Philomena Cunk is the thinking man's Brian Cox.
Philomena Cunk is the thinking man's Brian Cox.
The Friends of Charles Darwin were officially founded 20 years ago today, on 2nd March, 1994.
On that date, my co-founder, Fitz, and I posted a letter to the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England, in which we drew the bank's attention to a ‘glaring omission’: Charles Darwin had been overlooked on their bank notes! We pointed out that Darwin's image ‘would add some much-needed dignity to the family of British bank notes’, and asked if it would be a good idea if we arranged a petition. Then we began collecting names.
A little over six years later, the Bank of England announced that Charles Darwin would soon replace Charles Dickens on the £10 note.
To be honest, I suspect the bank's decision to grant Darwin his rightful place on one of their bank notes had very little, if anything, to do with our campaign: Darwin was the obvious choice for the next person to appear on a note. Our campaign was just supposed to be a bit of fun: collecting the names of like-minded people who were prepared to declare ‘Charlie is my Darwin’, and who relished the idea of seeing Darwin on a bank note, and of putting the letters FCD (Friend of Charles Darwin) after their names. Which is why we've continued to take on new members long after Darwin finally appeared in all his bearded magnificence on the tenner:
Nowadays, arranging online petitions is a piece of cake: it's as easy as asking people to click a ‘Like’ button on Facebook. But back in our early days, having a website at all was pretty damn impressive. The Friends of Charles Darwin first appeared on the web some time in 1995. I shudder to realise how dreadful our website must have looked by modern website standards. Fortunately, the internet archive doesn't go that far back. But, as an indicator of how bad it was, here's our first logo:
But who cares if it all looked (and still looks) a bit amateurish? That's the whole point! The Friends of Charles Darwin is a fan club, set up for our fellow Darwin groupies. And an amateur is someone who does something for love, not profit. Just like Charles Darwin, in fact.
Happy Anniversary to us!
And here's to the next 20 years!
As a self-confessed Darwin groupie, I own an extensive collection of books by and about my hero and his friends and colleagues. Many of these books are still in print, but I have inevitably acquired a number of out-of-print, second-hand books.
One of the delights of second-hand books is coming across the inscriptions and marginalia of their previous owners. Often, the reason for a mark or underlining escapes me—why on earth did they think that particular passage was worth highlighting? Sometimes, the notes are illegible. Very occasionally, they can be (melo)dramatic.
Last weekend, leafing through my abridged copy of Sir Francis Darwin's Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, I encountered numerous brief notes in the margins, all in the same hand. Here's a selection:
I will never know who the previous owner of my book was, but it seems pretty obvious to me that they were a fellow Darwin groupie: the book has clearly been read from cover to cover, with considerable enthusiasm, and the passages marked are often the sorts of passages I would mark.
Only I wouldn't. I could never bring myself to write in a book, you see. It's just not the done thing. Instead, when I'm reading a book, I make notes on index cards, which double as convenient bookmarks. Once I've finished the book, I tuck the card away inside the back cover for future reference. Yes, loose cards can be lost, but writing in books, well… you just don't! It's not how I was brought up. Books are precious objects to be cosseted, not abused.
And then I turn to page 96 of Sir Francis's memoir, and find myself frankly aghast at the following passage about my hero:
For books he had no respect, but merely considered them as tools to be worked with. Thus he did not bind them, and even when a paper book fell to pieces from use, as happened to Müller's Befruchtung, he preserved it from complete dissolution by putting a metal clip over its back. In the same way he would cut a heavy book in half, to make it more convenient to hold. He used to boast that he had made Lyell publish the second edition of one of his books in two volumes, instead of in one, by telling him how he had been obliged to cut it in half.
Cutting a heavy book in half… Darwin groupie though I will forever remain, here I draw the line. Mr Darwin, you were a incorrigible vandal, sir!
Much of his scientific reading was in German, and this was a serious labour to him; in reading a book after him, I was often struck at seeing, from the pencil-marks made each day where he left off, how little he could read at a time. He used to call German the “Verdammte,” pronounced as if in English. He was especially indignant with Germans, because he was convinced that they could write simply if they chose, and often praised Professor Hildebrand of Freiburg for writing German which was as clear as French. He sometimes gave a German sentence to a friend, a patriotic German lady, and used to laugh at her if she did not translate it fluently. He himself learnt German simply by hammering away with a dictionary; he would say that his only way was to read a sentence a great many times over, and at last the meaning occurred to him. When he began German long ago, he boasted of the fact (as he used to tell) to Sir J. Hooker, who replied, “Ah, my dear fellow, that's nothing; I've begun it many times”.
In spite of his want of grammar, he managed to get on wonderfully with German, and the sentences that he failed to make out were generally difficult ones. He never attempted to speak German correctly, but pronounced the words as though they were English; and this made it not a little difficult to help him, when he read out a German sentence and asked for a translation. He certainly had a bad ear for vocal sounds, so that he found it impossible to perceive small differences in pronunciation.
Last Monday, I made an all-too-rare tryst with an old friend. We met at the small town of Sedbergh in what was once part of Yorkshire, but is now part of Cumbria. I have something of a soft spot for Sedbergh on two accounts: it was the town where Charles Darwin's friend and mentor Adam Sedgwick went to school (he was born a few miles away in Dent); and it is the home of one of my favourite second-hand book shops. The book shop was the reason we had arranged to meet in Sedbergh: my friend and I both suffer intractable addictions to old books.
Amongst the books I bought was a set of essays, New Fragments, by another of Charles Darwin's friends, John Tyndall. I also have something of a soft-spot for Tyndall: I managed to sneak him into two of the chapters of the book I have been writing about my local moor. He was a thoroughly good chap, and, unlike Sedgwick, one of Darwin's strongest supporters.
Although I would never dream of writing inside a book, I am always delighted to see the marginalia and other inscriptions of a book's previous owners. The title page of my new Tyndall book bears a rather dramatic inscription:
Received at the Temple Chambers on Friday 15th January 1892 (on a bed of sickness that has been well nigh unto death)
I guess I'll never know the story behind these words—which is one of the appeals of such enigmatic inscriptions.
On this date in 1913, the co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, died, age 90, at his home in Dorset.
My history of science friends generally pooh-pooh the idea of science heroes, but I have no time for such nonsense. Wallace should be seen as a hero in anyone's book. He was also a top naturalist, and a thoroughly decent chap.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death, the BBC and Natural History Museum have put together a brief video slideshow, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, about the great man.
Contrary to many of the headlines you might read, Wallace has never been ‘forgotten’—and long may that remain to be the case!
Pretty much as predicted, yesterday, the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note (most likely, some time in 2017).
With its announcement, the Bank of England has cleverly appeased campaigners who insisted that there must be at least one woman (in addition to the queen) on its bank notes by saying that it's going to do exactly what it was planning to do all along—a wonderful example of diplomacy in action.
Jane Austen wouldn't have been my first choice—or even my twentieth—but neither would Adam Smith, whose irritatingly smug profile currently disgraces the £20 note. As I said previously, personally, I'd have preferred the Brontë sisters over Austen, to bring some much-needed northernness to our bank notes, but regional inequality is still not seen as a pressing issue, it would seem.