Man in 1871. The question kept niggling: `Why did he do it – and why did he wait so long?’ We knew that contemporary radicals, Christian and otherwise, had opposed slavery, and then it dawned on us that the Darwin family's anti-slavery brotherhood beliefs could have driven the 'common descent' approach of Darwin's particular brand of evolution.

About ten years ago our thesis began to jell. Jim was particularly interested in The Descent of Man, which no one seemed to have read. Why was two-thirds of a book supposedly about human evolution devoted to beetles, butterflies, birds and furry mammals? Darwin's answer was: to prove his theory of `sexual selection'. But why was sexual selection so important to Darwin? Jim's answer: because it was his prize explanation of racial common descent - why black people and white people looked different but were still members of the same family, not separately created species, as pro-slavery demagogues were arguing. Meanwhile Adrian realized how Darwin's work on fancy pigeons and hybrids, leading up to sexual selection, also served to undermine pro-slavery science. What’s more, Darwin had originally intended all of this to go into his great work on evolution, which was finally published as The Origin of Species - a book that everyone knows `omits man’. No Eureka moment for us, then, but a lot of loose ends came together to tie a gloriously satisfying knot.

2009 is the Darwin Bicentenary, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species. Why has it taken so long to discover the moral motivation behind Darwin’s theories of sexual selection and human origins?
The Descent of Man hasn’t been read, much less read carefully. Over and over, scholars have called it `two books’ crushed together (and it is unwieldy, over 900 pages). That’s one reason. Another is this: only in the last generation have Darwin’s private notebooks, letters and marginal jottings become fully available. Without these, it was difficult to trace the development of his views on human origins. Above all, though, there has been great reluctance to see Darwin as more than a heroic `genius’ uncovering pure gems of `truth' beyond the vision of ordinary mortals.

To most of his admirers, Darwin was a `great scientist’ getting on with a great scientist’s proper job, not a Victorian gentleman with a moral passion making all life kin by solving that contemporary `mystery of mysteries’, how living species originate. But historians today see Darwin quite differently: they emphasize the social and historical context that made it possible for Darwin or anyone to craft a theory from available cultural resources. One such resource in Darwin’s world was anti-slavery, the greatest moral movement of his age. Our thesis is that the anti-slavery values instilled in him from youth became the moral premise of his work on evolution. Many scientists and philosophers think that explaining genius and its insights as we do saps the power of science and, given the challenge of creationism, is an act of treachery. The reluctance to dig beneath the surface of Darwin’s books into the social and cultural resources of his times is as dogged as ever.

And why is Darwin’s moral motivation important?
This is perhaps the most radical and upsetting idea: that there was a moral impetus behind Darwin's work on human evolution - a brotherhood belief, rooted in anti-slavery, that led to a 'common descent' image for human ancestry, an image that Darwin extended to the rest of life, making not just the races, but all creatures brothers and sisters. In his family `tree of life’, all share a common ancestor. It’s vital to realize that Darwin’s science wasn’t the `neutral’, dispassionate practise of textbook caricature; it was driven by human desires and needs and foibles. Even our most vaunted theories - such as human evolution by a common descent with apes and all other creatures - may be fostered by humanitarian concerns. This throws all Darwin’s work - so vilified for being morally subversive - into an entirely different light.

How long did it take for the book to come to fruition?
Our gestation goes all the way back to Darwin in 1991, and to our separate but parallel interests in anti-slavery beliefs (in Adrian's case) among radical anatomists, and (in Jim's case) among the evangelical ethnologists that helped Darwin make his case for sexual selection. But we didn’t really get going on the project until ten years later, when we started writing the introduction to (and editing) the Penguin Classics edition of The Descent of Man. This was published in 2004, and by then we knew that we had only scratched the surface of a very deep subject. As the 2009 Darwin bicentenary approached, our work took on a life of its own, and after starting Darwin’s Sacred Cause about two years ago, we clinched the 'common descent' angle and pieced together how Darwin's research for the book that became The Origin of Species effectively combated the rising `scientific racism’ in America and Britain.

What sort of research did the book involve?
Loads. That’s number one. Everything we’ve done separately and together for decades got poured into Darwin’s Sacred Cause. But our new research was prodigious. Jim spent weeks one scorching summer in the English Potteries, ploughing through faded, cross-written, semi-decipherable Darwin family correspondence, literally thousands of letters and other archival materials. Most of his other digging was local, in the vast Darwin archive at Cambridge University Library, but a trawl of the National Archives at Kew netted the logbooks of HMS Beagle and other ships, which shed fresh light on Darwin’s face-to-face encounter with slavery in South America. Adrian meanwhile ransacked the esoteric breeders’ literature that Darwin read, on cattle, pigeons, poultry and the like; and he tackled the racist propaganda that riled Darwin, and much else besides. Darwin’s Sacred Cause may be one of the first historical studies to exploit the rich nineteenth-century sources recently made available on-line: for instance, newspapers from the British Library and the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers yielded wonderfully fresh contextual material for our thesis.

What do you think is the most surprising element of this book?
Our revelation that much of Darwin’s research over many years was about race. There was no ultimate difference for Darwin between a `race’ and a `species’, so his work on `the origin of species’ was also about the origin of races, including the human races - `man’ was never an exception for him. And while most of Darwin’s research was implicitly about human origins, the extent of his explicit interest in combating racist science is a real surprise. The fact that his most intense phase of work on racial questions came as the United States hurtled towards civil war, a war that the humanitarian Darwin dreaded, adds poignancy to the moral dimension of his research.

What sort of reaction are you anticipating from the scientific community? The history community? The evangelical community?
Many scientists will welcome a `moral’ Darwin’ to confound his religious critics; others will resent our polluting Darwin’s pure science with `extra-scientific’ factors and will declare his anti-slavery beliefs irrelevant. Historians may be more positive, if only because Darwin’s Sacred Cause locates Darwin for the first time on the well-trodden historical fields of transatlantic slavery, slave emancipation and the American Civil War. And those who study the history of `scientific racism’ will have a new Darwin to reckon with. Evangelicals may feel distinctly queasy, not least because William Wilberforce, the Clapham `Saints’ and others they revere as religious ancestors once supped happily with the freethinking Darwins and saw them as allies in the anti-slavery crusade. Darwin’s words, `More humble & I believe true to consider [man] created from animals’, will pose a challenge to every creationist.

What lessons does this book contain for the relationship between religion and science?
That `the relationship between religion and science’ never existed; that religion in science was the norm in Darwin’s day, and he never escaped its aura; that biological theorizing about human nature inevitably poses moral questions, and in so far as these questions have religious answers, to that extent `religion and science’ are inseparable.

When readers close Darwin’s Sacred Cause after finishing it, what do you hope they will be thinking?
`Gee, I didn’t know that about Darwin.’ `I never dreamt he cared.’ `Maybe evolution has something going for it after all.’ `Next time at the zoo, maybe I’ll drop in on the relatives.’
Darwin's Sacred Cause - Adrian Desmond - Penguin Books
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Old 01-01-2009, 07:28 AM   #11
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I was born and raised in the town Darwin was born and raised in, too. His birthday's quite a big deal here. And in literally every street there's some sort of statue or building dedicated to him
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Old 01-01-2009, 07:30 AM   #12
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Happy birthday Charlie!
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Old 01-01-2009, 07:39 AM   #13
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Thomas Huxley (see my shiny new avatar) made an address when they got the Darwin statue in the British Museum, it concluded as follows
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It only remains for me, your Royal Highness, my Lords and Gentlemen, Trustees of the British Museum, in the name of the Darwin Memorial Committee, to request you to accept this statue of Charles Darwin.

We do not make this request for the mere sake of perpetuating a memory; for so long as men occupy themselves with the pursuit of truth, the name of Darwin runs no more risk of oblivion than does that of Copernicus, or that of Harvey.

Nor, most assuredly, do we ask you to preserve the statue in its cynosural position in this entrance-hall of our National Museum of Natural History as evidence that Mr. Darwin's views have received your official sanction; for science does not recognise such sanctions, and commits suicide when it adopts a creed.

No; we beg you to cherish this Memorial as a symbol by which, as generation after generation of students of Nature enter yonder door, they shall be reminded of the ideal according to which they must shape their lives, if they would turn to the best account the opportunities offered by the great institution under your charge.
The Darwin Memorial (1885)

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Old 01-03-2009, 01:16 PM   #14
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There's going to be a movie with Paul Betanny and Jennifer Connelly called Creation.
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Old 01-08-2009, 08:45 PM   #15
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The intellectual circle which Darwin was a part of is well worth reading about, a lot of brilliant minds in exiting times.
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