Janet Browne at the Drue Heinz Lectures | Program Notes
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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Janet Browne at the Drue Heinz Lectures

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2009 at 2:08 PM

First, an anecdote from Carnegie Museum of Natural History director Samuel Taylor, who introduced Darwin biographer Browne at her Feb. 9 talk: Once, he said, while soliciting feedback on a dinosaur exhibit, the museum heard from a man who'd found the "Achilles heel" of that whole evolution thing. "If dinosaurs all died out millions of years before humans arrived," inquired Gotcha Guy, "then how is it we know all their names?"

It's easy to mock evolution-deniers. But Browne, emulating Darwin's own humility, mostly didn't. Rather, she offered some interesting material about the historical context for the publication, in 1859, of The Origin of Species (which sparked "one of the first truly international scientific debates") and about how Darwin's ideas spread. It mostly wasn't through scholarly debate: Instead, as now, it was through mass media, like printed cartoons (many of which depicted Darwin as an ape) and other commercial speech. Browne showed slides of ad in which a chimp touts hair tonic, and another depicting sheet music to a popular song, titled "Darwinian Theory" and set to the tune of something called "The King of the Cannibal Islands."

Browne also noted that -- although Origin scarcely mentioned human evolutionary ancestry -- tumult over it centered on whether men were "apes or angels," and the debate was informed by new, and misleading, research about the supposed viciousness of gorillas.

She also tackled, briefly, America's outlier status in terms of public acceptance of evolution: The only other developed nation where fewer than half the population believes in evolution is Turkey. (Thoughout Europe, the theory has been widely accepted for well over a century.) Browne hypothesized this might have to do with the decentralized U.S. school system, in which individual states and school districts (hello, Kansas!) are free to set their own faulty curricula.

Still, I thought Browne's most plangent observation grew from the way Darwin was influenced by, and influenced in turn, how his society viewed itself. Victorian England was industrializing rapidly. Fortunes -- including the one that bankrolled Darwin's researches -- were being made rapidly. This was called progress, and Victorians like Darwin saw no end to it -- a model for evolution's "improvements" on less simpler life forms, or those less well-adapted to their environments.

In London as in Pittsburgh, the smell of burning coal was the smell of civilization, not of global warming. The Galapagos Islands were richly biodiverse, in the days before internal-combustion engines; forests were endless, and seas were full of whales and fish for the taking.

"He didn't have that anxiety about where we're going that we have," Browne said of Darwin.

And maybe that's our own strange evolution: We've inherited Western Civilization's faith in endless technological progress, even as we slowly begin to realize the limits, on a finite planet, to what it can accomplish.

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