Friday, May 8, 2009

The Wire, the Darwins, re-ups and the N word

OK, confession time! After the Darwin bicentenary, even as a hardened Darwin fan, I had had my fill of darwinizing*, at least for a while. And after writing, editing and launching The Rough Guide to Evolution, I was a little maxed out on evolution. 

So, what did I do to purge my mind of Darwin and evolution (as a necessary prerequisite for renewing my interest)? Since February, I have watched four series of the excellent cult TV series, The Wire. In fact, this evening I started the first episode of the final fifth series.

But why am I telling you this? Surely, there is no connection between Darwin, evolution and The Wire? Well, according to its originator, David Simon, The Wire draws inspiration from the epic poetry and tragic drama of Ancient Greece (with some not-so-hidden clues: "The Greek" is a main character and in Series Four, Prez reads out test questions in class on Greek myths). 

And as Jonathan Gotschall, and other proponents of literary Darwinism have shown, you need evolution to explain the world of Homer (see Gotschall's book: The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer). So, how long, I wonder, before the literary Darwinists start deconstructing The Wire?!

But there is a more shocking link between The Wire and Charles and Emma Darwin... 

Before I reveal it, we have to be clear that some words are so offensive that they can never be used in polite company (nor written here!). For example, after a visit to Darwin's home town Shrewsbury, I dried up, while trying explain the etymological origins of "Grope Lane" to a young lady, and said she would just have to Google it

But the cast of The Wire are not "polite company", and one word that is thrown around repeatedly on the show is the N word (particularly in its Rap reincarnation with an "a" at the end). This is a word that remains not just highly offensive, but highly controversial (there has even been a documentary discussing whether it should be used even among African Americans).

Now, it is well known that Darwins were on the side of the angels in the debate over slavery, but they lived long before the birth of political correctness. So, take a guess as to what nickname Emma Darwin used for Charles?...

But while the very word is now seen as so offensive as to be unrepeatable, the Darwins' use is a back-handed compliment to people of colour, as it is meant to highlight the fact that Charles was very hard-working. I can find no instances in which the Darwins used it as a racist term of abuse (although Darwin did use it to describe slave ants).

Of course, there is another link between the Darwin-Wedgwood family and The Wire: (ab)use of drugs. Charles Darwin's excesses were limited to alcohol, cigarettes and snuff, but his elder brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin suffered the misery of long-term opium addiction. CD's grandfather, the physician-poet Erasmus Darwin, was a liberal prescriber and user of the drug—in fact his wife (and CD's grandmother) Mary Howard may well have died from overuse of alcohol and opium. Erasmus Darwin also prescribed it for CD's uncle, Thomas Wedgwood (an associate of that well-known opium eater, Coleridge).

So, maybe I have a distorted sense of humour, but a smile crosses my face when, in an act of creative anachronism, I imagine a Baltimorean Emma Darwin discussing her brother-in-law's drug use with her husband: "N-, that man cannot do without his re-up, yo!"**


*a term in fact coined by Coleridge to disparage the speculations of Erasmus Darwin, CD's grandfather.

**And if you think I have an over-active imagination, in her novel "Charles Darwin in Cyberspace", Claire Burch has an ergot-intoxicated Emma Darwin slipping between 19th Century England and 20th Century New York!

1 comment:

H. Lewis Smith said...