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Closing remarks, Charles Darwin symposium

Robyn Williams, ABC Radio National
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

ROBYN WILLIAMS: From today’s wonderful sprint we have learned that there is an enormous amount to talk about regarding Darwin. To summarise at the moment would be too difficult but I will just mention a few things, one of them being that Colin Groves is quite wrong about human history because in 1979 I broadcast a program which featured the fossil beer can, which is found on the Yass Road towards Mungo just outside Canberra. We discovered through the fossil beer can which was several thousand years old that Homo micturans had in fact fallen over and given rise to the apes. As you walk backwards north and in that way got to Flores, had a bit of a party, some of them stayed behind because they didn’t get up in time to move on and go to Georgia where they perambulated around and eventually ended up in Africa. They are walking backwards so people got confused about the direction of how people went. The odd thing is that when we broadcast that, most of our hoaxes turn out to have been correct.

I did a program on the ABC with someone called Wayne King - say it slowly - who is the new head of radio who said that programs had to be shrunk, you get rid of science and you get rid of religion. Within six months of my doing that broadcast, Jonathan Shier was appointed head of the ABC. I mention these things with a certain amount of reserve and deep worry, but I think Colin understands being corrected about these things.

The field is just extraordinary. In the Science Show this week, which you can’t wait to hear, I have the Svante Paabo [director of genetics at Max Plank Institute in Leipzig] announcement of the Neanderthal genome which I think you would have heard about already and which is featured in this week’s journal The Economist. The interesting thing about the Neanderthal genome of which they have 63 per cent, which is an amazing achievement, is that you can home in on bits of the bar code that match our own. So you can see whether lactose intolerance came or went at a certain point. You can also see whether the capacity for language is there, and in the case of Neanderthal it indeed was. So even as of last week we have confirmation of some of Darwin’s ideas relating to human history.

When it comes to what Darwin said about races and what Tony Barta reminded us of - in fact we had an often pervasive broadcast by him on some of these ideas - it is disturbing. It shows you how people like even Darwin and sometimes journalists get up on the stage and go a pundit step too far beyond their possible expertise. Darwin was talking about what were the essential prejudices of his day in the time that he talked about the brain potentials of women and negroids, suggesting that they wouldn’t be as great as the white Europeans. He had no evidence for that. You could test it quite quickly, and Stephen Jay Gould wrote a wonderful book called The Mismeasure of Man in which it was scotched.

However, I will say in Darwin’s defence, and the reason that I put a few quotes in my bit of the Museum book talking about slavery, is that he was totally outspoken. If you can imagine that there on the Beagle was this 22-year-old. Look at a 22-year-old in the next 24 hours - they are incredibly young. I find 45-year-olds young - not that there are any here today. And when Darwin finished his voyage he was 27. Yet there he was with the captain, FitzRoy, who was only slightly older, arguing about slavery. I have a quotation from Darwin’s diary about that very fact and he was absolutely against slavery because he was so concerned about the human lot - a characteristic of his family and the Wedgewoods being enlightened people of an enlightened age mainly. The sort of thing that he wrote about slavery has been interpreted by a couple of people writing a book, one of the Darwin books, suggesting his whole approach to what he did about evolution and human beings was in fact inspired by his family’s anti-slavery point of view.

Religion of course arises. The worry I have about some of the things that are written, and Tom Frame’s book mentioned this, one of the reasons they ask why we got cross about religion is when it is suggested that science is being put up as an alternative religion. This is nonsense. I don’t know anyone who is suggesting that our lot of arguments on the natural way is there to replace any kind of religion. But if you do look at intelligent design and you look at the Wedge document which I quoted at length in my book Unintelligent Design, there they actually say that their intention from the discovery centre, which is the main centre for promoting intelligent design, is to replace materialistic science. They say so several times, and indeed Judge Jones in his summing up of the Dover case pointed out some of this stuff and pointed out some of the lies - his words - that were told by the witnesses even about some of the science that they presented about irreducible complexity. Of course, complexity has been shown to have progenitors again and again - 40 times with regard to the eye and many times with regard to the flagellum. So a certain amount of honesty rather than twisting would be good in such a debate, but only from certain sources in this argument does it come in the kind of mendacious way I describe.

But just to do a segue, it is also this accusation that we are on some sort of religious trip that comes from people who are critical of global warming: they say the environmentalists are just trying to put up an alternative religion. Michael Crichton said that. Freeman Dyson said that in a not very convincing way. I think that this is quite nonsense and it’s rather annoying.

One of the things I found rather startling in Tom Frame’s book is where he says that some of the people who disappointed him in his examination of Darwin and some of the history and some of the arguments was indeed the theologians. We haven’t been in this way disappointed today, but I must say that I have in the past been similarly so.

There are questions about design, I will admit, and anyone who has a prostate or has given birth would really wish that God would get it right. I think it’s best to keep design away from a divine inspiration and see more of a kind of fudge job which quite often is what nature often is trying to do.

There are lots of books on Darwin and some of the related fields. We have been blessed with a few mentions today.

Frank and Jan Nicholas’s book Charles Darwin in Australia is a sheer delight. It was first written in about 1989 and a new edition brought out a few months ago. It is superb. In it you can see some of the pictures that you saw this morning.

There is the book Charles Darwin: An Australian Selection by this Museum which we have heard about as well as Tom Frame’s book [Evolution in the Antipodes: Charles Darwin and Australia] which I have enjoyed.

Darwin’s Armada by Iain McCalman explores some of the ways in which the Pacific has been extended in terms of ideas in recent times.

And Steve Jones, who is a kind of honorary Australian because he is Welsh - I am Welsh - and, as you know, Wales is the original archetypal non-GM human. Everyone else is a foreigner but all Welshmen and Welsh women belong everywhere and Steve Jones who was here only a few weeks ago has written this marvellous book on Darwin’s Island. I highly recommend it.

Where does that leave us? I am concerned about the question of God, which I return to in the Science Show next week. This week is Neanderthal; next week is how you get something from nothing. Alan Guth talks about how in the beginning the universe may have been technically - and this is a bad word - completely empty. There was a quantum fluctuation from which you got a gram and as a result of that you got inflation which produced the universe. So the worry is that God may be a quantum fluctuation but probably isn’t in the terms that we heard this morning.

In terms of our own future this is a more serious matter. If you look at the ways in which human beings have developed, I had two great-great-grandsons of Darwin on the program two weeks ago, Chris Darwin and the aforementioned Matthew Chapman, that is just five generations back. If you look at the human history going back to civilisation 10,000 years ago, that is only 400 generations. Imagine 400 human beings holding hands going back to the time that agriculture and cities were invented. That is a very short time. We have been around for only about 150,000 years. Given the concerns we’ve got, which we heard about at the end, with all the environmental challenges not least global warming, it is one of our great hopes that Homo turns out to be as sapient as he and she might be given half a chance. A lot to think about - a terrific guy. Congratulations to the Museum. Thank you very much indeed.

Date published: 30 April 2009