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?