The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

The incredible shrinking woman

[Continued from Part 2, “The Empire Strikes Back“]

The day before the meeting with the principal and Ms. Warner, Becca made my year by insisting on going as well. She took a half day off work, on short notice and with difficulty. I was so grateful — helps me feel less like a lone loon.

After talking with hundreds of parents over the years in dozens of different situations, I’ve worked up a few guidelines for approaching this kind of thing. It works not just for church-state issues, but any similar conflict:

1. Know your main objective and keep it in focus. It would have been easy, and gratifying, to focus on the first three of our objectives (abject apology, school-wide statement, head on platter). But if it came right down to it (and it often does), the last two were most important: damage control for Delaney, and a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school. Ever.

2. Frame in terms as broad as possible. It’s almost never just about my child or our family’s rights. If a teacher leads students in a Christian prayer, for example, and I respond as an offended atheist, I’ve drawn this tiny circle around my offended little feet. If instead I defend the constitutional right of all kids and families to freedom of religious belief, I’ve drawn a much larger circle with a much firmer foundation.

3. Don’t let your tone become an issue. This keeps a laser-like focus on the real issue.

4. Find allies with common goals. They’re almost always there. If we treat them as co-perpetrators, we’ve robbed ourselves of powerful leverage.

5. Position yourself as a resource, not a problem to be avoided or contained. When it comes to the issues at hand, as well as district policy and legal precedent, make yourself the most knowledgeable one in the room, then offer your help in navigating that maze, now and in the future.

becca3The meeting began with the obligatory chit chat, then Becca took the floor — not as a parent, but as an appalled educator. For five minutes, in a voice laced with emotion but entirely under control, she explained why Warner’s action violated the central responsibility of educators to their students. She ended by quoting the framing concept in the elementary curriculum. They are the Habits of Mind — four characteristics all Georgia educators are expected to engender in their students. “A CONTENT STANDARD IS NOT MET,” says the science standards document in bold caps, “UNLESS APPLICABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF SCIENCE ARE ALSO ADDRESSED AT THE SAME TIME.”

The four principal characteristics:

Students will be aware of the importance of curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism in science and will exhibit these traits in their own efforts to understand how the world works.

In a single ill-considered sentence, Ms. Warner had managed to violate all four. Then there’s this further down — hard to beat for spot-on relevance:

Scientists use a common language with precise definitions of terms to make it easier to communicate their observations to each other.

I made a mental note to marry Becca all over again.

warner1skinner1Ms. Warner responded with an apology of the “I’m sorry if you were offended” variety. “If I had known you felt this way, I would certainly not have said what I said.” It was all about a wacky breakdown in communication. If the principal hadn’t dropped the ball, went the implication, we wouldn’t be in this pickle. Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do. Cue laugh track.

I’d expected that. “Yes, I do wish we’d been able to intercept this extremely bad idea you had,” I said. “But that’s irrelevant. I want to know why you had the bad idea in the first place to censor Delaney’s accomplishment.

“You claimed evolution wasn’t in the curriculum, when in fact it’s deeply embedded in our curriculum from seventh grade on. And if a third grader were to master calculus and win a national contest, I doubt we’d say, ‘Well shoot, I wish we could celebrate that, but it isn’t in the elementary curriculum.’ So let’s agree that’s silly and not the reason anyway. Now I’d like to know the real reason.”

She nodded and shrugged. “I wanted to avoid conflict.

To paraphrase what Huxley supposedly said before he gutted Wilberforce, the Lord had delivered her into my hands. I produced a summary of that deeply depressing Penn State study showing that conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

But there’s an even more interesting context for this in Georgia, I said — a specific history of removing the word “evolution.”

“Yes, there is!” said Mr. Robinson, nodding enthusiastically and leaning forward. Principals tend to know what’s going on in the educational world outside of their own skulls. Even better, he clearly cared. Warner’s blank smile showed that she neither knew nor cared. She was counting the minutes until this annoyance was over.

warner2skinner2It was at this point that Ms. Warner began to shrink from view, and Mr. Robinson began to grow. We could exhaust ourselves trying to get a genuine apology from this person, trying to get her to understand that she was an embarrassment to her profession and why, trying to let the school community know exactly what had happened so they could take sides and put Laney in the uncomfortable middle.

Or we could turn the focus toward this nodding, well-informed, well-placed ally.

I gave a five-minute capsule history of the issue in Georgia, complete with handouts, starting with the D grade the state science curriculum had earned from Fordham in 1998. Why the low grade? Largely because in the interest of conflict avoidance, the word evolution had been removed:

Like many Southern states, Georgia has problems with the politics, if not the science, of evolution. In the biology course, the euphemism “organic variation” is used for evolution, yielding such delectable bits as the following:

“[The learner will] describe historical and current theories of organic variation . . . describe how current geological evidences [sic] support current theories of organic variation . . . explain that a successful change in a species is most apt to occur when a niche is available.”

The purpose of this approach, of course, is to insulate the study of science from the inroads of politics. But for all its good intent, it makes it difficult or impossible for all but the most gifted students to understand the profound importance of evolution as the basis of the biological sciences. It also isolates biology from the other historical sciences, geology and astronomy, and thus wounds the student’s understanding of the unity of the sciences. [Lerner 1998]

Fast-forward to 2004. State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox is reviewing Georgia’s new and greatly improved proposed science standards, which include an impressively straightforward approach to evolution. And what does she do? She red-lines every occurrence of the word “evolution,” changing it to “biological changes over time,” which does NOT mean the same thing.

Why did she do that? Conflict avoidance, she said later.

There was an impressive public backlash. Jimmy Carter lashed out in the press: “As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox’s attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia’s students.”

Cox reversed herself. In an interview last year on the occasion of her retirement, she remembered the issue as the biggest mistake of her career:

It was a great lesson for me….The standards are more than a classroom teacher. They represent something to the larger public [and the] entity of the nation. And that was a great lesson for me, that I needed to step out of my shoes as a teacher sometimes and see the bigger picture. And even though I was trying to make it so that our science standards could be such that a teacher anywhere in the state could teach what they needed to teach, it wasn’t the right decision from the bigger picture. And, boy, did I learn that in a hurry – and kind of had it handed to me in a hurry.

Robinson continued nodding. None of this was new to him.

The standards went on to full approval, unbuggered, earning Georgia a B for science overall in the next Fordham review and the highest ranking possible for evolution education.

“So we’ve learned this lesson already, over and over,” I said. “But it just doesn’t get through. And the messages we as parents and educators send these students, both inside and outside of the classroom, affect the way kids will encounter concepts and content later in the curriculum.”

warner3skinner3Mr. Robinson was continuing to exhibit not just agreement, but enthusiastic engagement. Warner at this point was too small to be seen clearly.

“We have these extraordinary standards, but because of ten thousand things like this” — I gestured toward Warner’s last known location — “they aren’t finding their way into the actual education of our students, especially in science. I’d like to help get a larger conversation going in the district. We need to help parents, teachers, and administrators get more comfortable with the great standards we already have.”

Mr. Robinson was nearly out of his chair. “Yes. This is great. I would love to see this happen.” He began scribbling notes. “I want to put you in touch with Samantha Burnett, the director of science curriculum for the district. I know she’d love to connect with you and get this going. This would be a very positive thing.”

He added that he wanted to be sure Delaney was taken care of as well. “I want her to know that this school encourages all of her ideas and accomplishments.”

Becca then shared Laney’s heartbreaking response to Mr. Hamilton, her beloved first grade teacher, and his expression of interest (“I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”)

“Well there’s an opportunity,” said Mr. Robinson. “I’ll get in touch with Mike and see what we can work out. Maybe instead of just explaining it to him, she could give a presentation to his whole class about the contest.”

That would help a lot. She would be over the moon.

That night we learned from Delaney that Mr. Robinson visited her classroom later that day to congratulate her again on her achievement in the “Evolution & Art contest.”

In terms of vengeance, the meeting was mostly unsatisfying. But in terms of positive progress, it was immensely satisfying. We’re working our way toward two conversations, one large and one small. By being reasonable and well-informed, by leaning forward instead of back, it looks like some lasting good could come out of this.

I’ll keep you in the loop as we go.

The Empire Strikes Back

[Continued from When science goes south]

monkeylukeDelaney was all butterflies the morning of the broadcast. I assured her she’d be just fine.

“But I’m talking to THE PRINCIPAL!” she said in mock horror. “In front of the whole school!”

She was secretly adoring the whole idea, we both knew that, but the nerves were no less real. She’d never done anything like this before.

I drove her to school early, then sat in the front office to watch the show on the monitor. After the Pledge of Allegiance (No, Luke — stay on target!), the camera panned to my daughter and the principal.

“I’m here with Delaney McGowan today who won first place in a national contest,” said Mr. Robinson. “This is amazing, Delaney! Tell us all about it.”

“Well,” she said, “I won an art contest.”

Hmm.

I grinned and shook my head. After all that, she called it an art contest. That’s fine, of course — she can call it whatever she wants. But I did think it was a bit odd. She’d never called it that before, for one thing. And I never mentioned Ms. Warner’s phone call to her. What an odd coincidence.

She went on to describe the contest with the kind of engaging, articulate poise she’s always had, but somehow got all the way through without ever saying any form of the word “evolution.” Extremely hard to do, given the nature of the contest. The closest she came was the word “adapted,” which she used once or twice. Again, it’s a non-issue…if she’s choosing her own words.

When she ran off the school bus as she always does, I engulfed her in a hug. “You…were…AWESOME,” I said. “I could never have been so clear and calm when I was nine! Did you think of all that yourself, or did anybody help you with what to say?”

(Subtle bastard.)

“Well, there was one kind of weird thing,” she said. “About two minutes before the interview, Ms. Warner told me I shouldn’t say the word ‘evolution.'”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Dad?”

“Well…huh. You uh…you did an amazing job, that’s all I can say.”

(I think that’s what I said. It may not have included any actual human sounds.)

“What’s wrong? Something’s wrong.”

“No, nothing, I…well, I’m, I’m, I’m…I’m kind of just wondering why Ms. Warner would say such a silly thing, is all. Why not say ‘evolution’? That just seems weird.”

“Yeah, it does.”
eaglenews2
“Didn’t Mr. Robinson say anything to her when she said that?”

“He was out in the hall right then.” Her face knotted up. “But it made me so nervous! During the whole interview, I kept worrying that I was going to say the Word.”

The Word.

Despite my silly graphics in this post — an attempt to keep things from getting too dark — this hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d gone out of my way to keep Laney from getting a negative message about her accomplishment. I’d been low-key and reasonable, and the thing had happened anyway as if I’d never left my chair.

What really hurt was hearing Delaney’s sudden anxiety. My fearless thinker, the one who loves nothing more than a good-spirited tête-à-tête over a plate of theology in the school cafeteria or politics on the playground or current events at the dinner table, who chose freedom of speech as one of the things she’s most grateful for at Thanksgiving, this amazing and unique girl had heard from an educator in her school that one of the great concepts in science was in fact a word she should not use, and by implication, a thought she should not think. Evolution, a perpetual source of wonder to her, had become The Word, a thing to avoid, something vaguely dirty.

Even worse, this woman chose Laney’s moment of excited triumph — of scientific triumph — to display her own likely ignorance of the concept that Laney understands better than most adults in any given room.

Now to fully grasp the complex challenge of that moment for Delaney, a thought experiment: Imagine you’re nine years old. You’ve won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. You are invited to speak to your school principal about it on camera in front of 1,000 of your peers. You’ve practiced what you want to say, over and over. You’re nervous and excited. Then two minutes before you go on, an Authority Figure leans over and says, “By the way: don’t mention baking.”

(Only because the confectionery arts aren’t in the elementary curriculum, you understand.)

At bedtime that night, Laney told her mom something that simply broke our hearts. Mr. Hamilton, Laney’s dynamic and gifted teacher from first grade, a HUGE favorite of hers, had popped into her classroom late in the day. “He said he saw me on the Eagle News,” she said, “but his class was too loud and he couldn’t hear what I was saying. So he wants me to come by his room and tell him all about it some time.” Her eyes watered. “But…I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”

I hope we’re agreed that this is a very big deal.

I gave myself an hour to calm down, then wrote an email to the principal, still careful with my word choice. For one thing, I was “surprised and disappointed” that this had happened. Why? Because I do not want to waste a milligram of effort defending my tone. “Disappointed” is the go-to word in these situations. If you’re “furious,” the other person stops listening and starts defending. Disappointment says, “I expected more from you, and you let me down.” When someone expresses disappointment in me, I’m mortified and immediately begin trying to make it right. It’s an action word.

I also amended my desire to see Warner slowly strangled with the strings of a thousand Steinways (in the email, if not in the darkest corner of my heart). I made it clear that I was very unhappy and asked to meet with them both, very soon.

As I expected, Mr. Robinson was completely mortified when he heard what had happened. He had not spoken to Warner after our meeting, he said in his reply, “because I assumed that I would be the only staff member discussing the broadcast content with Delaney.” A reasonable assumption. Instead, he had used my input to be sure his interview questions gave Delaney the maximum ability to openly express her ideas. He simply hadn’t counted on Warner taking advantage of the two minutes he stepped into the hallway to push her agenda. There was still only one real perp in this and one clear ally.

No matter how the meeting went, I knew this would make a serious mark on her next performance evaluation. Of course we wanted a whole lot more than that.

We wanted an abject, unequivocal apology from Ms. Warner.

We wanted a school-wide statement explaining what happened and describing the real nature of Laney’s accomplishment.

We wanted Ms. Warner’s head on a platter.

We wanted damage control for Delaney.

We wanted a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school.

But wants are not the same as needs, and that’s where we sometimes go off the rails. Focusing too much on punishment of the perp shifts attention away from getting changes made and repairing damage. It’s a mistake I have made. It can also put your child in the middle of a struggle between adults in which the original point is completely lost.

Those first three wants would be so satisfying, but we knew we couldn’t allow them to get in the way of the last two.

It was going to be a challenge to keep our heads where they belong — especially when we had such a firm idea of where HERS belonged.

Next time, the meeting. (SPOILER ALERT: it goes well.)

When science goes south

link2My daughter wants to be a scientist. It’s all she’s ever wanted to be. And though she’s only nine, I have a pretty strong feeling she’s going to end up there.

When Charlie’s Playhouse announced an Evolution & Art Contest last fall, she was all over it. Imagine an island with a unique environment. Choose an existing animal to put on the island. Fast forward a million years or so and imagine how the animal would evolve as a result of that environment. Draw a picture of the evolved animal. Awesome.

monkeySoon the sketches were flying. Finally, with just days to go before the deadline, Laney showed me her entry.

“The island has purple polka-dotted trees and bushes and quiet predators,” she explained. “And the only food is hard nuts. So after a long, long time, the monkeys evolve to have purple polka dots, huge ears to hear the predators, and sharp teeth to crack the nuts.”

She might not know an allele if it jumped up and mutated all over her, but her grasp of natural selection outstrips that of most adults. And she got this grasp not through lectures but by observing the results of natural selection all around us, and caring enough to think about it.

I described our approach in Raising Freethinkers (p. 17):

If I’m out on a walk in the woods with my own daughter and we see a deer with protective coloration, I’ll often say, “Look—you can barely see it. What if I was an animal trying to find a deer to eat? That one wouldn’t be very easy to find. And its babies would have the same coloring, so I’ll bet they’d be hard to find, too.”

[Then] imagine a poor adaptation. “Hey, what if it was bright pink? I think I’d have a pink one for supper every night, they’d be so easy to catch.” I step on a twig and the deer bolts away. “Ooh, fast too! I’ll bet I’d have to eat slow pink ones every night. Soon there wouldn’t be any slow pink ones left because I’d have eaten them all!”

When she does eventually encounter allele frequencies, cladistics, the modern synthesis and all the rest, it’ll glide into place on the foundation she’s laid for it. The key for now is to keep her engaged.

Winning the contest didn’t hurt that one bit. She nearly passed out in excitement. We let her teacher know about it, and he showered her with kudos, then forwarded the news to the front office.

Last week we received a call. It was Ms. Warner, an assistant administrator at the school. Becca answered. I didn’t know who she was talking to, but it was obviously good news of some sort.

Until it wasn’t.

When she hung up, she was clearly upset.

“Laney’s going to be interviewed by the principal on the Eagle News” — that’s a closed-circuit TV program that starts each school day — “about winning the Charlie’s Playhouse contest.”

I waited.

“But Ms. Warner said they’re not going to call it an ‘Evolution & Art’ contest — just an ‘Art’ contest. When I asked why, she said, ‘Because evolution is not in the curriculum.’ I said yes it is, it’s in the high school curriculum, and she said, ‘But it’s not in the elementary curriculum, so it’ll just be described as an ‘Art’ contest.'”

The heat started in my neck and spread to my ears, then into my face. Becca began swearing a blue streak. I sat down and wrote the most fabulously profane email of my life to a friend. Venting is good. Not sure if I was madder about the ignorance or the cowardice or the dishonesty — or the fact that this educator was dismissing the truly exceptional nature of what Laney did.

It wasn’t an art contest, you see. Delaney’s accomplishment had been scientific, not artistic. The drawing is dandy, but it’s just a way of expressing her grasp of the science. To have her school — savor that for a moment, her school — not only disregard her achievement, but send her the message that it’s something to be hidden, to be ashamed of…

sciencegradesI know what you’re thinking. Yes, this is Georgia. But as I’ve said before, in the four years we’ve been here, I’ve had far more opportunity to be pleasantly surprised than not. In addition to living in an area even more culturally and religiously diverse than the one we left in Minneapolis, our kids are getting an incredible education in top-ranked schools.

evolutionAfter many years in the national basement, Georgia’s latest science standards are excellent. And when it comes to the teaching of evolution itself, it ranks in the top tier of the Fordham study (see maps) — above Oregon, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and 24 other states.

Science standards don’t have to be in the South to go south. As Lawrence Lerner put it in the NCSE Journal,

although there is a disproportionate concentration of ill-treatment of evolution in the Bible Belt, geography is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for such treatment. Georgia and South Carolina, for instance, treated evolution very well while New Hampshire and Wisconsin did not.

The most relevant anti-science spectrum in the US (and elsewhere) is not North-South, but urban-suburban-rural. The suburbs of Atlanta have more in common with the suburbs of Philadelphia than either has in common with the small towns in its own state. The quality of science education tends to drop in sync with population density.

But that’s on paper. As Ms. Warner and Mr. Taylor clearly show, individuals in the system will do their level best to undercut even the best standards.

A deeply depressing Penn State study released two weeks ago found that only 28 percent of high school biology teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred. About 13 percent of biology teachers explicitly advocate creationism in the classroom, while 60 percent use at least one of three strategies to avoid controversy: (1) pretending that evolution applies only on the molecular level; (2) telling students it does not matter if they really ‘believe’ in evolution, only that they know it for the test; and/or (3) “teaching the controversy,” which one researcher noted “tells students that well-established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.”

According to the researchers, these conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

The Principal of the Thing

I like to keep my posts to about 5 reading mins, so last week I posted only that part of the story and promised two more. But the (understandable) outrage began to spread like wildfire in minutes. Since I’m trying to make the case for a certain kind of approach, I didn’t need an online tsunami. So I’m going long today so you can see that it gets better. Then it gets much, much worse. Then better again. But that’s for next time.

I did the whole Mr. Taylor thing by email, which I now think was a mistake. Email lacks tone and visual cues, so it tends to read more harshly, especially in these situations. I decided to do this one in the flesh.

Seymour_SkinnerBecca suggested I talk to the principal, Mr. Robinson, rather than Ms. Warner. He’d be interviewing Laney, for one thing. It isn’t about Ms. Warner as such, but about seeing to it that Laney’s accomplishment isn’t misrepresented. Finally, he is among the most skilled, reasonable, and student-centered of the weirdly high number of principals I have known. A likely ally.

I asked for a quick meeting.

I knew that the best approach would be to focus on our shared interest — in this case the students and the educational messages they receive — so I started with the cool fact that a nine-year old girl in his school wants to be a scientist. She entered this contest to demonstrate her understanding of evolution and won. “Sandy Warner called and said you’d be interviewing Laney, but said it would be called an ‘Art’ contest rather than ‘Evolution & Art.’ When my wife asked why, she said evolution was not in the elementary curriculum.”

(I still can’t type that without shaking my head in amazement that anyone would try an explanation quite so obviously silly.)

It’s certainly in the middle and high school curriculum, I said, handing him a highlighted copy of each. If a third grader won a national calculus competition, no one would say, “Dagnabbit, if only that was in the elementary curriculum we could celebrate it!”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not the reason anyway,” I said. “She was trying to avoid conflict. That’s an understandable impulse, but not when it damages the educational environment.” I handed him a summary of the deeply depressing Penn State study suggesting that conflict avoidance is the strategy currently doing the most damage to the scientific literacy of our kids.

Then there’s my kid, and the interview the following day. Among many other problems, I said that Delaney would be completely unable to answer his questions in any terms but evolutionary ones. Even a question like, “So tell me about this monkey” would lead to a description of the three adaptations she devised, since that’s what the contest was about.

He was nodding vigorously. “Absolutely. There’s not the slightest reason for her to hide any aspect of her accomplishment. But the curriculum is irrelevant in any case because…”

Oh my word, he was going to say it himself. Before I could even mount the slam-dunk argument against Warner’s ridiculous attempt, he would say it himself.

“…it’s student-initiated. Teachers have to stay within the curriculum, sure, but if a student initiates a project or has an outside accomplishment, they are absolutely able to talk about it freely without any regard to curriculum.” He explained that he is trying to encourage even more of this, to get the school celebrating outside accomplishments of all kinds to integrate the students’ outside lives into their school life. “This fits into that perfectly.”

See? Principals tend to know things. Actual educational policies. Court precedents. Best practices.

Total elapsed time: 7 minutes.

Now step back a minute and see what happened here. We (GOOD GUYS!) sent notice of Laney’s contest win to her teacher, who thought it was fantastic and submitted it for inclusion in the broadcast. GOOD GUY!

A middle administrator attempted to screw it up (both out of a misplaced sense of her responsibilities and, I have reason to believe, a reflection of her own point of view). BAD GUY!

The principal immediately recognized that the middle admin had screwed up and put it right. GOOD GUY!

Pretty good ratio, eh? But we often take our cue from the one person who did something dumb and respond with a scorched-earth policy that engulfs potential allies and puts everyone in a defensive crouch. Once I do that, they’re only looking to survive the attack. They can’t hear what I have to say, much less see that they have more in common with me than with the perp.

More often than not, the perp is surrounded by people who agree with you that the act was wrong, people who can join you in condemning the act and fixing the problem if you let them.

I’d like to say that’s the end of the story. (Continue to Part 2)

Let’s try that again

Okay, that was dumb.

I am in the middle of a delicate situation with my daughter’s school. Things are going very well at the moment, despite some serious bumps. When I posted a first installment this morning, several people had exactly the reaction I had — absolute fury — and expressed a desire to spread the outrage fast.

But THE LAST THING I NEED right now is a huge, angry online reaction. You’ll see why when I post in full.

Most of the people I’m dealing with are doing exactly the right things. That’s one of the main points I want to make. An explosive response will torpedo that, muddy the waters, and potentially expose my daughter to bad adult behavior.

So please, sit tight, let me see this thing through for a couple of days, and then I’ll put it all in a single post.

Screwing with Darwin 2

(Continued from Screwing with Darwin 1.)

1573928348An incredible ability to pay attention may have been Darwin’s defining characteristic. This was the guy, remember, who found it possible to study barnacles for eight years straight. That superhuman ability to observe and notice was surely the reason he was able to figure out the puzzle of natural selection. And as a result of this well-honed ability, the original Autobiography is just bursting with sharp observations of the people around him.

Sir Frank’s version? Eh, nassomush.

I’ll focus on four of my favorite passages from the original, two brief and two longish-but-worthit. First there’s Darwin on himself, a childhood memory:

About this time [age eight], or as I hope at a somewhat earlier age, I sometimes stole fruit for the sake of eating it; & one of my schemes was ingenious. The kitchen garden was kept locked in the evening, & was surrounded by a high wall, but by the aid of neighbouring trees I could easily get on the coping. I then fixed a long stick into the hole at the bottom of a rather large flower-pot, & by dragging this upwards pulled off peaches & plums, which fell into the pot & the prizes were thus secured. When a very little boy I remember stealing apples from the orchard, for the sake of giving them away to some boys & young men who lived in a cottage not far off, but before I gave them the fruit I showed off how quickly I could run & it is wonderful that I did not perceive that the surprise & admiration which they expressed at my powers of running, was given for the sake of the apples. But I well remember that I was delighted at them declaring that they had never seen a boy run so fast!

That fun bit of Charlie candor was entirely cut — lest the world learn that he picked fruit that wasn’t his when he was eight.

lyellHe had this to say about Charles Lyell, one of his greatest influences:

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. On such occasions, while absorbed in thought, he would throw himself into the strangest attitudes, often resting his head on the seat of a chair, while standing up. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Frank removed the best part of that one – Lyell’s quirk with the chair. See how it reads without that:

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzngk.

In one long passage, Charles offers incisive character sketches of a half dozen colleagues and friends:

[Scottish botanist Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of brownhealth, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy. He was rather given to sneering at anyone who wrote about what he did not fully understand: I remember praising Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences to him, and he answered, “Yes, I suppose that he has read the prefaces of very many books.”

owenI often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success. Poor dear Falconer, who was a charming man, had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day,” and so it has proved.

hookerAt a somewhat later period I became very intimate with [botanist Joseph Dalton] Hooker, who has been one of my best friends throughout life. He is a delightfully pleasant companion & most kind-hearted. One can see at once that he is honourable to the back-bone. His intellect is very acute, & he has great power of generalisation. He is the most untirable worker that I have ever seen, & will sit the whole day working with the microscope, & be in the evening as fresh & pleasant as ever. He is in all ways very impulsive & somewhat peppery in temper; but the clouds pass away almost immediately. He once sent me an almost savage letter for a reason which will appear ludicrously small to an outsider, viz. because I maintained for a time the silly notion that our coal-plants had lived in shallow water in the sea. His indignation was all the greater because he could not pretend that he should ever have suspected that the Mangrove (and a few other marine plants which I named) had lived in the sea, if they had been found only in a fossil state. On another occasion he was almost equally indignant because I rejected with scorn the notion that a continent had formerly extended between Australia & S. America. I have known hardly any man more lovable than Hooker.

huxA little later I became intimate with Huxley. His mind is as quick as a flash of lightning & as sharp as a razor. He is the best talker whom I have known. He never writes & never says anything flat. Given his conversation no one would suppose that he could cut up his opponents in so trenchant a manner as he can do & does do. He has been a most kind friend to me & would always take any trouble for me. He has been the mainstay in England of the principle of the gradual evolution of organic beings. Much splendid work as he has done in Zoology, he would have done far more, if his time had not been so largely consumed by official & literary work, & by his efforts to improve the education of the country.

He would allow me to say anything to him: many years ago I thought that it was a pity that he attacked so many scientific men, although I believe that he was right in each particular case, & I said so to him. He denied the charge indignantly, & I answered that I was very glad to hear that I was mistaken. We had been talking about his well-deserved attacks on Owen, so I said after a time, “How well you have exposed Ehrenberg’s blunders;” he agreed and added that it was necessary for science that such mistakes should be exposed. Again after a time, I added: “Poor Agassiz has fared ill under your hands.” Again I added another name, & now his bright eyes flashed on me, & he burst out laughing, anathematising me in some manner. He is a splendid man & has worked well for the good of mankind.

herschelI may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to. He was very shy & he often had a distressed expression. Lady Caroline Bell, at whose house I dined at the C. of Good Hope, admired Herschel much, but said that he always came into a room as if he knew that his hands were dirty, & that he knew that his wife knew that they were dirty.

That priceless passage, including some of the best available portraits of these guys, was reduced by Frank Darwin to this yawny blob of paste:

[Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy.

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to.

Gah!

Finally, a passage that captured the personality of two major figures of the time and illustrated one of the human foibles Darwin disliked most — the craving for status and glory:

All the leading geologists were more or less known by me, at the time when geology was advancing bucklandwith triumphant steps. I liked most of them, with the exception of [geologist and minister The Very Rev. William] Buckland who though very good-humoured & good-natured seemed to me a vulgar & almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science. He was not, however, selfish in his desire for notoriety; for Lyell, when a very young man, consulted him about communicating a poor paper to the Geol. Soc. which had been sent him by a stranger, & Buckland answered — “You had better do so, for it will be headed, ‘Communicated by Charles Lyell’, & thus your name will be brought before the public.

murchThe services rendered to geology by Murchison by his classification of the older formations cannot be over-estimated; but he did not possess a philosophical mind. He was very kind-hearted & would exert himself to the utmost to oblige anyone. The degree to which he valued rank was ludicrous, & he displayed this feeling & his vanity with the simplicity of a child. He related with the utmost glee to a large circle, including many mere acquaintances, in the rooms of the Geolog. Soc. how the Czar Nicholas, when in London, had patted him on the shoulder & had said, alluding to his geological work — “Mon ami, Russia is grateful to you,” & then Murchison added rubbing his hands together, “The best of it was that Prince Albert heard it all.” He announced one day to the Council of the Geolog. Soc. that his great work on the Silurian system was at last published; & he then looked at all who were present & said, “You will every one of you find your name in the Index,” as if this was the height of glory.

The whole passage was cut.

norabarlowI could go on and on. Over two dozen passages like these were cut out of the Autobiography, draining much of the color and humanity out of Darwin’s self-portrait.

The reason we know what was cut, btw, is that granddaughter Nora Barlow’s 1958 edition includes a list, in the back, of the formerly excised passages.

As I said last time, I do understand Frank’s impulse here, even though all of these people were dead at the time of publication except Huxley. But I am terribly grateful for Nora (at left).

It wasn’t the character sketches that put the Darwins at each other’s throats, though. It was the question of whether Charles Darwin’s description of the development of his own religious views should see the light of day.

We’ll look under that rock next time.

Screwing with Darwin 1

darwinsshhCharles Darwin wrote a terrific book. I loved it the first time I read it, then read it twice more. And the more I read it, the more I liked it. Just super.

Not everyone feels the same about this book. Some were so disturbed by what he wrote that they cut whole passages out before its publication. Most people didn’t get to read the book in its complete and original form until 1958, when the excised passages were restored.

What? No no, not that Darwin book. I’m talking about his Autobiography.

Darwin sat down to write his autobiography in May 1876, “as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult,” he added, “for life is nearly over with me.” He apparently knew this from a line on the title page he had just written: Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Chills.

The idea to write a sketch of his life came from Julius Victor Carus, a zoologist in Leipzig who had translated the Origin into German and needed some bio-bits from Darwin for an encyclopedia entry. Ten years later, Darwin decided to write “recollections of the development of my mind and character,” driven in part by realizing “that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather [Erasmus Darwin] written by himself, and what he though and did and how he worked.”

He also said he thought the attempt at such a thing “would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.” Ironic, since it was one of his children who was to serve as the slicer-dicer of Charles’s recollections, and one of his children’s children who made it whole again.

The Autobiography first appeared publicly as part of Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by his son Francis, a.k.a. Frank, and published in 1887.

Poor dear Frank is our villain in this tale, his father’s own Lord Braybrooke. But the more you learn about why Frank Darwin did what he did, the harder it is to fault him too thoroughly. Unlike Braybrooke’s flaying of Pepys’ Diary, Frank acted out of primary concern for the reputation of the author, his father, and the strongly expressed wishes of his mother Emma. Usually the author’s desires are plenty clear — he wrote the words he wanted included. But there was some disagreement about whether he ever intended to publish it, which does complicate the sorting of intent.

It got nasty. In the five years between Darwin’s death and the publication of the Autobiography, the Darwin family tore itself up over what should appear and not appear in the book. At one point, one wing of the family considered suing the other. So Frank did his best.

Then 71 years later, with the principals in the original fight all safely dead, his niece did better.

In its original unbuggered form, the Autobiography was a genuine page-turner, full of the kind of keen observation that made Darwin Darwin. Instead of the natural world, Darwin’s eye and mind are turned on himself and those around him, as well as the sometimes agonizing and deeply honest development of his own opinions. He says both flattering and unflattering things about people living and dead and expresses opinions both kosher and heretical.

In its buggered form, Darwin is an undiscerning dodderer. He likes everybody and everything just fine, especially those alive at the time of publication. (That’s right — in an interesting reversal, the dead are the only ones of whom Frank allows his dad to speak ill.) And the wonderfully complicated ebb and flow of his opinions on religion is reduced to a hazy, misleading mumble in favor of the status quo.

Fortunately for me, it was Nora’s edition that reached me first, which is probably why I read it more than once. But I wasn’t fully aware of its tortuous history until much more recently.

I’ll start next time with the whitewashing of his commentaries on the folks around him, then get to religion in #3.