This article is from the In-Depth Report Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Darwin
Science Talk

Darwin: Ghostbuster, Muse and Magistrate

Darwin historian Richard Milner shares some of the lesser known aspects of Darwin's life. And Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer talks about the stock market, religion and other belief systems. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include;

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the week of January 22nd 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we'll talk with our resident professional skeptic Michael Shermer about many of his books and about religion and science and we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. But first up Richard Milner. He is a Darwin scholar and the author of Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z. Milner was in the audience at a recent science and religion public conversation hosted by Mike Shermer and I wound up talking to them both afterwards. Here's Richard Milner.


Milner: I just edited a special issue of the journal of the Linnaean Society of London. It is the 150th anniversary of the presentation of the Darwin–Wallace paper at the Linnaean Society.

Steve: In 1858, the joint publication.

Milner: That's right. Sometimes referred to by historians as the great nonevent of 1858, since neither Darwin nor Wallace was there and since nobody seemed very interested or excited, and of course it's well known that at the end of the year, the president of the Linnaean in his summary of the year's events said, "It has been kind of a dull year; there has been no earth-shattering, new theories or anything to shake up biology this year."

Steve: It just goes to show everybody, you don't necessarily know when you are living through a major historic moment.

Milner: No, you don't, and that kind of amuses me. I shouldn't use that word—intrigues me. There are people who are constantly engaged in trying to make a paradigm shift. There is sort of a need for academic one-upmanship. Every generation feels it has to be, each person feels they have to be Darwin and that story about the nonevent of 1858 just goes to show that when you're in the middle of the paradigm shift, you won't know it and you won't necessarily do it consciously.

Steve: Right, there are bigger forces that work than just yourself.

Milner: Yeah, yeah. In that issue of the Linnaean journal, I also have an article of my own edition, once I added to, called "Charles Darwin: Ghostbuster, Muse and Magistrate".

Steve: Please explain all three specifically related to the piece ghostbuster.

Milner: Darwin conducted a very serious and secret war against the spiritualists of his day.

Steve: Now, Wallace was a spiritualist.

Milner: Wallace was a spiritualist. One of Huxley's students, a man called Ray Lancaster, a young biologist [who] later became the head of the British Museum of Natural History, attended a séance of a psychic, and the psychic claimed that his wife, his dead wife, wrote answers to questions on slates in the dark. He pulled one of the slates up and said, "The answer is written before I have asked the question, you're a fraud and impostor, I am going to prosecute you." Well, he did this to grandstand for his mentors Darwin and Huxley, who hated spiritualists. They always tried to pull him into séances and Huxley too, because here you have a major shift of the 19th century as traditional religion is dying, people want to believe in the afterlife. They want to have hopes, so they want to bring the old religion in the back door. No longer are there prayer sessions; they are going to be experiments. Séances are going to be demonstrations of paranormal forces. Spirit mediums are going to talk to the beyond as if they can bring messages, as one person said, from the postal office to deliver messages from the other side. Today we call them channelers and give them their own national television shows. In Darwin's days, they were thrown in jail if possible and that's what Lancaster tried to do. And as this story unfolded to me, I made the discovery that Darwin secretly contributed money to the cost of the prosecution, and Alfred Russel Wallace, his friendly arch rival and co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection was the star witness for the defense, thus putting the two greatest naturalists of the 19th century at opposite sides when the supernatural went on trial.

Steve: That was [an] amazing story.

Milner: If you look in Scientific American in 1996, you'll see "Charles Darwin and Associates: Ghostbusters", and I published in that issue the actual slates with the chalk writing still on it, which I found. In fact the funny story that I tell that has to do with those slates, because the editors at that time said, "Well Richard, we like the story and the detective work of it, but we need it illustrated with some artifacts, and I really didn't have anything; and I found in the American Psychic Society here in New York that they had one of the slates with the chalk writing still on it, and I thought, " [I've] got to come back with a photograph [of] this." While [When] I came back a few months later, there was a new curator. The slate was gone, they couldn't find it. They said, "We've no record of it." I said, "What do you mean, you can't find it? You're the psychic society."

Steve: Really. Just think about it, you should be able to know where it is.

Milner: Well, I found another one in England at the Darwin Library contributed, in an uncatalogued bunch of stuff, those contributed by the London Psychic Society, and of course this led me into... (laughs)

Steve: I'm still laughing at that "we can't find it." (laughs)

Milner: Yeah, well, you know, I tried to make the history of science entertaining, that's really what I do.

Steve: So, we had ghostbusters, then muse.

Milner: How was Darwin the muse? Well this is a little convoluted story and I have published parts of it elsewhere. Charles Darwin had only one student and protégé.

Steve: Huxley.

Milner: No, Huxley was his friend and his bulldog and his champion, but there was a young boy who lived in a mansion next door to Darwin's house. His name was John Lubbock. His father was a famous banker. He owned half the countryside. Darwin became mentor to young John Lubbock, taught him how to use the microscope, taught him about fossils. The young boy grew up interested in all the things Darwin was interested in, studied barnacles with Darwin, found the first musk ox fossils in England right on his own property, got interested in stone tools and became in fact the premiere prehistorian. He wrote in 1865 a book called Prehistoric Times, which is the founding document of prehistoric archaeology. John Lubbock commissioned a series of paintings which had been locked away for a 150 years and I discovered them in a store room of a museum in England, and I must say, I was led to the discovery by my friend Randall Keynes who knows where all the Darwinian things are.

Steve: Oh that's Darwin's great-grandson.

Milner: Yeah, great-great-grandson.

Steve: Great-great-grandson.

Milner: And a great historian and a writer in his own right, but I think historians of science like myself probably shouldn't say that we make discoveries. What happens is that when we hang out in archives long enough and we hang out with scholars long enough, and people like what we do, they say, they take you by the hand and they take something off the wall and they say, "Discover this." (laughs) And so I was led to these paintings. There were 18 paintings of prehistoric scenes that were inspired by Darwin's view of prehistory. You have to understand that prior to The Origin of Species, when people tried to paint scenes to illustrate the early childhood of mankind, it was always Adam and Eve. Even when they started drawing cave people, it was Adam and Eve in loin cloths, out of the garden and into the ice. Lubbock tried to take the finds that were coming up, the stone spearheads found among bison and mammoth skeletons and so on, and he commissioned an artist to do a bison hunt and a mammoth hunt and so on, village scenes. They were never published in Lubbock's books or Darwin's books, they just sat in this museum. And so I wanted to see them, and I wrote them up because I was writing a history of paleo art. This is what we call paleo art, the collaboration of a scientist and a fine artist to produce a view of a lost world at prehistory. I wrote a chapter in the book The Last Human, with illustrations by Victor Deak, in which I published some of these paintings for the first time. Well, one of the paintings there, the curator said, "We have no idea what this is, it doesn't make any sense to us. It is a triptych, three panels of a coral reef, a coral lagoon island, which is called an atoll. What was it doing in there?" And there was a little tiny ship up on the horizon and I thought, "Oh! My gosh!"

Steve: It's the Beagle.

Milner: It's the Beagle, and it's the coral reef and it was done in 1871 and that was the 40th anniversary of when Darwin went to visit the coral reefs, and his book on The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs came out in 1842, I believe.

Steve: Darwin was the first person to correctly explain how coral reefs come into existence.

Milner: Exactly right. And there was a wonderful book on this topic I found, called the Reef Madness. Not reefer madness, Reef Madness.

Steve: That just came out within the last few years.

Milner: David Dobbs, yeah. I have been in touch with him and he has helped me with the coral reef stuff. So the second part of my article for the Linnaean has to do with how Darwin inspired this coral reef painting and how this coral reef painting led me into the whole wonderful story of Darwin's coral reefs. Because here you have a tale of Darwin going out on the Beagle, seeing wonders in the South Seas, coming up with a theory, working on it, going home to England, publishing his theory. The theory was contentious. It was fought all through the 19th century. And when I explained that to people they say, "Oh you mean, the theory of evolution," but no.

Steve: But no.

Milner: His first scientific book, The Theory of [Structure and Distribution] of Coral Reefs, and I'm publishing this particular story of the coral reef painting in Natural History magazine in February. It's called "Seeing Corals with the Eye of Reason," because Darwin had made this wonderful quote in his notebook where he said "These wondrous things, these coral reefs. People have wondered about the pyramids and the giant productions of man, but here you have these tiny little polyps creating these gigantic structures and they are amazing to the eye, but even more amazing to the eye of reason, to try to figure out how they got there." The third part of my article, Darwin as a magistrate. He had a part-time career as a judge, and I first heard of it years ago when I was very intrigued, and I started to try to track down his cases in the Bromley courthouse. They were gone, probably records destroyed in the blitz of World War II. A judge who sat there said, "Look, his name is upon the roster of previous justices" and I can't find any of his cases and I kept at it and I found newspaper counts of the court cases and where Darwin sat as a magistrate and it gave me a snapshot of what was going on in the countryside at that time: game poaching, furious driving of horse and cart, drunken brawl' in the local pub, gave me a very interesting and sometimes amusing picture.

Steve: So Darwin has been hearing cases about speeding tickets.

Milner: Yeah, in fact a statement was made in that case, which, it doesn't say who made it, but it sounds like Darwin to me, because he had a special feeling for horses.

Steve: There is grandeur in this view of speed limits.

Milner: Here's what he said; I don't know if he said it but somebody said or attributed that "If the little, fat beast could be examined in the matter, he loved to return to his stall and have a good feed and always rushed going home, and it's the horse rather than the driver that was responsible for the speeding." Darwin more than once, he got very upset about animal abuse. He saw a man whipping his horse on the road, he got out [of] his carriage, he said to the man, "Look, I am a magistrate. if I ever see you whipping an animal again, you're going to jail." So that's Darwin as ghostbuster, muse and magistrate and that will be in the Linnaean journal in January.

Steve: Right.

Milner: Oh! What I had wanted to do for several years was to get a picture of that roster up on the courthouse wall, with Darwin's name and all the other magistrates and just before the issue went to bed, somebody from the Linnaean society very kindly went over to Bromley and photographed that. It's the first time it has been photographed and the first time it has been published, so that's in there. Again Randall Keynes was intrigued by my writing on the magistrate. He has picked it up. We joined forces and Keynes and I, after the bicentennial year, where [when] things calmed down a bit, are going to publish a joint paper of our findings of Darwin as a magistrate.

Steve: Richard Milner's article on Darwin and Coral Reefs is the cover story for the February issue of Natural History magazine. Milner performs a one-man musical about Darwin. To see a clip of Milner as Darwin go to Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the executive director of the Skeptic Society, and every month he writes the Skeptic column for Scientific American. As you can see, he is skeptical. He is based on the West Coast, and even though we've been working together for years, we met face to face for the first time when he hosted a conversation on religion and science here in New York City in November. We chatted briefly afterwards.

Steve: Michael, nice to finally meet you.

Shermer: Yeah, it's great to catch up [with] you here in New York.

Steve: Which of your books is coming out in paperback now?

Shermer: So the Mind of the Market comes out in January, and you know I wrote that before the financial collapse, so I am hoping that people will be interested in the psychology of markets and how irrational people are when it comes to investing now, because you can clearly see it in the meltdown.

Steve: Is there anything in the book that the meltdown just proves [disproves] that you had to modify?

Shermer: Well, I think the key thing here is risk aversion. In the behavioral economics research that I integrate in the book with other neuro stuff is that people are naturally risk averse. That is, if you give somebody a 50‚Äì50 gamble to make an investment in something for the person to make, on average, people have to feel that the payoff is twice what the potential loss could be. That is, losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good. So the question is, why were all these loan officers giving these high-risk loans when, you know, they should have been highly risk averse? Why were these loan officer bosses doing this? Why were the banks doing these? And the answer is because of the derivatives in all these new financial tools that were invented in the '90s, and so there was a private function there. And then also the government—the emphasis by the Clinton administration for an ownership society and that Fanny and Freddy should be getting more loans to a higher risk people so that ownership then imbues greater prosperity in life and so on. So it's a dual function there where you take the risk signals away, like higher interest rates on those high risk loans, those were reduced and the person giving the loan is no longer responsible for it. He is not going to feel the pain if the loan does not get fulfilled.

Steve: And the derivatives remove that feeling of risk because it's invisible.

Shermer: Oh, it's invisible. I mean do you understand the derivatives? Does anybody understand the derivatives?

Steve: I did in calculus a long time ago, but in economics....

Shermer: I know, so who's actually responsible for this? And its gets pushed off in so many directions and nobody feels the risk of giving those loans, and that's the problem.

Steve: But didn't we see derivatives drive, what was it, the Barclays or the Bank of England, I forget about 10 years ago?

Shermer: Yes, right.

Steve: Drive them completely out of business?

Shermer: Yes, but this is America, we don't go for that.

Steve: So in other words, we didn't learn from it.

Shermer: Yeah, we didn't learn from it though.

Steve: And why did you write the market book, because we usually associate you with, obviously, skepticism and evolution.

Shermer: Yeah, well I am trying to push myself in actually new areas and not just be the paranormal guy, the UFO or alien guy. And in fact it's all the same phenomena. We are just studying belief systems. What people believe about aliens or people believe about religion or people believe about economics or politics, its all beliefs. So to me the psychology of beliefs applies to any particular area, and so, for example, the confirmation bias, where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore disconfirmatory evidence. That's true for liberals and conservatives. Conservatives read The Wall Street Journals, they listen to Rush Limbaugh, they listen to all the talk radio and so on and they filter through all the little arguments and facts that seem to fit it. Liberals read The New York Times or whatever, CNN, they read the liberal blogs and they listen to progressive talk radio and they filter it in; everybody does this. No different than psychics and astrologers, you know, it's the same application of principles of belief to all areas.

Steve: You know, I think my favorite book of your books is Why Darwin Matters, so why don't we spend just, you know, give me [a] one paragraph synopsis: Why does Darwin matter?

Shermer: Darwin matters because he gave us the single theory to explain basically who we are, where we came from and where we are going. It is our story, our myth, our tale of origins and meaning, and so to that extent it's a mythology of sorts, but it's a scientific story which means that it has the added advantage of actually being testable and maybe even true. And so since we live in the age of science, Darwin matters because evolution matters and evolution matters because science matters and science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age.

Steve: Four other of your books are being repackaged.

Shermer: Yeah, so Times Books has repackaged all my books. So there are similar covers, because I saw a Steve Gould's and so I thought, "That is cool". And in a way my four books, are my belief Trilogy I call them; "Blame for the belief trilogy" says Douglas Adams, right? But in a way, back to your previous question, I mean, I'm really just trying to tie together certain psychological principles of belief and how belief systems are formed, whether you're talking about science and pseudoscience, which is what why people believe things about or science and religion, which is what [about] how we believe is about; or science and morality, which is what science and good and evil is about; or science and markets and economics, which is mind and the market. So in a way, there is a thread that really does run throughout all those, it's not just a marketing gimmick. There is actual [actually], I hope, a thread through there.

Steve: Is it not incumbent upon science to try to explain religion as an anthropological phenomenon, as a Darwinian psychological phenomenon? Whether or not religion is true or a supernatural being is true, doesn't science have to say whether that's true or not, we can't know that, so therefore we must analyze as if its just a psychological phenomenon?

Shermer: Yeah, it makes people nervous when you do that. I'll tell you, it's interesting. You can do that for, say, liberals and conservatives. You can say conservatives are more minded, liberals are more tender minded, it's something like that and that doesn't seem to make people too upset, it's like political scientists and sociologists, they study that and nobody makes a big fuss about it. But if you [do an] anthropological or sociological study on why people believe in God or why some people are Catholics or some people are Hindus, that seems to make people feel like, well wait a minute, no, you see, I actually believe because it's really true, not because of some psychological, social or anthropological thing, no no, it's actually really true; whereas we seem to recognize in, say, political attitudes, you know, that I have this attitude about progressive taxes or flat taxes or whatever, yeah, because I think it's about a way for people to live, I'm not claiming it's absolutely true in some scientific sense. So for some reason, religion is treated differently than all other beliefs, and that's what makes people nervous about it.

Steve: But doesn't science nevertheless have to treat it that way, because that's what science does?

Shermer: Right. Science actually wants to know what's real and I guess that's why people are threatened by it. If a scientist says look, I can show why you believe in God and why you happen to pick this particular religion, that's a pretty much of kind of fore frontal statement that, you know, it isn't actually true; I'm sorry, you know, because of these...

Steve: Because in our belief system we can't know whether it's true or not, so we have to assume that it is just a material phenomenon.

Shermer: Right.

Steve: Therefore from that point of view, here's our analysis.

Shermer: Right.

Steve: While at the same time, we acknowledge it all might be, like the judge in the Dover trial, so this might all be true, but that's not the issue that we're deciding on.

Shermer: That's right. Yeah. I think in many parts of Europe, its perfectly okay to do that kind of analysis, because they are not making any absolute claims about truth, truth claims about their religion. They are more willing to say something like, it's psychologically true or it's true for me, or this is what works best for our culture, my group. Americans are more obsessed with this, sort of, absolutism; it has to be absolutely true, ontologically true, really true, not just psychologically true. So you psychologists that are trying to say, you know the psychology behind it, "Wait no, no, no, no, we're beyond that," and that's what makes them nervous.

Steve: Michael Shermer's Web site [is] His column in our February issue is called "A Skeptic's Take on the Public Misunderstanding of Darwin". It's available free on our Web site. I hope somebody reads it to Ben Stein.


Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: A simple checklist for use in surgery reduces deaths and complications by more than a third.

Story number 2: This year astronomers are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo training [a]in telescope on the heavens, but Englishman Thomas Harriot, actually drew the first pictures of the moon as seen through a 'scope a few months before Galileo did.

Story number 3: Drinking too much coffee they [may] induce auditory hallucinations; you really did hear me say that.

And story number 4: The passengers on US Airways flight 1549, all of whom survived the ditch into the Hudson last week, will likely experience posttraumatic stress for the rest of their lives.

Time is up.

Story [number] 1 is true. A simple checklist, like the one a pilot goes through before takeoff, when used in surgery, reduces deaths and complications by at least a third; that's according to a study that appeared online in the New England Journal of Medicine on January 14th. It will be published in the January 29th print edition. One of the study authors is surgeon Atul Gawande. He discussed this research in its early stages on the April 18th, 2007 episode of this podcast.

Story [number] 2 is true. Thomas Harriot's drawings of the moon as seen through a telescope predate Galileo just by a few months. That's the finding of Oxford historian, Allen Chapman. His research will appear in an upcoming issue of Astronomy & Geophysics, the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

And story [number] 3 is true. We think too much java can take you past jitters to delusions that you hear. College students who drank at least seven cups of coffee per day sometimes heard voices. The researchers who published their finding in the journal Personality and Individual Differences did note that the students might have had psychological disorders going in, which also lead them to drink so much coffee. My own experience with coffee and hallucinations goes back to college when I stayed up all night studying with the help of coffee and then saw and heard things. So perhaps it was the sleep depravation. I know this much: The answers that my apparitions whispered to me as I took the exam were all wrong. For more, check out Jordan Lite's January 15th blog item called, "Coffee induces hallucinations, caffeinated co-eds hear voices, study says".

All of which means that story [number] 4, about the survivors—which fortunately was everybody on Flight 1549—experiencing posttraumatic stress for the rest of their lives, is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because a recent study on plane crash survivors found that they're actually in better mental health than the rest of us in the long run. Researcher Gary Capobianco of Old Dominion University presented those findings last summer at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The perception of their level of control was a key factor for the passengers. And those on flight 1549 appeared to know what was going on and were able to get themselves off the plane very quickly. So their long-term prognosis would appear to be very good. For more, check out the January 20th episode of the weekly SciAm Mind podcast, 60-Second Psych.

Well, that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out for the latest science news blogs and slide shows. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us. Here's Richard Milner as Charles Darwin:

(Richard Milner song)

"Yet I get no repose and I can't even doze without dreaming I'm back on the Beagle.
We're rounding the Horn in a furious storm and our progress is measured in inches.
Then we're rolling around 'til the crew's almost drowned and they scatter like terrified finches.
Fitzroy's in a mood and he's coming unglued and cannot say where our next port is.
I fear he's unwell for he's sprouted a shell and turns into a monstrous tortoise."

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

Darwin historian Richard Milner shares some of the lesser known aspects of Darwin's life. And Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer talks about the stock market, religion and other belief systems. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include;


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