Posts filed under ‘Varsity’

The “Father of Biology”

Historians don’t consider themselves in the business of hero-worship, but for Charles Darwin they almost make an exception. In the 150 years since the publication of the Origin of Species, academia’s “Darwin industry” has spawned libraries full of biographical detail and textual interpretation. Elements of Darwin’s biography have reached the status of legend in the popular imagination: the Beagle voyage, the Galapagos finches, the 20-year wait before publishing, the religious wrangling over the implications of his theory: if you aren’t tired of hearing the story yet, you will be by the end of the year, when Cambridge’s celebrations will have reached their apotheosis and Paul Bettany will be re-enacting Darwin’s life in cinemas. Darwin is the “father” of biology, the exemplary “great scientist.” But what did one man do to earn such epithets?


Individuals vary. Their traits are heritable. Some individuals reproduce more successfully than others, and the traits of these individuals are better represented in the next generation. Over millions of years, by means of “natural selection,” or “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” species evolve. This is Charles Darwin’s big idea, but, increasingly, it is our idea too: in the hands of a century of popularizers from T.H. Huxley to Richard Dawkins, it has been held aloft as the crowning glory of the Western scientific enterprise, and our best explanation for why we exist.

Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s slogan that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” has become a catchphrase for the contemporary study of life; and this shows how the impact of evolutionary theory extends outside the textbooks—it embodies an ideology of science, the belief that, through constructing mechanistic accounts of the causal history of living things, we shed light on the secrets of the world. In a culture in which the spirit of Enlightenment is tainted with the guilt over what followed, in which science is associated as much with atom bombs and CFCs as with human progress, Darwin’s theory is the case for the defence.

But it would be misleading to think Darwin’s status derives entirely from his idea. Indeed, it’s arguably misleading to call evolutionary theory his idea, though his causal contribution to modern biology is not in doubt. Darwin grew up in a culture where evolution was, so to speak, in the air. In the early decades of the 19th Century, Britain’s genteel community of wealthy scientific enthusiasts dedicated much time and ink to combating the radical French evolutionism of Lamarck and Geoffroy. In 1844, evolutionary controversy exploded in Britain with the anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, an ambitious speculation telling of the progression of life up a chain of being from spontaneously generated simple organisms through to mankind.

The growing fossil evidence of extinct life forms needed an explanation: such theories filled a niche. Darwin did for the study of life what Charles Lyell, his friend and inspiration, had done for geology. Lyell proposed the uniformitarian principle: that the geology we see today is best explained by small, currently-active forces acting over staggeringly long periods of time. When Darwin set off on the Beagle, filled with Romantic dreams of finding unifying laws of nature after reading Alexander von Humboldt’s travelogues, he took Lyell’s book along with him, and took his principle to heart.

Darwin’s theoretical innovation was a not the idea of evolution but a new mechanism for its occurrence. A very speculative mechanism, of course—scientific objections to his theory were warranted and widespread. Why should advantageous traits spread through the population? Wouldn’t they end up diluted, swamped by the prevailing disadvantageous traits? And how did these traits arise at all? And could complex traits really develop like this? The 20th Century culture of laboratory testing and mathematical modelling expanded, quantified and reinforced Darwin’s ideas to answer such questions—it is largely through the work of 1930s scientists such as J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fisher that today’s “modern synthesis” theory was born. Darwin is not the author of modern evolutionary theory, and to credit theories to the first person to contribute “significant” work is a dubious practice. So is he really the “father” of biology?

I think so, but not because of his idea. Darwin was venerated long before the notion of natural selection had acquired the widespread acceptance it enjoys today. He was given a state funeral, celebrated as a genius, venerated on his first centenary, largely by people who judged his central hypothesis to be wrong. It was his personal virtues, his fatherly qualities no less, that earned him the reverence he continues to receive. Darwin is portrayed as the iconic “gentleman of science”: wise, moral, conscientious, companionable and modest. And no amount of industrial historical research has disproved the hypothesis that really did live up to these attributes.

When allies like Ernst Haeckel defended natural selection through brash confrontation, Darwin advised them against it. While Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” forcefully took the argument for evolution to its critics, Darwin (for reasons of health and modesty) confined himself to his home at Down, Kent, where he lived with his devoutly Unitarian wife, Emma. When correspondents asked Darwin if his theory was incompatible with Creationism and other Christian beliefs, he gave guarded replies, professing to be “muddled” by the matter; and the thorny issue of the origins of man was never broached in the Origin. Despite his doubts on matters of religious doctrine, he continued to support his local parish church; and though appearing increasingly to withhold belief in God in later life, he preferred the neologism “agnostic” to the more confrontational “atheist.”

Darwin’s work is a testament to the value of perseverance and painstaking effort. Lucky enough to have the inherited wealth necessary to avoid paid work, he filled his time with science. He was a careful and gifted writer, and his bewildering attention to detail in the study of barnacles, of botany, of domesticated animals, and of fancy pigeons in the groundwork for the Origin upheld his overt commitment to the “inductive method”: in the code of 19th Century men of science, this amounted to the imperative that obsessive fact collection must come before speculative theorizing.

In later life, he mentored countless botanists through correspondence: Down became the hub of an international network of botanical knowledge. Darwin’s enterprise was truly collective, and the many friends he made in scientific circles ensured his immaculate reputation. Darwin’s theory of evolution was the first deemed respectable by the genteel scientific community because the man behind it was respected. The virtues that earned him this status continue to impress and inspire his disciples today.

Varsity 23/01/09


February 19, 2009 at 3:10 pm 4 comments

Debate: Democratic Primary

It’s small wonder that Democratic debates increasingly resemble mud-slinging contests: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s personal differences are far more vivid than those of policy. Both brand themselves as inclusive “Change” candidates. Both promise tax cuts for the middle class, action on the environment, fairer pay across race and gender, universal healthcare, and a quick withdrawal from Iraq. Both would maintain support for Israel and uphold capital punishment. Both say “tomayto”. A look at the pair’s near-identical Senate voting records reveals Hillary is slightly less keen on biofuels than Obama, and that’s about it. But the Democratic primaries won’t be decided by ethanol. Scratch beneath the surface and there are matters of substance that can, and do, sway American voters.

In increasingly troubled economic conditions, Hillary has the knowledge and composure to execute a responsive fiscal policy. Clinton and Obama have both proposed $70bn stimulus packages to turn the economy round (though Clinton got there first). But while Obama’s focuses on brute tax cuts, Hillary’s emphasises relief targeted at mortgages, heating bills and unemployment insurance, with additional pledges to improve energy efficiency. It’s a brave, detailed plan, in keeping with Hillary’s professed to determination to deliver more than symbolic change. Her 16-page, budgeted healthcare plan is similarly precise.

Knowledge, intellect, experience: these are the qualities the New York Times cited in endorsing Clinton over Obama. The gulf in experience between the rivals is undeniable. Hillary is the closest thing this presidential race has to an incumbent. Clinton, 60, spent eight years in the White House while Obama, 46, was lecturing law in Chicago. Clinton has been a senator since 2001, Obama since 2005. If you’re wondering why Obama never voted for the Iraq War, it’s because he wasn’t there. The importance of Hillary’s time as First Lady should not be underestimated: Bill Clinton described himself as a “two for the price of one” president. It’s not “Vote Hillary, get Bill.” It’s “Vote Hillary, get Team Clinton again.”

Americans trust in Hillary’s experience, as polling from the primaries reveals. The New Hampshire polls, including the initial exit polls, were plain wrong, implying voters are embarrassed to admit they support prosaic Hillary over media-darling Barack, but support her they do. Obama has overwhelming African-American support, but Hillary leads with Whites, Hispanics, and liberal-leaning voters. Across all races, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to vote Hillary. Clinton’s core support comprises those who need change delivered, not those who merely like the idea.

Of course, there’s never been a female president before. With few differences between the candidates, the chance to strike against misogyny enters the equation. Hillary would champion women’s rights with regard to pay, abortion and access to contraception. True, Obama would become the first black president, but he would do so without support from Civil Rights leaders, who regard him with suspicion. He was, after all, brought up by his “white as milk” mother. Clinton’s ability to be more than a figurehead is beyond doubt.

Hillary is dependable. She can secure a strong win no matter whom the Republicans nominate. The dangers of a 46-year old wildcard are clear. The Democrats see John McCain on the horizon. The moderate, 71-year old Vietnam veteran threatens to hog the middle ground, charm the independent voters and steal the election. Obama’s time has not yet come. He would make a great next-but-one president, and a great vice president: a combined Clinton/Obama ticket would obliterate any GOP contender and put “Change” firmly on the agenda. That’s what Democratic voters really want.

The Democratic contest has been portrayed as a battle of pragmatism versus idealism, gender versus race, experience versus youth, even prose versus poetry. But, for Democratic voters, it’s all a matter of who is likeliest to deliver the specific, significant changes they crave after eight years in the wilderness. That is why they will choose Hillary.

January 26, 2008 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment

Fighting terror with Middle Earth rhetoric

A few weeks ago, US National Intelligence Director John Negroponte announced al-Qaeda leaders are “rebuilding their strength” in Pakistan. He was not suggesting that Osama Bin Laden has been spied lifting dumbbells to Eye of the Tiger. He was referring, rather, to al-Qaeda’s cultivation of connections with “affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe”. What exactly they’re telling the affiliates Negroponte couldn’t say.

Deprived of the Afghan training camps developed before September 11,what can al-Qaeda figureheads offer to would-be terrorists from Somalia to Britain? To enjoy anything more than the most tenuous, occasional contact, these fugitive militants must be in possession of a secret satellite network, or a secret Internet. Sensibly, neither the US nor UK deny that tenuous, occasional contact is probably all there is. Less sensibly, they continue to believe that dismantling this loose infrastructure with military force is the way to win the War on Terror.

Negroponte’s statement marks a general trend: politicians are moving away from referring to terrorists by name, preferring instead to present terrorism as a nameless, faceless force for evil. President Bush’s State of the Union address last week was true to form, abounding in references to “the terrorists” and “the enemy”. To which of the plethora of groups, individuals and states lumped under these headings Bush was specifically referring is anyone’s guess.

In al-Qaeda, judging from the press conferences and speeches, we have a real-life Sauron. We are presented with an image of a dark corrupting force linking every potential terrorist across the globe. To destroy it, we are told, is to destroy the problem.

This logic was applied when the US recently justified bombing raids in Somalia by claiming local Islamic militants were working for al-Qaeda. It is unlikely these militants could have carried weapons or instructions all the way from Pakistan, so what work exactly were they doing? Blair and Bush believe they have the answer: the militants were spreading an “ideology”, that same faceless dark force by another name. The ideology is, according to Bush, “Islamic Fascism.” The historical comparison is crude. If Islamic Fascism really is the goal, al-Qaeda might be expected to target Islamic states with fully or partially democratic governments (such as Iran, Syria and Pakistan). An ideology that happens to be anti-Israeli and anti-Western is not inherently Fascist.

A more pertinent question is this: can an ideology be fought? An ideology is not Sauron. Cut off the followers from their figurehead and the edifice won’t collapse like a house of cards. The reverse is likely: followers of an ideology revere martyrs more than living figureheads. When martyrs are created by a bombing raid, their brutal deaths at the hands of the enemy suddenly appear to justify the cause for which they fought.

The US has resurrected the Cold War policy of containment. The aim then was to fight Communist insurgencies wherever they occurred; the aim now is to fight Islamic insurgencies by the same rules. But the US never managed to kill off Communism and experienced a spectacular failure in Vietnam along the way. It may have prevented the USSR from dominating the global balance of power, but terrorists are not playing the same game. They want their cause to endure. And with every new intervention, the cause becomes more indestructible.

The so-called battle of ideologies is set to end in failure. To win, the West must convert moderate Islamic opinion. This is impossible by military means. Are the orchestrators of the War on Terror unaware of the problem? It’s more likely, surely, that the notion of Islamic Fascism has been invented to justify what is ultimately a flawed strategy. The US uses the flimsiest of excuses to justify ineffective military action, because the alternative is to admit that military action may fail to stop terrorism. And, with five years of foreign policy and one election campaign based on the promise that it will, such failure is too much for Bush to contemplate.

February 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm Leave a comment

When the language of death disguises reality

Execution. Death penalty. Capital punishment. Every phrase we have for the act is a euphemism. Sometimes we give a term for the method used: hanging, beheading, electric chair. We avoid the words killing and slaughtering, though they describe the act more precisely. Why? Because the word has connotations we prefer not to associate with these deaths; because the word risks stirring unwanted emotions.

The news tells us that Saddam Hussein was executed, not slaughtered, just as, during the first Gulf War, we were told (in the passive voice) that there “has been collateral damage.” Just as, during the current war, we are told that there “have been civilian casualties”. It’s an odd situation when we choose words not by their meaning but for their lack of connotations. What are we afraid of?

Slaughtering could be applied in the Saddam case. It is used elsewhere to describe the efficient, lawful, killing-behind-closed-doors of animals; to apply it to a similar event wouldn’t demand a redraft of the dictionary. The problem is that we’d rather avoid using a term which regards humans as equivalent to animals. We think that by banning this linguistically we ban it from happening. The Newspeak of killing hides the truth.

But isn’t an execution, unlike a slaughter, just? The truth is in the dates: Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). Scheduled before the New Year for the benefit of Iraq’s beleaguered Prime Minister, his death was a news event, not justice.

To see any execution as “just” requires blinkered logic. Justice is nothing if not the insertion of a moral ending to a life story. According to justice, criminals aren’t killed for their benefit; they’re killed for ours, so that when we review their life, we find the ending appropriate. But when one story ends in justice, the rest of the stories that comprise a life end with a sudden injustice. Relationships, learning processes, personal journeys (everything that carries on during a prison sentence) end too. Real lives don’t follow the neat plotline of a fable. Yet legal systems across the world apply the logic of Aesop. Why? For the show, for the news event. The language reflects this.

True, modern executioners are clinical; they perform the deed away from the public; they, for example, give a sedative before a lethal injection. Yet, in doing so, they miss the point. The “humane” measures they employ would not have been out of place at Auschwitz (Hoess, commandant of the camp, wrote of Zyklon B: “I was relieved to think that … the victims would be spared suffering until their last moment came.”) But the Nazis’ victims were degraded, humiliated and terrified. Executions, like their associated language, give a charade of humanity for the benefit of witnesses, but, at the centre of the display, people are treated like animals.

Saddam Hussein played along well with the show. Because he refused to panic, and refused to wear a hood, the event seemed so fitting that Fox News was inspired to put up huge “before and after” pictures on its website. Saddam played the self-righteous tyrant to the end, but, unusually, it was the audience who gave the game away. By taunting and jeering, they reminded us of what we should have remembered. Executions are squalid, degrading and unjust. Change the headlines: Saddam Hussein was slaughtered today.

January 19, 2007 at 1:55 pm Leave a comment