Happy Darwin Day?

I’m a big fan of Darwin, and think he made an important contribution to the world of science, but I also have to remind you all…NO HEROES. I go even further than Edna Mode. He said a few things we’d all rather forget.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that evolution made man “superior” to woman. For Darwin, that superiority largely played out in the intellectual and artistic realm. He wrote: “If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music—comprising composition and performance, history science and philosophy … the two lists would not bear comparison.” Spencer echoed Darwin’s sentiments and went further, postulating that in order for the human race to flourish, women must devote their lives to reproduction.

These assholish attitudes have afflicted science for a long, long time.

To compensate, everyone should go read that article about Antoinette Brown Blackwell.

Blackwell was among those grappling with science’s social implications. Reading works by scientists and social scientists such as Darwin and Spencer forced Blackwell to come to terms with her moral, religious and scientific beliefs. Just as Blackwell preached against Biblical passages that were at odds with her ethics, she began to write against scientific theories that she believed to be biased. Through her writing, she reconciled her understanding of science with her religious beliefs: “If one can perceive a truth,” she wrote, “it matters very little whether he got it at first hand from God’s book, or from man’s.”

Blackwell had no formal scientific training, which she freely admitted. But she read widely. Although she knew her critique of Darwin and Spencer—who she called “the great masters of science and scientific inference”—would be seen as presumptuous, she believed she had one qualification to address inequality of the sexes through evolution: she was a woman.

To refute Darwin and Spencer’s claims that the process of evolution made man superior to women, it was vital to Blackwell that women weigh in. Male scientists, Blackwell wrote, stood on “a learned masculine eminence, looking from their isolated male standpoints through their men’s spectacles and through the misty atmosphere of entailed hereditary glamour.”

In other words: Men, by virtue of being men, were biased, and so too were their scientific theories. And if women, such as herself, had little scientific training, so be it. “There is no alternative!” Blackwell exclaimed. “Only a woman can approach the subject from a feminine standpoint; and there are none but beginners among us in this class of investigations.”

Old encyclopedias are informative in new ways

The National Library of Scotland has made available to the public digitized versions of all 3 volumes of the 1771 edition of the Encyclopædia Brittanica. I’ve been browsing through it, and it’s a fun read — it doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about whether it’s a dictionary or an encyclopedia, but it does have long sections on 18th century agriculture, algebra, and chemistry, so if you ever want to know what people actually thought about those subjects over 200 years ago, you can look them up.

There isn’t much on the stuff I study though — biology hadn’t been invented yet, so you’ll search through the “B”s fruitlessly. I thought maybe there’d be something on embryology, but no, this is it, and it’s rather brutal. They were straightforward about abortion back then.

There is a substantial illustrated section on midwifery, though, so if you ever need to deliver a baby without anesthesia or sterile technique, but you do have a great big handy pair of kitchen tongs, this section will do it for you.

Incels strike again

There’s been another shooting by an incel, and when you read about the hateful stuff he actually believed, you will be surprised that anyone made it through life with that degree of bullshit festering in his head.

But then, read this account by a medievalist of the warped notion of “courtly love”, and you’ll notice this is an ancient and familiar trope. You’ll never be able to watch “Camelot” again.

Boaters & Bowlers

Speaking of time machines, here’s a video recording of a stroll through New York city in 1911.

A couple of things struck me: the hats! Everyone is wearing them, with the exception being the kids. I wonder if there was some sort of ritual associated with coming of age amongst the New Yorkians — “Now you are a man, and may and must wear this headdress at all times, lest ye scandalize the populace with the distressing dome of your skull.”

Also notice how the pedestrians just wander across the street on a whim, as if they haven’t yet realized that the steely horseless carriages are going to claim total ownership of the thoroughfares.

Hey, wait, maybe the hats are the secret passkey to allow one to ignore traffic. I’m going to have to try it next time I’m in NYC — put on a nice Panama and stride confidently into Times Square.

The ship’s not there any more

On 16 April 1834, the HMS Beagle was beached to inspect the hull for damage (click on that for more detail). The event was noted by this well-known engraving.

Charles Darwin noted the specific latitude and longitude in his notes, so we can actually go to Google maps and find the site, as I did.

I’m just wondering if anyone else would go to the link and zoom in the satellite photo and be vaguely disappointed that the Beagle isn’t there? Jeez, I need more coffee. Or maybe Google Time Machine.

I’d rather be a Thespian than a Spartan

It has always struck me as odd that the brutal meatheads, the Spartans, were portrayed brilliant heroes in that movie, 300. It was odder that they went into battle half-naked rather than as armored hoplites. It was oddest of all that they kept howling about “FREEDOM!”, but Sparta was a slave society, and one of the reasons they were so focused on war was the need to keep the helots oppressed. Finally, someone says it: the Spartans were morons.

The word spartan, taken separately from a military context has come to mean utilitarian, basic. In ancient times the word was more pejorative, carrying a connotation of stupidity and coarseness. The word Thespian, has come to mean artistic and sensitive. At Thermopylae the 700 Thespians fought as bravely as any other force. There was a city-state that balanced the need of self-defense and to develop culture.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the alt-right idolizes Sparta, with their simplistic worship of brute rigidity and hypocritical adoration of slogans. We just have to remember: the Spartans lost, and left nothing of value to civilization.