Science Talk

Darwin Day Special: Bicentennial of the Birth of Charles Darwin

In part 1 of this special Darwin Day podcast, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin on February 12th, Richard Milner performs part of his one-man show about Darwin; Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie and Darwin descendant Matthew Chapman read from The Origin of Species; and Chapman talks about his book 40 Days and 40 Nights, about the Dover intelligent design trial as well as about his efforts to get presidential candidates to discuss science--a project called ScienceDebate

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the week of February 12th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we celebrate Darwin Day. February 12th is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and we'll actually have Darwin on the program. This past week, I attended a Darwin Day event put together by the New York Society for Ethical Culture. We will hear from a number of the presenters who spoke that day in this special three-part podcast. In this first episode, we will begin with an appearance by Darwin himself in the person of historian and evolution expert Richard Milner. We had him on the podcast a few weeks back talking about Darwin. This week, we will share a few minutes of him performing part of his one-man show as Darwin, including a couple of musical numbers. Next up, we'll hear from Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie and author, filmmaker and Darwin great, great grandson Matthew Chapman who will both read brief excerpts from The Origin of Species, and then we will hear an interview I did with Chapman after the event. Parts 2 and 3 of the podcast feature other speakers at the event and will be released over the next couple of days. And now here's Charles Darwin.

(Richard Milner as Charles Darwin)

How nice of you all to come on my birthday. Darwin is the name. Well I was born a naturalist. My father Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, a prosperous physician, did not consider that a marketable attitude. When I was a boy, he told me, "You care for nothing but hunting beetles, bird shooting and rat catching and will bring disgrace upon yourself and the entire family." And so at father's insistence I entered Edinburgh's famous school of medicine when I was 16 years old. How I loved to walk the rugged volcanic cliffs in the Scottish countryside; they were calling me to geologize. But Edinburgh holds dark memories too of medical training in those days before blessed anesthesia, I clearly remember running out of the University's operating theater unable to bear the screams of a stuck down child in surgery. I was a medical student who could not bear the site of blood and thus abruptly ended my medical career. My father next persuaded me to study theology at Cambridge in preparation for a genteel life as a country vicar. My father said you could collect beetles and save souls at the same time. My great invention began in 1831 of course when Captain Robert Fitzroy invited me to join the HMS Beagles' surveying voyage around the world as the ship's naturalist, thus abruptly ending my ecclesiastical career. The Beagle was the beginning of my first real education. I collected thousands of specimens of marine creatures, shells, birds, fishes, plants and rocks for shipment back to England. My initial foray into a Brazilian rainforest made an impression that lasted the rest of my life. I felt like a blind man who was given his sight and was seeing for the first time wonders of the Arabian nights. Delight itself is a weak term to express the delight that a naturalist feels upon first being alone in the Brazilian rainforest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants and the luxuriance of the vegetation filled me with admiration. The delight that one experiences at such times bewilders the mind. If the eye attempts to follow a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by the still stranger flower that it is crawling on. The mind is a chaos of delight. Well Captain Fitzroy's mission was to map the coastline of South America, and I looked at it through the eyes of Charles Lyell because just before I left on the voyage, my teacher gave me a copy of Lyell's Principles of Geology that had just come out and Lyell said that you could explain all the features of the earth, not by the hand of the divine or by some catechisms, but by slow, steady processes observable today on the earth; wind and rain, the erosion, volcanoes, earthquakes, and I saw the volcanoes and earthquakes as we traveled around the world. Captain Fitzroy's mission was to map the coastline of South America, well for the Admiralty an often perilous venture in the tempestuous waters of Tierra del Fuego where our little vessel nearly capsized in a storm at sea. Within two years after returning to England, I married my cousin, Emma Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer's daughter—you know, the Wedgwoods were famous for two things, their piety and their crockery; and her brother who believed in spiritualism, the cracked pottery, as well. Now at our country estate, Down House, I set myself a task of discovering the laws of life. How did the plants and creatures I saw out on my voyage originate? And how did they disperse to the far flung regions of the earth? Well, around 1837, I took up the idea of transmutation or evolution, which my grandfather, Erasmus, had published shortly before I was born. Grandfather believed that species developed gradually over immense periods of time from common ancestors. After many years of experimentation in my garden and greenhouse, I arrived at a mechanism for evolution, which I called natural selection with favorable variations in organisms which tend to be preserved well; the others would be eliminated from the population. Well, before I could write my big species book, a younger naturalist called Alfred Russel Wallace, working alone in the jungles of Malaysia, came up with exactly the same theory. He wrote it down and sent it to me by post. It reached me several weeks later and threw me into a panic. So, all my originality would be smashed. So Wallace would be the first to publish the theory of evolution. Well let him be first then.

(song lyrics)

Let him be first, there'll be no adulation.
Let him be first,
There will be no celebration.
Let him inform the human race that it came down from the trees
And he can tell the bishops they are kin to chimpanzees.
Let him be first. I'll offer no resistance.
Let him be first.
I lent him my assistance.
They'll pain the man who dared deny the stories we were nurtured by.
In every British home, he will be cursed,
Let him, yes, let him be first.
Let him be first, and I will take no action,
Let him be first to play this vague abstraction.
It is nothing but a theory and a dream I could see.
Not a thing a man of any substance will believe.
Let him be first.
Though I've been slowly tempted come to your worst,
It seems I've been preemptive in my bid for immortality.
Has been a lovely joke on me,
I have to watch my pretty bubble burst
Again as heavens be.

(Richard Milner as Charles Darwin)

But Wallace was not first. No! Papers were presented together in 1858 at the Linnaean Society of London, and I rushed to complete The Origin of Species in 13 months, the task that had eluded me for the previous 20 years. When my friend the zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley read The Origin in 1859, it changed his life. He became a prominent champion of evolution. He was bit of an egotist, Huxley, rather flamboyant character; his first comment on reading the book was, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that myself."

(song lyrics)

Of course, of course!
I should have seen it long, long ago.
'Twas adaptive radiation that produced the mighty whale.
His hands are grown to flippers and he has a fishy tail.
Selection's made him streamlined for his liquid habitat.
Why didn't I think of that?
There was an ancient mammal that could hop and leap around.
But with webbing 'twixt his fingers, he could fly right off the ground.
And so this mousy creature evolved into a bat.
Why didn't I think of that?
There are fossils in the ground,
Protozoa in the sea.
All these unrelated facts made a monkey out of me.
But now I see how species were selectively defined.
Oh, how could I have been so much blind?
There was an ancient monkey with a long and curly tail.
This ape evolved into a man, he's teaching now at Yale.
A chimp could pass for upper class in gloves and a cravat.
Why didn't I think of that?
The struggle for survival lies outside the jungle, too.
Just take a look at Parliament,
It's better than a zoo.
We're at each other's throats,
Just like the bulldog and the cat.
But why didn't I
Why didn't I,
Your ideas on evolution will create a revolution,
Why didn't I think of that?

Steve: Next up is Derek Araujo, the vice president of the New York Center for Inquiry to introduce Matthew Chapman and John Rennie.

Araujo: I have the great pleasure and honor of introducing Mathew Chapman and John Rennie, who will read for us two beautifully poetic and graceful selections from Darwin's Origin of Species. Mathew Chapman is the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, from whom he inherited his glorious English accent, but much more than that, he is an acclaimed author, Hollywood screenwriter, director and film producer. Matthew is the author of the books Forty Days and Forty Nights, which gives his first hand account of the 2005 Kitzmiller intelligent design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, and also his first book, Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir, which is a personal memoir centered on a trip to Dayton, Tennessee to witness a reenactment of the Scopes trial. Matthew's produced screenplays include Runaway Jury, starring Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and John Cusack and Color of Night starring Bruce Willis. He has written and directed multiple films including Slow Burn, with Johnny Depp and Hussy starring Helen Mirren. He is currently writing and directing a philosophical thriller, Ledge.

Our second guest reader is John Rennie, the editor in chief of the marvelous magazine Scientific American. John received his bachelor science degree in biology from Yale in 1981 after which he worked for several years in a laboratory at Harvard Medical School before embarking on his career as a science writer. He first joined the staff at Scientific American as a member of the board of editors in 1989 and his writing has appeared elsewhere in The Economist, The New York Times and Longevity. His numerous television and radio appearances include ABC World News Weekend, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Entertainment Tonight, NPR's Science Friday and Fox News. I am very curious, John, to learn who Foxed alongside you to provide the required fairness and balance for their news commentary. Thank you to both of our very special guest readers. We will begin with a reading from Matthew and end with a reading from John.

Chapman: I am very happy to be here. Derek did actually leave off some of that that I'm very proud of that I would like to mention, partly because I'm heard by the old giant, is that I founded an organization called Science Debate 2008 which was an organization which was trying to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on science; and we didn't succeed, we got it on to 14 of our member-synthesized questions. So that's what I have actually been doing more than film directing, I've been trying to get more science discussed in public life. So as man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not natural selection effect? Man can act only on external and visible characters. Nature, if I may be allowed to personify, the natural presentation of survival of the fittest, carries nothing for appearances except and so far as they are useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; nature only for that of the being which she tends; every selective characteristic fully exercised by her as is implied by the fact of their selection. Man keeps the natives of many climates in the same country. He seldom exercises each selected characteristic in some peculiar and fitting manner. He feeds a long- and a short-beaked pigeon on the same food. He does not exercise a long-backed or a long-legged quadruped in any particular manner. He exposes sheep with long and short wool to the same climate. He does not allow the most vigorous males to struggle for the females. He does not rigidly destroy all inferior animals; that protects during each varying season, as far as lies in his power, all his production. He often begins his selection by some half-monstrous form or at least by some modification prominent enough to catch the eye or be plainly useful to him. Under nature the slightest difference of structure or constitution may well turn the nicely balance scale in the struggle for life and so be preserved. How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man? How short his time? And consequently how poor will be his results compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. Can we wonder then that nature's productions should be far true up in character than man's productions that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life and should plainly bear the stamp of a higher workmanship. Thank you.

Rennie: Well, thank you very much. It is a pleasure be here today with so many persons so illustrious and in some cases dead; but most especially, really, with all of you who are here in the crowd and who have taken the time to come here and celebrate not just Charles Darwin but the wonderful ideas of Charles Darwin and that really are a living legacy for all of us. That's, it is stupendous to see the turnout of a crowd like this and let us go forth from this place and spread this good work. But I, as Derek mentioned, I am the editor in chief of a magazine, and as the editor in chief of a magazine, I am accustomed to getting the last word in [a] lot of things, and so it's very appropriate then that Derek has allowed me to read the last words of The Origin of the Species.

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind, it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the creator that the production and extinction of the past and the present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become numbered. Judging from the past, we may safely and further not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distinct futurity. And of the species now living, very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity, for the manner on which all organic beings are grouped shows that the greater number of species in each genus, and or the species in many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct. We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to [foretell] that it will be the common and widely spread species belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken and that no catechisms has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a securer future at great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection. It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank coded with many species of plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the trees, with various insects flitting about and with worms crawling through the damp earth and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other and dependent upon each other in sole complex of manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in a larger sense, being growth with reproduction; inheritance [which is] almost implied by reproduction; variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from the use and disuse, a ratio of increase so high as to lead to a struggle for life and as a consequence to natural selection entailing divergence in character and the extinction of less improved forms. Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.

Thank you.

Steve: After the reading. Chapman and I spoke for a few minutes. He is the author of the book Forty Days and Forty Nights about the Dover intelligent design evolution trial, which recently came out in paperback.

Steve: Forty Days and Forty Nights, you were at the trial. What did you come away from the trial with, what kind of challenges to your preconceptions if any, did you come away with?

Chapman: Well if anything, I mean, what few preconceptions I had about intelligent design was that it was actually better worked out than it turned out to be. It seemed really thin when you examined it. And preconceptions that I had about scientists being dry or humorless or unable to communicate; I found that, in fact, there was some people there who did quite an incredible job of communicating really relatively complicated scientific details to a judge who knew nothing about science. And so I was very impressed with that and that was one of the things that stimulated me later on then.

Steve: One of the great things about the judge was just how eager he seemed to be about learning all this material.

Chapman: Yeah, and the thing about evolution that I find interesting is on one level it is extremely simple; it makes total sense: I mean, the strong survive and the weak die away, then obviously the strong, any adaptation, you know, it's all very simple. And then you get down [to] the detail and then it gets complicated, and I felt actually the intelligent design was trying to sort of like sniggle into some sort of complicated areas where no one would understand what they were saying and come out of it with some sort of a theory that did not make any sense.

Steve: The bacterial flagellum.

Chapman: Yeah, the famous bacterial flagellum.

Steve: Tell me your perspective. I was shocked. I had never really sat through any kind of trial before; I have seen some real trials on TV, but I have never been [to] one in person, and I was really taken aback at how ill-prepared the defense attorney seemed to be when confronted with an expert witness of the caliber of Ken Miller.

Chapman: That was very odd. They were ill-prepared, they were arrogant, they were extremely rude a lot of the time and some of them were very sweet, and I got along very well with Michael Behe, he and I had a couple of laughs; but it is really to me, I mean you can't say this about the lawyers, because the lawyers were clearly scientifically illiterate religious fundamentalists, but the scientists I found, who were the intelligent design scientists, were to me kind of almost tragic rather than villainous. There was something sad about watching Behe, who has a serious scientific education and who has written on some things, perfectly reasonable and published papers that make sense, going up this kind of completely ludicrous path for reasons that he can't admit, that religious motivation, are but I just found it very sad, actually. I was I found it pitiable. I mean that genuinely; I don't mean it in a condescending way.

Steve: He was forced to testify that under his definitions, astrology would have to be considered a science.

Chapman: Yeah, he was really wriggling on the hook, and I don't know, I mean think, I've run into, I mean, I have traveled around America a lot and I love actually going into the middle bit where regular people live and, you know, I have met people like that before here and there; and you have to conclude that really what it's about is that without faith, these people couldn't survive and therefore given our choice between faith and evidence, it doesn't matter what the evidence is; you have to chose the faith in order to survive. And that is sort of understandable and, you know, one can sympathize with that. It's not attractive, but you can sympathize with it, so I don't have the same kind of anger or hatred towards them. I just think it's a little sad.

Steve: That relates to something else I wanted to ask you. I heard you being interviewed, and you referred to the fact that this is related to your first book or your previous book, that you had gone back to Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the Scopes Trial some 80 years after the trial, and I believe you said something like, to see if things were different and they weren't; there had been absolutely no cultural evolution as far as you could see. What did you actually confront when you got there?

Chapman: Well, I mean, I think the thing was that not only had it not evolved, but then if you read the accounts of the Scopes Trial in 1925, and you read about the local preachers and the hellfire and brimstone and all that stuff. It's very colorful but it doesn't have the—it seemed to me, it didn't have the kind of vicious homophobic qualities that you get in the modern fundamentalists down there.

Steve: Yeah, the Scopes Trial was sort of a county fair in a lot of ways.

Chapman: It very much was, yeah. And people had a lot of fun with it, I mean, there was [a] milkshakes called the monkey milkshake and there was all kinds of, it was fun. I mean it was a fantastic trial. It was the first trial to be broadcast live to America, to Australia, to bits of Europe. There was a special airstrip that was put down there for planes to come in with the film. They took it very seriously in 1925, the idea that there would be a fight about evolution versus (unclear 30:03), it was kind of shocking and it was a big event. So when you get to Kitzmiller, the Dover [trial], which is what I covered in Pennsylvania, 85 years later or 90 years later, and you saw there was some coverage but no one was actually that shocked. So I mean things have gotten, in a way, worse. There is more tolerance for this kind of ludicrousness and less outrage. George Bernard Shaw commented on the Scopes Trial. He said, "What they called fundamentalism, I call infantilism."

Steve: Yeah, that was shocking to me at the Kitzmiller trial. I was looking for the mobs, I was looking for the protests, I was looking for the satellite trucks from all the television outlets, and there was nothing.

Chapman: No, and it was an amazing trial. I love the judge; he is a friend of mine. I think the only mistake he made was not having it televised; it should have been televised because it was an education. You watch these evolutionary scientists talking about science. You got an education. By the end of that trial you understood what evolution was, and it was a shame it was not recorded.

Steve: Fortunately, Nova did an excellent job with their 2-hour documentary on it, which is available at the PBS Web site I believe. You can just stream that for free anytime you want to.

Chapman: Yeah, and that's a good piece of work and what it did for me—to go on to continue that thought about the way in which it was an education—is what I saw was that it was possible for a complicated scientific subject to be discussed in front of a lay audience, not be patronizing to the lay audience, get across a lot of information and excite people because the local people were meeting outside the court and they were saying, "Well did you hear the things about the bacterial flagellum?" and, "Did you hear the thing about how many years it took for these things to evolve?" This is kind of amazing. They got excited. So that when the presidential election came up and I noticed that the presidential candidates were not being asked questions about science in the debate, I, along with five friends of mine, started this thing Science Debate 2008. A lot of the impetus of that was that I realized that the presidential candidates were afraid of science, but that they didn't really need to be, because in fact you could talk about science in an intelligent way and it didn't need to be detached from real life. It didn't have to be an academic pursuit that no one connected with. There are so many problems that involve science, you could start from the top down and discuss them in terms of policy and money and attitude; and so the two were very connected to me.

Steve: And you did try to get the candidates for president to engage in this debate that would just be about science, and that ultimately didn't succeed. [Are] you planning to try to do it again for 2012?

Chapman: Well absolutely, and I mean it did not succeed in all kinds of interesting ways I think. It did not succeed in the sense that we could not get mainstream media to cover us at first. We were sort of celebrated by the blogosphere, and they were very helpful and we got 40,000 members in two months and all of that. It was not successful in the sense that the candidates did not agree to it. But the way in which it was not successful that is most disturbing, really, is that we eventually asked the candidates. We synthesized all of the questions that we got from our 40,000 members, what they wanted to hear the presidential candidates talk about, and we end[ed] up with 14 questions on science and technology. We sent these questions to the candidates and they answered them, Obama and McCain in great detail. They wrote their science agendas, their basic sketch of their science agenda [in a] way they had never done before. This was available and it was well publicized, and by that time we [started] to get a lot of publicity. These questions and answers were well publicized. When the official presidential debates came along, the ones that are done by the presidential commission on debates, and there are four of them, maybe three presidential one and one vice presidential …

Steve: Right, right …

Chapman: … they had access to these 14 questions, which are the most important questions in life. What do we do about climate change? What do we do about the health of the oceans, stem cell research? Etc., etc., etc. None of those reporters who were running those debates and none of the producers and none of the debate moderators used what we had dug up for them, which could have been the basis for one question at least. So there is some sort of a strange gulf between science and politics. Even though in reality there is no gulf, there is a huge connection and that [is] something we are looking into and pursuing. You know, we consider ourselves successful, but I am stimulated to go on and—as is everybody else—and really make it work the next time we get a debate.

Steve: Well, that's it for part 1. Check back in on February 12th for part 2 of our Darwin Day special podcast.

Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes

In part 1 of this special Darwin Day podcast, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin on February 12th, Richard Milner performs part of his one-man show about Darwin; Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie and Darwin descendant Matthew Chapman read from The Origin of Species; and Chapman talks about his book 40 Days and 40 Nights, about the Dover intelligent design trial as well as about his efforts to get presidential candidates to discuss science—a project called ScienceDebate.

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