There is none so blind as those who will not see, but those who are absolutely determined to see something will often do so, even when it’s not there. Psychologists call it confirmation bias, and it manifests itself in almost any situation in which one truly wants to believe something: canals on Mars; the blatant off-sidedness of the goal against your team; the utter adorability of your children; the latest ‘evidence’ in support of your favourite conspiracy theory. If you’re after evidence to bolster your existing beliefs, seek and ye shall almost certainly find!
Of course, the classic example of confirmation bias is the countless sightings of the Virgin Mary in pieces of toast, cappuccino foam, wood grain, and just about every other bizarre location you might care to mention. If such manifestations are indeed the Lord’s work, then He really does move in mysterious ways. In reality, these ‘sightings’ are nothing more than vague, coincidental likenesses blown out of all proportion by people who have a very particular way of looking at the world.
In fairness to those who think they see the Virgin Mary in the stains on their bathroom wallpaper, the human mind is very much programmed to recognise facial features, so it’s hardly surprising that we occasionally see faces when they’re not really there. The British comedian Dave Gorman has an excellent set of photographs of ‘faces’ he has spotted in inanimate objects. There is also a Flickr Grilled Cheese Virgin photo pool.
Even us hoary, old sceptics aren’t immune from recognising human faces where they are clearly not. In my own case, I have never spotted the Virgin Mary—well, OK, there was that one time in that pub in Wales—but, last month in Cambridge, I did clearly discern the face of none other than Charles Darwin in a cluster of brachiopods in the Sedgwick Museum:
Darwin in some brachiopods recently
What do you mean you don’t see it? And you have the cheek to call yourself a Darwin groupie! The brachiopods do not lie!
As a 100%, card-carrying, take-no-prisoners atheist, Richard Dawkins, like myself, must rue the fact that he will never get to meet his hero Charles Darwin in any sort of afterlife. Unlike me, however, Dawkins can console himself with the fact that he appears to have met the great man in a previous existence.
On Ash Wednesday, 20th February, 1828, five young men from Christ’s College, Cambridge signed their names in the Registrary’s book, thereby becoming undergraduates at the university. John van Wyhe‘s excellent little booklet Darwin in Cambridge includes an image of their signatures:
Darwin’s and Dawkins’s signatures.
That’s right, back in 1829, Charles Robert Darwin and Richard Dawkins stood shoulder-to-shoulder and confirmed in writing that they were fully paid-up members of the Church of England.
The University of Cambridge Zoological Museum is currently displaying artist Tolly Nason‘s cast glass sculpture installation Seeing the Light: Finch by Finch, which is based on the beaks of Darwin’s Galápagos finch specimens. It’s pretty cool.
While I was there, I managed to take a short video (observe Michael Barton making an appearance in the background):
This afternoon, the Beagle Project‘s Director of Science, Dr Karen James, and I recorded a podcast, which I have named ‘Messages from Above’, for reasons which will become apparent if you listen to it. It contains lots of Darwinny goodness, and some pretty cool space stuff.
I’ve never been in a podcast before. They might just catch on.
The University of Cambridge Zoological Museum has a rather wonderful box of beetle specimens collected by Charles Darwin when he was at the university. The young Darwin had an inordinate fondness for beetles.
Darwin’s beetle collection.
Darwin’s son, Sir Frances Darwin, donated his father’s beetles to the university. The collection was originally in a cabinet. Unfortunately, in the 1870′s, one G. R. Crotch began sorting some or all of the collection into boxes, all but one of which was later lost/misplaced.
Dr John van Wyhe, FCD on his Darwin groupie bike yesterday
Heart-felt thanks to Dr John van Wyhe, FCD, who kindly showed Michael Barton, FCD and me around Charles Darwin’s old room at Christ’s College, Cambridge yesterday. Dr van Wyhe recently oversaw the refurbishment of the room, recreating how it would have looked in Darwin’s day. The result is rather special—down to the basket for Darwin’s dog!
And the really good news was that we were allowed to take photographs!
More on Darwin’s college rooms here. My photos from Darwin’s room below: