CHARLES DARWIN MODELS ORANGE CHEQUERED SLACKS IN LONDON MEN’S FASHION WEEK SHOCK!
Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim-bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull & undoubtedly was an hermaphrodite! Here is a pleasant genealogy for mankind.-
The full text of this letter is available on the Darwin Correspondence Project website
My wonderful, long-suffering partner, Jen, filled a gaping hole in my Darwin-groupie library this Christmas:
How on Earth did you guess?
What do you buy a tea-addicted, Darwin groupie photographer for Christmas? My mate Bill certainly came up trumps:
(Yes, I know it’s not scientifically accurate, thanks!)
Several years ago, I added a frequently asked questions section to the Friends of Charles Darwin website. When you follow Darwin-related conversations on the web, and when you run a Darwin-related website, the same frankly irritating questions have a habit of cropping up. Having an FAQ section allowed me to post links to the answers without having to type them out again and again.
One question posed with monotonous regularity goes something like:
If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys around?
My response to this frequently asked question began as follows:
This is a spectacularly silly question, often posed by creationists…
My answer remained on the website for many years, attracting little feedback, apart from occasional, immediately trashed emails from random creationists who seemingly hadn’t read my request not to be contacted by them.
Then, last October, someone posted the following comment on my answer:
I do not think this is a silly question. If we evolved from apes, there would now not be any apes, if we are from the same species, we could reproduce with each other, but we can’t.
Something about this comment got to me. This was not some idiot wilfully misunderstanding Darwinian theory; this was someone who seemed genuinely confused. To them, it wasn’t a spectacularly silly question. Which made me feel bad about describing it as such.
I didn’t know what to do with the comment. I didn’t want to approve it, as I have a general policy of not approving comments perpetuating creationist mythinformation. But I didn’t want to trash it either. So it just sat there in my unapproved comments queue, niggling me every time I logged in.
Eventually, the niggling became too much for me. I decided to rewrite my answer (in the process of which, I learnt that my original answer was not strictly correct—so much for silly questions!). I then emailed the commenter a note with a link to the revised answer, and trashed their comment, as it was no longer relevant.
This whole experience got me thinking. I still do not wish (or intend) to engage in debates with hard-line creationists: life really is too short. But some otherwise reasonable and decent people clearly have genuine misunderstandings about evolution and other scientific matters. Dismissing their questions as ‘silly’ (or ‘stupid’) is not going to win anyone over to the cause. Naïve questions ought to be treated as opportunities to express ideas clearly—and hopefully to enlighten. In the case of revising my FAQ answer, the process also ended up enlightening me: I now know more about monkey evolution than I did previously.
With a new-found, self-righteous determination to treat naïve questions more seriously, shortly after Christmas, I was disappointed to see the following tweet from whoever tweets on behalf of Richard Dawkins:
Overheard at dinner on Antarctic cruise: “Is the moon here the same as the moon we have in Texas?”
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) December 27, 2012
Yes, it seems like an amusingly stupid question. But is it really? Of course there is only one moon, but the moon in Antarctica is different to the moon in Texas in a number of ways. As I tweeted back to @RichardDawkins:
@richarddawkins No: it’s upside-down.
— Friends of Darwin (@friendsofdarwin) December 27, 2012
Not only is the Antarctic moon (pretty much) upside-down compared to how it looks in Texas, but, if you observe it long enough, you will see it cross the sky from right to left; not left to right, as it does in Texas. And it will appear lower in the sky. All of which are fun and interesting observations. I think @RichardDawkins missed an opportunity to explain to the Texan how being in the southern hemisphere affects one’s perspective (pace, Wilkins).
So, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to try to treat naïve questions more seriously. Which I guess, amongst other things, means I’m going to have to revisit my other frequently asked questions.
But the good news is that my resolution is already paying dividends. Last night, I was at a large dinner-party with my partner Jen’s family. I don’t know how the conversation turned to Darwin—it usually does when I’m around—but Jen’s mum, who is a devout catholic, suddenly asked me why, if we are descended from monkeys, there are still monkeys around. I answered her using the analogy of her two daughters (who were sitting next to her), observing how they are both descended from her, but that she is still around! I could almost hear the penny drop, and was rewarded with the best response I could have hoped for:
You’re starting to convince me, Richard!
The classicist Mary Beard (@wmarybeard) has a saucily titled piece, Banter about Dildoes, in the latest edition of The London Review of Books, in which she reviews Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate by Claire Holleran (Amazon uk|.com).
In her review, Beard states:
The [Pompeii and Herculaneum food and drink] bars are a well-known conundrum. It always used to be thought that the big jars set into their counters held wine and cheap hot food, soups and stews – ladled out to a poor and hungry clientèle by an accommodating landlord or landlady. But the jars are not glazed, and could not be removed for cleaning. It doesn’t take long to see that they would be completely inappropriate for liquids, hot or cold – not to mention a deadly health risk.
I visited Pompeii in 2010. Never one to walk past a bar, I went into several, and even photographed some of the jars to which Beard refers (although I had no idea at the time that they were conundrums to anyone other than me):
Ever one to hypothesise, I have just emailed the following suggestion to the LRB. I’m sure I can’t be the first person to suggest this solution to the conundrum:
Mary Beard (LRB, 3 January 2013) describes the conundrum of big storage jars set into Pompeii and Herculaneum shop counters, the non-glazed nature of which would make them unsuitable for food or drink storage.
In some hot countries, such as Spain and India, porous pots are still used to cool water. In a process similar to human sweating, water stored in the pots slowly seeps to the surface and evaporates, thereby cooling the pot and the water still inside. In a more modern, patented African take on this old idea, glazed food-storage pots are placed in wet sand inside larger porous pots to make solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot refrigerators’.
Perhaps Mary Beard’s enigmatic jars were the Roman equivalents of wine chillers or salad crispers.
I had a great time in Pompeii, although I failed to track down the domus of the hero of my school Latin textbooks, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus.
You can see some of my other photos from Pompeii here.
Postscript (19-Jan-2013): A slightly edited version of my letter appeared in the 24-Jan-2013 edition of The London Review of Books.
Those of you who follow me on the @friendsofdarwin Twitter feed might have spotted one or two coy references to a book I’ve been writing. I thought it was about time I tried to overcome my innate British sense of reserve, came out of the closet, and told the world a bit more about it.
You will be astonished to hear that my book is not about Charles Darwin—although he does make frequent appearances throughout its chapters. The book is about natural history, science, and the history of science, and about how an appreciation of these subjects can enhance your enjoyment of an everyday walk in the great outdoors.
As I intend to carry on writing in this and similar veins, I have created a new website where I can write about my passions for reading, writing and photography. As luck would have it, the ideal vanity URL was available.
With apologies for the shameless plug, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the eponymous richardcarter.com
There’s not much content on the new site at the moment, but I shall be adding more over the coming months, particularly on my new blog. I shall, of course, also continue to write here, on the Friends of Charles Darwin blog, and on my natural history blog, Life’s Grandeur.
The new site also contains some more information about my book, On the Moor: Excursions into Science, History and Natural History.
If you’re interested in receiving occasional updates about my book and other writing, you might like to sign up to my newsletter.
(Shameless plug ends.)
Brand new Friends of Charles Darwin member Germán Roitman, FCD, of Pilar, Argentina writes:
As a botanist I have a great admiration about Charles Darwin, and in 2008 I had the chance to publish and dedicate a new species of Iridaceae to Charles Darwin in commemoration of his 200th birth anniversary. Herbertia darwinii is a bulb plant that grow in grasslands in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
Please find enclose a picture and a drawing of the plant, and the paper.
Its a pleasure for me to join the Friends of Charles Darwin webpage.
I have to say, Herbertia darwinii is a stunning flower:
See also: Herbertia darwinii (Iridaceae: Tigridieae: Cipurinae), a new species from South America (PDF) by G. Roitman and A. Castillo.