The good that men do should live after them; the bad should be interred with their names


We can keep this one.

Nature published a catastrophically bad editorial a while back, in which an anonymous someone whined about how tearing down statues of scientists like Marion Sims was “erasing history”. You’ve all heard it before — apparently, we’re learning history from dead lumps of marble or bronze. Where will it all end? Next thing you know we’ll be ‘erasing’ Cecil Rhodes and HG Wells, or even Francis Crick.

In the early 1970s, Crick defended other prominent racist scientists who proposed a plan where individuals deemed unfit would be paid to undergo sterilisation. Crick wrote in one letter that “more than half of the difference between the average IQ of American whites and Negroes is due to genetic reasons”, which “will not be eliminated by any foreseeable change in the environment”. He urged that steps be taken to avoid the “serious” consequences. Crick also proposed that “irresponsible people” be sterilised “by bribery”. In the brochure of the institute bearing his name, Crick is nonetheless presented as a scientific hero known for his “intelligence and openness to new ideas”.

Damn. Crick always came across as the good one, but noooope. Everyone is wrong. There are no heroes.
We’ve all got bad ideas that will fail the test of history. So now I’m thinking we’re all asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking whether it’s right to tear down statues and monuments now.

We should ask why we were putting up statues to scientists in the first place.

If you think about it, it is a singularly stupid way to honor science — and let’s not mince words here, statues and monuments aren’t about education, they’re about singling out individuals as exemplary and worthy, or rich and powerful. We’re going to keep fucking up when we yank the occasional prominent individual out of the collective enterprise of science and put them on a pedestal, because that kind of reverence is antithetical to the whole idea of science. Instead of a monument to Watson and Crick, put one up honoring the discovery of the structure of DNA…and sure, slap a plaque on it that explains why it matters (education!), and that lists the host of people, including Watson and Crick, who contributed to the determination.

Ask what the people you want to honor have done that deserves the honor, and celebrate that. This may not be popular. All the statues of generals will have to be replaced with grisly piles of mangled corpses, and the dead tycoons will just have boring dollar signs on their memorials, but that’s OK — being forced to think about what we consider important is, well…educational. Isn’t that the excuse we’re using for not tearing them down?

Let’s not forget posterity, either. A lot of our history is from inscriptions and monuments and tombs and old hunks of stone and bronze, which means much of our history is skewed towards Great Men who were often bloody conquerors and exploiters. Wouldn’t it be nice if future archaeologists, digging up the American Era layers, were making lists of interesting accomplishments, rather than long dry lists of names and dates?

Comments

  1. Zmidponk says

    Whenever I hear of people being immortalised in statue form, especially when those statues are later torn down because certain very objectionable things about them suddenly came to light or were remembered, a little ditty I saw in Frank Herbert’s Dune pops into my head:

    Here lies a toppled god
    His fall was not a small one
    We did but build his pedestal
    A narrow and a tall one

  2. says

    “I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one.”
    – Cato the Elder

    Doesn’t it seem more often than not it’s the least deserving who get statues? And it takes far too long and fighting tooth and nail to get one made for those who actually deserve one (e.g. Alan Turing)?

  3. anthrosciguy says

    When I was growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, going to junior high or going to the public library, I walked across a footbridge and through a city park that had a statue of the Mayo brothers, in a little pink marble grotto deep in the park whose walls were inscribed with “science”, “truth”, “knowledge”. I loved that spot, and frequently saw people visiting, often patients at the Mayo Clinic, paying respect to the concepts that helped them, or even saved their life.

    Later, some time after I’d moved from Rochester, the Mayo brothers statue was moved to the front of the park, away from the now neglected grotto. All of the context was lost as it became just another meaningless lump of metal.

  4. anthrosciguy says

    When I was growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, going to junior high or going to the public library, I walked across a footbridge and through a city park that had a statue of the Mayo brothers, in a little pink marble grotto deep in the park whose walls were inscribed with “science”, “truth”, “knowledge”. I loved that spot, and frequently saw people visiting, often patients at the Mayo Clinic, paying respect not just to two of the men who started the clinic (the major part of the Sisters of St. Mary in the Mayo beginnings was not forgotten at that time either), but to the concepts that helped them, or even saved their life.

    Later, some time after I’d moved from Rochester, the Mayo brothers statue was moved to the front of the park, away from the now neglected grotto. All of the context was lost as it became just another meaningless lump of metal.

  5. anthrosciguy says

    Slow wifi here is to blame for the double post, but my second one, which was edited, better covers my point.

  6. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    With the recent demise of the Cassini probe, I have wondered were are the monuments to its achievements, or those of its brethren (Galileo, Voyager, or the various Mars rovers, Venus probes, etc.)?
    I find them much worthy of lasting honor than some General or politician who did nothing but kill people.

  7. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Dang, were should be where after the first comma. Spellcheck fails intent. Mea culpa.

  8. methuseus says

    @Iris Vander Pluym #9

    Sounds like a men’s problem to me…

    After reading that link, I’m at least glad there are some feminine figures, though, yes, it’s ridiculous that there are no historical women figures in Central Park. I hate having to use the term “women’s history” in that article. Maybe someday we can have an evolved enough society where “women’s history” is just “history” and has no need of a separate term. Alas men have tried since time immemorial to erase women from history. I’m sure there’s a woman or two who has tried to do the same, but, really, it’s not a problem in that direction even if a woman was successful once or twice.

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