My letter to Charles Darwin on his birthday

In 2009, shortly after WEIT came out, I was asked by the BBC to write a letter to Charles Darwin and read it on the air. The letter was supposed to convey my sentiments to the old chap and bring him up to date on what had happened to evolutionary biology since he became food for his beloved earthworms. That letter later appeared on the Oxford University Press blog, which has given The New Republic permission to reprint it today.

If you want to read it, and what I thought important to tell the deceased sage, go to the New Republic‘s column:, “It’s Charles Darwin’s 205th birthday and people still don’t accept evolution: A letter to the man behind the theory.”  I’ll just give you the first paragraph:

My Dear Mr. Darwin,

Happy 200th birthday! I hope you are as well as can expected for someone who has been dead for nearly 130 years. I suppose that your final book, the one about earthworms, has a special significance for you these days. Are the worms of Westminster Abbey superior to the ones you studied so carefully in the grounds of your home at Downe in Kent? They’ve certainly mulched some distinguished people over the years!

There’s a lot more.

22 Comments

  1. Posted February 12, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Darwin Day could give us an opportunity to address the one fiery question : « Could there be a new Darwin today, who’s work overturns much of what has been assumed to be hard and fast contemporary knowledge ? » And the answer, today, is a resounding, “No!” The combined efforts of British and North American universities would be implacably against any such revelatory exegeses. They universally believe, just as theologians in 1859 believed, that they have ‘truth’ all sewn-up; and so, today, share a similar ‘grand delusion’ courtesy of academic philosophy and the Social Sciences.

    Dr Dawkins extended the idea of atheism to what we might call ‘Big Atheism’, to cover all kinds of nonsense such as astrology and Ufology. But I propose that we extend atheism further, and maybe call it ‘Big Blue Atheism’ to cover all areas of pseudo-science such as the academic Social Sciences.

    The bad boys of contemporary academic Social Science enjoy a similar delusion as that of 1859 that they are close to a universal explanation for everything, when, in fact, they have got it all wrong. Again! They have failed to grasp that society is not homogeneous; that there are a number of common and distinguishable Brain Operating Systems extent in any human society anywhere, and that academic beliefs based upon the Social Sciences are representative on one untypical brain system, best called The Drone System which is prominent in the ‘Clerical-Admin-Professional-Educational’ spectrum.

    In that respect the academic Social Sciences are parallel to religion, as they start with a number of false assumptions concerning the nature of reality, – embedded during adolescence, – which serves as an interpretive mechanism. In religion it is the false assumption that we live in an intentional universe. In the Social Sciences, it is the false assumption that social scientists are free of the normal cerebral frailties, and that the human brain is a reliable applier of logic to external observations. The reality is that the human brain is dedicated to making-up ‘solution-ideology’. And it does this by the application of trickery, such as restricting external stimuli to that which fits into the ideology. You can best see that brilliantly when the religious are unable to process any experiential information that runs contrary to their beliefs.

    And so they, the Social Scientists, work, year after year, on pursuing the logical possibilities of their false beliefs, just as religion did for millennia, teasing-out ideas and explanations, all based upon the peculiarities of their culture and their times. For example, psychology is France is utterly different to psychology in California. In Cal it is believed to be a science based upon lab experiment; in France it is thought-of as an art, based upon the intuition and special intellectual insights of its practitioners. But both kinds of psychologists exhibit a kind of comical self-importance.

    I have studied the subject of Human Sub-Set Theory, continent to continent, and culture to culture throughout the world, and have assembled a mass of evidence concerning the false assumptions behind religion and the Social Sciences. And it seems that science in not coming to our rescue. It has lost its curiosity, and has found solace in theoretical physics rather than the study of the human condition. Neuroscience today, could go either way and endorse contemporary Social Sciences, or come to realise that those practitioners of the Social Sciences, like the religious before them, share glaring faults in their assumptions concerning the nature of reality. And therefore we are at another sad end of human intellectual progress whereby, once more, widespread human delusion has brought intellectual progress outside the sciences, to a halt.

    If I were a social scientist I would be hot to talk with dissenters to further the progress of my subject. That is the scientific way. All great ideas start as blasphemy. You have all enjoyed reading the diatribes of Ingersoll against religion in the 1870s, and understanding the courage it takes to shout at the parade that the emperor has no clothes? Now it is all your turns. Are you going along with contemporary clap-trap, or are you going to be on the right side of history, and question the more dodgy faculties of academia?

    It is not as if you have anything to lose. There is a great wealth of fresh understanding waiting to replace the tired old Social Sciences, gleaned, not from book-lined studies, but from observations on the world, of people, and of its objects and its processes. Surely you must suspect this?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      I tuned out at the guff about “Social Science”. Not something I’m interested in wasting my time on.

      « Could there be a new Darwin today, who’s work overturns much of what has been assumed to be hard and fast contemporary knowledge ? » And the answer, today, is a resounding, “No!”

      Bull-derdash! The scenario you propose isn’t impossible, but the claimant would have to successfully challenge or re-interpret a LOT of established, tested evidence. And it does happen, just not very often.
      One of the more recent examples is in my own field – geology – in the form of the “Plate Tectonics Revolution” of the ’60s and early ’70s. That’s within my personal memory (just), and large parts of it can be laid at a few (3 or 4) papers by about 3 or 4 authors, some of whom are still publishing.
      I suspect that Mr Rumens doesn’t have a hands-on knowledge of how science works. Social science, or the physical sciences.
      Though I don’t have any personal time for the “Social” sciences, I do recognise them as being sciences. With their challenges of evidence quality, measurement … lots of challenges. But that in itself doesn’t invalidate the subject.

      • Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Gravelinspector-Aiden

        Thanks for your thoughts which serve to widen the discussion. You have, however, invoked the ‘Courtier’s Reply’ to my charge that the Social Sciences are wearing no clothes. That distraction is to suggest that I have no experience of that which concerns me. I did do seven years in a science lab, and used to lecture on my own speciality. And I attended three major universities in chasing down some sense in the Social Sciences; one of which was Oxford, and occasionally lectured on aspects of it.

        Your thought that revolutions in thinking are rare seems not to accord with my own experience. In the sixties we were served large books of Freud and on Talcott Parsons; books that we should be ashamed to be seen holding these days.

        My speciality for the past few years has been The History of Ideas, and that is a shocker. It is mostly a history of shame. If you haven’t done so, read-up on the Four Humours Theory (4HT) of bodily function, and of leeching. Over two and a half millennia of 4HT fell to germ theory. Outside the sciences, revolutions come regularly, and most subjects have a half life of about 40 years. News in from all manner of subjects supports that observation.

        “… A distinguished British astronomer, Sir Bernard Lovell, (1913-2012) in about the year 2000, looking back at his long career, mentioned, with some puzzlement, that so very much of his best work, done some fifty years before, had largely been found to be redundant….”

        Another example, Donald Hebb estimated (at one time) the half-life of psychology to be five years.
        (The half-life of knowledge differs from the concept of half-life in physics in that there is no guarantee that the truth of knowledge in a particular area of study is declining exponentially. In addition, knowledge can not be quantified and falsification of a doctrine is hardly comparable to exponential decay process that atomic nuclei go through)
        References
        Machlup, F. (1962). Knowledge production and distribution in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University press.
        From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

        (Donald Olding Hebb FRS (1904 – 1985) was a Canadian psychologist who was influential in the area of neuropsychology, where he sought to understand how the function of neurons contributed to psychological processes such as learning. He has been described as the father of neuropsychology and neural networks)

        There area couple of professions which lend some of their their practitioners to false ideologies; one being geology. Think of the eminent geologists who was Darwin’s tutor at Cambridge, who professed to having burst his sides laughing at ‘Origins…’ Think of Darwin’s geology Tutor at Cambridge, Sedgwick, who wrote…

        “ If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I should not tell you that… I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore;….”

        I feel that it is possible, gravelinspector, and since you may have not studied the subject, there are many and continuous revolutions in subjects around you to which you may not be aware.

        Finally your point on having to overturn a lot of established, tested evidence (in the Social Sciences) That is quite the point. The supposed core ideas of the Social Sciences are ever changing, and are held in the same way as theological ‘truths’ are held, against so much evidence. My understanding is that the Social Sciences originated as early false convictions, and are maintained against evidence, and in this, they parallel the religions.

        • Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          Mr. Rumens, I ask you to refrain from making such long comments, and to try to stick to the topic, okay? Your tirade about the social sciences does not belong here.

  2. Posted February 12, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Blowflies, flesh flies, carnivorous beetles, cheese skippers, and megadriles.

    Decomposition and its discontents.

  3. Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Bravo. I had often thought about who I would most like to meet. I am sure there would be a long line for Darwin, so I would pick Mendel. I would show him a stack of biology textbooks, open the books to the chapter on genetics, and show him his picture in every book.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, and I’d pick Louis Pasteur and show him the same. But he’d probably have expected it.

  4. eric
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    From the letter:

    You described correctly how a single species changes through time, but you came a cropper trying to explain how one species splits into two.

    “Came a cropper” ????

    • Richard Olson
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      Whenever I’ve encountered this idiom in UK lit/movies, I’ve derived from context it means to come up short/fail, regardless of the level of intensity of one’s efforts. Today is the first occasion I’ve taken to actually look it up. The phrase does mean what I think, and more (here’s a link if you haven’t found another already): Web Link: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-com2.htm

  5. Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Awesome letter. Needs must be read by every Creationist, including of the “theistic evolution” variety.

    b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Yup!

    • Posted February 12, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Agree… and was delighted by the humorous tone (one that I’m pretty sure the largely Brit audience will love).

  6. Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “…since he became food for his beloved earthworms”

    That was an excellent line! Cheers for the chuckle. :-)

    • gbjames
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Jerry will disapprove, but…

      This!

      • Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Oh sheesh. Next you’re going to be calling this place a blog… ;-)

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, the earthworm line was pretty funny!

  7. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    In that piece, Professor Coyne alludes to the work of Rosemary and Peter Grant on Darwin’s finches. HHMI has a marvelous video on that.

  8. Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great letter, Jerry. As I’m sure many here are aware, Darwin was an avid correspondant. And I’m sure to receive such a letter, being a vindication of his life’s work, would have been a highlight of his career. It’s a shame that he’ll never know what we can teach him. But at least we can learn what he taught us… (Mr Ham, I’m talking to you… :-) )

  9. Posted February 12, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I doubt there are any earthworms under the floor of Westminster Abbey… I wonder if the ground is nice and dry under there and Darwin has actually been mummified. His desiccated body would make a great future museum exhibit!

  10. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    …my own effort along these lines is represented in a book (which I enclose) called Why Evolution is True.

    Did you draw him a cat picture?

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Superb!

  12. Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    What I do not understand is how people that accept evolution still cling on to a belief in God. In Australia, evolution is thankfully recognized as reality and there are very few creationists yet people still avow that God exists and created first life and has a role in making life meaningful, to guide us etc. How do you explain this dissonance – how can people believe bOTH in evolution and God? =S


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