7 December 2008

Emma Darwin's recipe book "revived and illustrated"

I'm a big fan of celebrating the humanity of our science heroes, as it helps to dampen the unfortunate tendency towards hero worship exhibited by people who otherwise count themselves rationalists.

Don't get me wrong; trumpeting the contributions of great scientists to our civilasation* civilisation from the rooftops is absolutely appropriate. What I don't like is when this crosses into the absurd and we do things like go into paroxysms of religious veneration over their artefacts ('Oooo, Newton's fingernail clippings! Squeeee!!!') that would make their owners blush if not grab us by the shoulders and tell us to knock it off already with our genuflecting.

Don't get me wrong (part 2); these artefacts can be really good for bringing their owners' humanity home to us in a visceral way (as I recently experienced in the NHM'S Darwin exhibition which is chock full of Darwin's personal belongings), and they also serve a very important purpose in historical scholarship. Let's just not get silly about it, 'kay?

In the case of Darwin, this is especially important because when people treat his name or image as somehow sacred for its own sake, it's not only inappropriate (see Thomas Henry Huxley's views on the matter here), but it underscores one of the creationists' favourite lines, 'Darwinism is a religion'. Sure, the Onion recently used Darwinism to parody the absurdity of worshipping religious relics but I am pretty sure I also detected a hint of self-parody there.

Putting our science heroes on too high a pedestal also reinforces the harmful idea that 'we' (mere mortals) can't hope to attain such intellectual greatness as someone like Darwin. It would be terrible to put the Darwins of tomorrow off their science by making them think they have absolutely no hope of ever measuring up.

As such, accounts of Darwin's youth, his faults and foibles, his personal relationships, his illnesses and especially the routines of daily life are most welcome. And so, as a prime example of the latter, I give you Mrs. Charles Darwin's Recipe Book: Revived and Illustrated with a preface by acclaimed Darwin biographer Janet Browne ~

...which seems to me like it might make a pretty good stocking stuffer for those culinary-minded Darwin worshippers fans out there.

*how embarrassing (thanks, Richard)


Bob O'Hara said...

It sounds like it should have a lot of recipes for pickled barnacles.

Richard Carter, FCD said...

I half agree and half disagree about the artefacts thing... As a former archaeologist, I'm big into artefacts. Umberto Eco in 'Travels in Hyperreality' makes the point that proper museums are about real artefacts, rather than faked experiences (I paraphrase). I agree entirely. But people can go a bit over-the-top on the artefacts front. I don't know about Newton's fingernail clippings, but I thought Galileo's finger was a bit odd when I saw it in Florence!

Karen James said...

There's a fine line between veneration and appreciation, and I suppose that's what you mean by 'half agree and half disagree' (?)

I tried to articulate that line in this post, but it's difficult, so I'm going to try again:

When I saw Darwin's geological hammer in the exhibition I thought 'wow that's flippin' cool; Darwin was a real guy after all; it looks heavy (his bag must've been real heavy with all those rocks inside)' etc., but was also fighting off feelings of 'ooo, Darwin's hand touched that!'.

Same when I had the mockingbird footpads in eppendorf tubes on my desk... 'omg these were on the Beagle!' came to mind several times but whether that was an expression of veneration or appreciation I'm not sure actually.

Karen James said...

pickled barnacles nom nom nom

Karen James said...

Richard, I just read your earlier (much earlier!) 'Galileo's finger' post and all I can say is 'yes'. It's obvious to me that we agree on this. If after reading my post here you think we disagree then I haven't articulated myself properly (damn).

Anna Faherty said...

Museums are about helping people acquire information (like the thought about Darwin's bag being heavy) but are also about generating affective outcomes (like wow, how cool). The challenge for those choosing which artefacts to display and how is whether they can deliver both these aspects. Sometimes it can seem much easier to create affective outcomes in a more interactive exhibit or event but - as both Karen and Richard have said - you can get that from some well-chosen and well-interpreted artefacts too.

Eric Heupel said...

Wonderful discussion (especially the pickled barnacles!)... with my own son, going through some of the diary entries clearly lets Johann identify with Darwin and his feelings and fears. He saw that Darwin grew and developed just like all of us do. Clearly he was brilliant, but not super-human.