Michael Egnor, Whig historian

He mangles science, now he defames history. Michael Egnor is like the Swiss army knife of creationist hackery.

Former Vice President Al Gore famously claimed to have invented the Internet because years ago he was in the Senate and sponsored a bill. The assertion that Charles Darwin’s theory was indispensable to classical and molecular genetics is a claim of an even lower order. Darwin’s theory impeded the recognition of Mendel’s discovery for a third of a century, and Darwin’s assertion that random variation was the raw material for biological complexity was of no help in decoding the genetic language of DNA. The single incontrovertible Darwinian contribution to the field of medical genetics was eugenics, which is the Darwinian theory that humans can be bred for social and character traits, like animals. The field of medical genetics is still recovering from eugneics, which was Darwin’s only gift to medicine.

Wow—that is simply breathlessly ahistorical.

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Was Darwin a racist?

Since Ed Darrell made such a comprehensive comment on the question of whether Darwin was as wicked a racist as the illiterate ideologues of Uncommon Descent would like you to believe, I’m just copying his list here.

  1. Remember the famous quarrel between Capt. FitzRoy and Darwin aboard the Beagle? After leaving Brazil, in their mess discussions (remember: Darwin was along to talk to FitzRoy at meals, to keep FitzRoy from going insane as his predecessor had), Darwin noted the inherent injustice of slavery. Darwin argued it was racist and unjust, and therefore unholy. FitzRoy loudly argued slavery was justified, and racism was justified, by the scriptures. It was a nasty argument, and Darwin was banned to mess with the crew with instructions to get off the boat at the next convenient stop. FitzRoy came to his senses after a few days of dining alone. Two things about this episode: First, it shows Darwin as a committed anti-racist; second, it contrasts Darwin’s views with the common, scripture-inspired view of the day, which was racist.

  2. Darwin’s remarks about people of color were remarkably unracist for his day. We should always note his great friend from college days, the African man who taught him taxidermy. We must make note of Darwin’s befriending the Fuegan, Jeremy Button, whom the expedition was returning to his home. Non-racist descriptions abound in context, but this is a favorite area for anti-Darwinists to quote mine. Also, point to Voyage of the Beagle, which is available on line. In it Darwin compares the intellect of the Brazilian slaves with Europeans, and notes that the slaves are mentally and tactically as capable as the greatest of the Roman generals. Hard evidence of fairness on Darwin’s part.

  3. Darwin’s correspondence, especially from the voyage, indicates his strong support for ending slavery, because slavery was unjust and racist. He is unequivocal on the point. Moreover, many in Darwin’s family agreed, and the Wedgewood family fortune was put behind the movement to end slavery. Money talks louder than creationists in this case, I think. Ironic, Darwin supports the Wilberforce family’s work against slavery, and Samuel Wilberforce betrays the support. It reminds me of Pasteur, who said nasty things about Darwin; but when the chips were down and Pasteur’s position and reputation were on the line, Darwin defended Pasteur. Darwin was a great man in many ways.

  4. Watch for the notorious quote mining of Emma’s remark that Charles was “a bigot.” It’s true, she said it. Emma said Charles was a bigot, but in respect to Darwin’s hatred of spiritualists and seances. Darwin’s brother, Erasmus, was suckered in by spiritualists. Darwin was, indeed, a bigot against such hoaxes. It’s recounted in Desmond and Moore’s biography, but shameless quote miners hope their audience hasn’t read the book and won’t. Down here in Texas, a lot of the quote miners are Baptists. I enjoy asking them if they do not share Darwin’s bigotry against fortune tellers. Smart ones smile, and drop the argument.

  5. One might hope that the “Darwin-was-racist” crap comes around to the old canard that Darwin’s work was the basis of the campaign to kill the natives of Tasmania. That was truly a terrible, racist campaign, and largely successful. Of course, historians note that the war against Tasmanians was begun in 1805, and essentially completed by 1831, when just a handful of Tasmanians remained alive. These dates are significant, of course, because they show the war started four years prior to Darwin’s birth, and it was over when Darwin first encountered Tasmania on his voyage, leaving England in 1831. In fact, Darwin laments the battle. I have often found Darwin critics quoting Darwin’s words exactly, but claiming they were the words of others against Darwin’s stand.

  6. Also, one should be familiar with Darwin’s writing about “civilized” Europeans wiping out “savages.” In the first place, “savage” in that day and in Darwin’s context simply means ‘not living in European-style cities, with tea and the occasional Mozart.’ In the second, and more critical place, Darwin advances the argument noting that (in the case of the Tasmanians, especially), the “savages” are the group that is better fit to the natural environment, and hence superior to the Europeans, evolutionarily. Darwin does not urge these conflicts, but rather, laments them. How ironic that creationist quote miners do not recognize that.

Isn’t it odd how the creationists are so divorced from reality that they can’t even concede that Darwin was an abolitionist, and are so reduced in their arguments against evolution that they’ve had to resort to the desperate “Darwin beats puppies!” attack?

How to move a big rock

Sometimes we’re a little bit mean to engineers here — there’s the Salem hypothesis, for instance, that notes that creationist apologists who claim to be scientists often turn out to be engineers. In compensation, though, watch this video of a Michigan man with simple, clever strategies for moving massive objects. I was impressed. I guess the ancients didn’t need the assistance of high-tech alien astronauts to build impressive stone structures, all they needed was a Wally Wallington.

Acres of gore

The archives of Natural History magazine contain some strange old stories—like this tale from 1933, when whales were casually slaughtered, and you could write about their death throes in a popular magazine. There’s a memorable image in it, at least.

Unimaginable numbers of squids, which occur in practically all parts of the oceans, are devoured by sperm whales. The certainty of this is, of course, obvious from the bulk of the mighty foragers and the size and number of the schools engaged in an unceasing quest for food throughout all the warmer sea waters of the globe. It was indelibly impressed upon my mind, however, by an incident witnessed during a South Atlantic cruise in the old New Bedford whaling brig “Daisy.” I manned stroke oar in the mate’s boat, and on one occasion our harpooner made fast to a medium-sized sperm whale, perhaps thirty-five feet in length, which showed very little fight, and which we overtook soon after the iron had been planted. The first pricks of the terrible lance, thrust and “churned” by the mate, evidently found its life, for the whale went immediately into a flurry, swimming desperately around the boat, and rolling over and over so that the line encircled it many times. Then, while we watched its dying struggles at close range, the beast began to belch up squids. Barrelful after barrelful of the tentacled creatures, some but freshly swallowed, others in advanced stages of disintegration, floated to the surface all about our boat. Most of them seemed to have bodies a foot and a half or two feet long, but some were larger. By the time the whale floated fin-out and lay still, the slimy carcasses and fragments of squids covered the space of an acre or more.

Biology isn’t always pretty.

Lost Tomb of Jesus

Last week, I promised I’d watch this documentary about the “lost tomb of Jesus” because it was being advertised here on Pharyngula. Promise fulfilled, but the ghastly program was two hours long—two hours of nothing but fluff. I’ve put a bit of a summary of the whole show below the fold, but I’m afraid there’s nothing very persuasive about any of it, and it was stretched out to a hopelessly tedious length.

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Classic octopus

Adam Cuerden sent me a scan of this interesting article from the 1871 Illustrated London News, and I decided I was being terribly selfish keeping it to myself, so here you go — don’t say I never share. The image that accompanies it is a wonderful example of old-time illustration; click on it for a larger version.

As the media usually does, it plays up the horrible danger of this alien creature.


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I’ll go see it

A new movie about Darwin is in the works—

Jeremy Thomas is set to produce Annie’s Box about Charles Darwin, and hiring John Collee to write and directed by Jon Amiel.

The film will be based on a biography of Darwin by Randall Keynes, the great-great grandson of the Victorian scientist. Variety notes it focuses on the period when Darwin was writing The Origin of the Species, his ground-breaking treatise on evolution, while living a family life at Down House in Kent, near London.

The ‘Annie’ of the title is Darwin’s first daughter, whose death aged 10 left him grief-stricken. With his scientific discoveries leading him toward agnosticism, he was unable to find consolation in belief in an afterlife, but coped with his loss by plunging into his work.

Thomas plans to start production on Annie’s Box next year in Down House; he’s hoping for a release in 2009, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth.

The book it is based on is Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Randal Keynes, and it’s an excellent choice. There’s a great deal of potential for family-centered drama in the story—it’s all about his family life, and in particular the effect of the death of a daughter at the age of 10—but there’s also some difficult material on Darwin’s tussle with religion that’s going to be hard to capture. (It’s also not easily summarized; Darwin left Christianity behind, but his ideas about a deity were conflicted).

Basics: Gastrulation, invertebrate style

The article about gastrulation from the other day was dreadfully vertebrate-centric, so let me correct that with a little addendum that mentions a few invertebrate patterns of gastrulation—and you’ll see that the story hasn’t changed.

Remember, this is the definition of gastrulation that I explained with some vertebrate examples:

The process in animal embryos in which endoderm and mesoderm move from the outer surface of the embryo to the inside, where they give rise to internal organs.

I described frogs and birds and mammals the other day, so lets take a look at sea urchins and fruit flies.

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The Haeckel-Wells Chronicles

Lately, the Discovery Institute has stuck its neck out in response to the popularity of showings of Randy Olson’s movie, Flock of Dodos, which I reviewed a while back. They slapped together some lame critiques packaged on the web as Hoax of Dodos (a clunker of a name; it’s especially ironic since the film tries to portray the Institute as good at PR), which mainly seem to be driven by the sloppy delusions of that poor excuse for a developmental biologist, Jonathan Wells. In the past week, I’ve also put up my responses to the Wells deceptions—as a developmental biologist myself, I get a little cranky when a creationist clown abuses my discipline.

In case you are completely baffled by this whole episode, here’s a shorter summary.

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