08.12.2015

Cover of The Dante Club

The evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s simply not the case that I select my leisure reading with a keen eye to the possibility of developing a theme for a blog post from it. And yet here I am again, with a copy of Matthew Pearl’s historical novel The Dante Club (2003) at hand. Set in Boston, Massachusetts, and its environs after the close of the Civil War, The Dante Club takes a historical episode of which I was ignorant—the controversial translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with the aid of a circle of friends, including James Russell Lowell (later one of Darwin’s pallbearers)—and interweaves it with a fictional mystery involving the gruesome murders of a number of prominent Bostonians in ways reminiscent of the punishments accorded to the sinners in the Inferno. Honestly, I had no idea when I removed the book from the shelf at the library that it would afford any fodder for the Science League of America.

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08.05.2015

A. Franklin Shull, via the University of Michigan

The question that I was addressing in part 1—and before that in “Whence Fact, Theory, and Path?”—concerned a familiar threefold distinction between evolution as fact, evolution as theory, and evolution as path. The question is easy enough to state: Who thought of it first? But the answer is hard to discover. In part that’s because there are so many ways of expressing the point: a writer might talk about the “path” or the “course” or the “route” of evolution on the one hand, or about the “theory” or the “causes” or the “process” of evolution on the other hand. In part that’s because so many of those ways could be used not to express the point: a writer who is discussing “the theory of evolution” isn’t necessarily restricted to discussing only the causes or the processes of evolution. So far, the earliest articulation of the distinction I’ve discussed occurs in Principles of Animal Biology (1920), by A. Franklin Shull (above), which might have influenced Winterton Curtis’s use of it in his testimony for the Scopes trial in 1925.

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In 1939, the great African American physician and surgeon Charles Drew organized a massive blood bank, shipping thousands of pints of plasma from New York City to Britain. The shipment saved lives as German bombs shredded English cities. The Red Cross soon brought Drew on board to coordinate its blood banking efforts, a necessary step as World War II expanded through Europe, the Pacific, and to American shores.

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Astronauts surveying the geology of the Grand CanyonAstronaut Roger Chaffee and geologist Elbert King explore the Grand Canyon, March 5-6 1967.
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07.29.2015

A. Franklin Shull, via the University of Michigan

In “Whence Fact, Theory, and Path?” I was talking about what I described as “a familiar threefold distinction between evolution as fact, evolution as theory, and evolution as path.” It’s a current distinction, with its modern locus classicus T. Ryan Gregory’s “Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path” (PDF), which appeared in the inaugural issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach in 2008. But it is also a venerable distinction, appearing as far back as the Scopes trial.

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07.22.2015

Adrian Duplantier. Photo via United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana.

Prompted by his unlikely appearance, bragging of his youthful exploits eating oysters, in Jason Fagone’s Horsemen of the Esophagus (2006), a book on competitive eating that I happened to be reading, I’m discussing Adrian Duplantier (1929–2007), in particular his role in the legal history of the creationism/evolution conflict. (I’m not really all that interested in competitive eating, after all, although I recommend Fagone’s book.) As explained in part 1, Duplantier was the district court judge who oversaw Aguillard et al. v. Treen et al., the case that eventually produced Edwards et al. v. Aguillard et al., the 1987 Supreme Court case that established the unconstitutionality of teaching creationism in the public schools. At issue in the case was the constitutionality of Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act, enacted in 1981. But, as it turns out, there was a competing lawsuit, which delayed—and indeed threatened to derail—Aguillard v. Treen.

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07.15.2015

Adrian Duplantier. Photo via United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana.

The history of the creationism/evolution conflict is stalking me again, and in the unlikeliest contexts. I was recently reading Jason Fagone’s Horsemen of the Esophagus (2006), a book about competitive eating that I acquired on a whim from a used book store in Clovis, California. In a chapter entitled “The Gurgitator Islands”—“gurgitator” is the trademarked term for competitive eaters preferred by the International Federation of Competitive Eating—Fagone relates his visit in March 2005 to Metairie, Louisiana, to attend the Acme World Oyster Eating Championship. While there, he encountered a seventy-eight-year-old federal judge who proudly displayed a plaque commemorating a feat from his younger days: eating forty-one oysters in a minute. “If they gave me two minutes, I think I could eat my age,” he bragged: that would be thirty-nine oysters in a minute. (That’s nothing: the current record for the event is apparently forty-seven dozen oysters in eight minutes, averaging to 70.5 oysters per minute.)

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07.08.2015

Philip Loeb in The Garrick Gaieties, via NYPL Digital Collections

I return at last to “And Thereby Hangs a Tail,” a sketch based on the Scopes trial that appeared in The Garrick Gaieties, a revue that originally ran in 1925. (There were sequels of the same name in 1926 and in 1930.) The lyrics in the sketch are by Lorenz Hart (1895–1943), while the libretto is by Morris Ryskind (1895–1985) and the revue’s director Philip Loeb (1891–1955). The sketch takes place in a courtroom in the jungle, where “[t]he defendant, Abbadaba Darwin, is charged with spreading the pernicious doctrine of evolution, which teaches that that stupid animal, man, is our grandchild.” William Jennings Bryan, played by Loeb (see above), is serving as the prosecutor. After he enters, singing a song praising his importance and betraying his avarice, he examines the defendant. Deciding, after a perfunctory questioning, that the defendant is unquestionably guilty as charged, Bryan turns to orate to the jury, composed of monkeys, about his respect and admiration for their kind.

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One of the joys of working at NCSE is the chance to explore and explain cool science to interested members of the public. Such a chance happened recently when I got a note asking why the Neanderthals went extinct.

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