Seeking guest posts for The Dispersal of Darwin

I would like to get more original content up on The Dispersal of Darwin. Since graduating from Montana State in May 2010 and moving to Portland, and now having a second child, I am not doing any research, have no papers to write, and thus, I have less time for writing posts about some aspect about Darwin (I find myself spending more available time on my children and nature blog).

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Drawing by John Hawks

Thus, I would like to open up my blog to guest posts. If you have something you would like to write and need an online venue to share it, or you already have something original about Darwin and the history of science and would like to share, consider having it as a guest post here. If you know of other students, colleagues, etc. that work on Darwin, please forward this request along. Contact me at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com if interested and we’ll start a conversation.

GUEST POST: Review of “Creation” by science educator James Williams

James Williams, a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex, had thoughts about the new Darwin film Creation, and I invited him to share his review here. James, if you remember, gave this nice talk about creationism for the British Humanist Association:

And to James’s review of Creation:

Creation – the ‘myth’ of Darwin’s life

2 October 2009

It promised so much, yet delivered a turkey! The BBC (one of the backers/makers) of the film Creation, starring Paul Bettany, can be relied upon, usually, to deliver a quality account of scientific ideas and concepts, yet in the latest and highly publicised cinema release Creation they failed miserably. It was, in my view, a waste of a good film.

Granted the actors and actresses, especially the girl who played Annie Darwin (Martha West) were very good, they played their parts well and I could appreciate their characterisations. But what let the film down was its attention to the chronology of Darwin’s life. There is no excuse for this. There are probably more Darwin biographies published than exist for any other scientist. Scholars such as Peter Bowler, Janet Browne, James Moore and many others have written the great man’s life in more intricate detail than many people care to have knowledge of.

Granted, the film did give some excellent and accurate portrayals of events, but why deliver them out of sequence and why leave out some important details, yet include others?

Most people, for example, are unaware of Emma Darwin (Charles’s wife) except that she was his first cousin (mentioned in the film) and that she was ‘ultra’ religious – a Unitarian in fact. Very few people know that she was an accomplished pianist (this was evident in the film) who had studied at the Paris Conservatorie under Chopin. Yet in the film also, we are left with the impression that the Darwin family consisted of 5 children when in fact there were ten (not all survived early childhood). Their eldest child – who would have been nearly twenty years of age – didn’t merit a mention.

Annie was the central focus of the film. Annie was, indeed, the apple of Charles’s eye. He adored her. That much is true. The film is based on the book ‘Annie’s Box’ by Randal Keynes (Charles’s great grandson) and I use the term based in loose terms! Annie was born in 1841 and died in 1851 aged nine. The film is set in 1858-59, seven years after Annie’s tragic death. Yet the filmgoer is left firmly with the impression that she is alive in 1858 and dies sometime in 1858/9. This is unforgivable – even granting poetic/dramatic licence. Darwin is portrayed as having ‘given up religion’ while Annie was still alive when it is well documented that he gave up going to church with Emma and the children after the death of Annie. There is also an allusion to some form of steel box which contains the ‘secrets’ that Charles was to unleash on the world – secrets that would lead to the ‘death of God. But this is not Annie’s box, her box was a small personal one, in which she stored precious (to her) items she collected.

Where do I begin to point out the flaws and errors – there were so many. Darwin being ‘urged’ to write his book on evolution – which he apparently names ‘On the Origin of Species’ when he had in fact been writing a very large book on evolution for many years. ‘Origin’ was just an ‘abstract’ of this magnum opus and its full title was conferred not by Darwin but by the publisher John Murray.

At least Alfred Russel Wallace (my personal hero) did get a mention – but only just. It was the receipt of Wallace’s letter by Darwin that prompted Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker to urge Darwin to write Origin, not a visit by Huxley.

Darwin was distraught by the letter he received from Wallace (accurate in the film), but what put pressure on him was not Annie’s health (she was already dead at this point remember) but the health of his newborn son Charles – who did actually die during the period of his receipt of Wallace’s letter – and the fact that children in the village were sick and dying. Just how Emma could be pregnant with Charles junior, at the same time as worrying about Annie’s health, defies biological understanding.

The film makers were determined to make Annie the focus of Darwin’s angst during the writing of ‘Origin’ and deemed this to be the dramatic ‘device’. When you look at the REAL story of how Darwin was almost forestalled and what was happening in his life during June/July of 1858 and through to the publication of ‘Origin’ in 1859 – there was drama enough without having to destroy historical accuracy.

In some ways I’m glad that Creation has not found a major distributor in the USA [Michael: it now has]. People who see this film who know little or nothing about Darwin will learn some trivial facts about him. They will not uncover the true story of  Darwin during this period and will learn little about the events surrounding the discovery of the greatest scientific idea of the 19th, 20th and 21st century – the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Unlike the film ‘Inherit the Wind’, which fictionalised the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, where some details were changed for dramatic effect, yet the main thrust of the events remained relatively intact, Creation will serve only to mis-educate the people who see the film, but never delve any deeper into Darwin the man and the true story behind the development of the theory of evolution.

You may think that I am a pedant, but to me such historical distortion is like shifting the start of the second world war to 1950 for no good reason. This was not ‘whiggish’ or revisionist history it was just a melange of historical events.

If you are presenting a movie as anything approaching historical fact, ate least you should get the facts right!

GUEST POST: Lorie Pierce on Darwin: The Evolution Revolution at ROM in Ontario

This is the first guest post from Lorie Pierce, Gallery Facilitator at the Royal Ontario Museum. Lorie works with the children’s activity center that accompanies the Darwin exhibit, which opened at ROM in March and continues into August 2008. The pictures were taken by her (click them to see larger).
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The Darwin Exhibit – The Evolution Revolution – opened at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto in mid-March…just in time for the largest March Break crowd we have ever had. Attendance is included in the admission price so even those whose original purpose was to visit our outstanding Egyptian, Dinosaur or Asian galleries take time to cycle through the exhibition hall. It takes at least 2 hours if one were to read all the signage and watch all the video clips provided. Plus, one should budget time to study the live animals in the exhibit. In our location we have two Sahara Spur Tortoises, a green iguana and two tree frogs.

I am a Gallery Facilitator located in the Darwin Activity Zone at the end of the exhibit. This places me adjacent to the tortoise enclosure and I have gotten to know Tank and Penelope very well. Although designed to be a children’s activity area, visitors of all ages have been delighting in participating in the various activities.

The zone is set up in three areas to mimic major events in Darwin’s life. The first area is a replica of the deck of the HMS Beagle, complete with steering wheel, compass, telescopes, mast with flag and gold-braided sea captains’ jackets. An image on the wall in front of the ship shows the sea in motion and accompanying sounds of the waves and creaking of the timbers complete the effect. Visitors can learn how to tie standard sailor’s knots on the foredeck.

The second area is the Galapagos Island exploration base camp with a dress-up mirror and costumes ranging from iguana and lady bug to turtle and butterfly. A wall-mounted magnetic board is used to fit together puzzle pieces of 6 of the main animal/birds that Darwin would have seen on the Galapagos. A touch table is staffed to show hands-on artifacts from the ROM museum collection including two Darwin Finches – one of which was collected by Baur in 1891! We also have the skeleton of a seal flipper, a piece of rope lava, a lizard skin and a conch shell. Printed material is available for visitors to read more details on the islands’ flora and fauna. Completing this area is the Camouflage Wall. Visitors can don capes of various colours and textures to ‘blend into’ the 3 backgrounds provided.

The third area represents Darwin’s study back in England. Bugs encased in Lucite resin are available for inspection under a microscope or for sorting into categories, according to their number of legs, on the Bug Sorting Table. A video game for younger children shows the advantages for bugs to be the same colour as their surroundings… the basis for natural selection… as other coloured bugs get eaten around them. There is a colouring table for visitors to draw animals Darwin would have seen on his voyage. This area also has display cases showing the variation in beetles, and of canine skulls showing the evolution of species from the original wolf. The area is complete with viewing of the tortoises and a mounted Galapagos tortoise for comparison which is part of our permanent collection.

Although there are many activities to take part in, many of the visitors just want to talk about the experience of getting to know Darwin and his work in a way they had never known before. I feel very privileged to be part of this exhibit and will miss it when it leaves in early August to head to the UK.

Lorie Pierce
ROM Gallery Facilitator