Tuesday, July 21, 2009

From Digbeth watesland to darwin-inspired arts space

Just picked this up from the Behind Closer Doors project website:

Two artists from Birmingham are part of an unusual project which has transformed a Digbeth waste-ground into a darwin-inspired exhibition space.

In the wake of the revered scientist’s bicentenary, Helen Grundy and Anne Guest are set to launch Unnatural Selection on 30th July at the Rea garden in Floodgate Street. The project is supported by Arts Council funding and the artists’ collective Behind Closed Doors.

Unnatural Selection aims to replicate Darwin’s methods of using his garden as a laboratory to observe nature, collect samples and carry out experiments.

There is a related workshop on saturday 1st August from 12-3pm.

Hat tip: Lewis Bingle.

Monday, July 13, 2009

PCR in song and video!

The polymerase chain reaction revolutionised molecular biology twenty years ago, opened up the study of ancient DNA from extinct organisms, and similar DNA amplification methods underpin the current revolution in high-throughput sequencing, so it is great to see molecular biology company BioRad celebrating this wonderful technique with a couple of hilarious catchy tongue-in-cheek songs.

Baba Brinkman at the Cambridge Darwin festival

I ducked out of the Cambridge Darwin festival for a variety of reasons, including severe cash flow problems after renovating my house. But Baba Brinkman went and from various sources I hear he had a great time there.

Here he is rapping to David Attenborough in King's College.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Another stray link between Darwin and the Wire...

Perhaps my earlier attempts to draw up links between the Darwins and the cult TV show The Wire were rather fanciful... 

But how about this for a more tangible link (left): Darwin's daughter Annie in the forthcoming film Creation is played by 10-year-old Martha West, daughter of Dominic West, who played Jimmy McNulty in The Wire

Everything connects...

I was suckered too...

In case anyone is thinking I have been too rough in publicising quite how many people have fallen for the Annie myth, let me confess, I was suckered by this story too and that is why I am quite so cross to see reality not match up to mythos. 

Here am I, in that piece of whimsy, the Origin of Species in Dub, falling for the myth that Annie's death influenced Darwin's evolutionary writings: 

The spread of the Annie myth: it's worse than I thought

My posting on the spread of the Annie hypothesis has elicited this interesting posting on "the Angry Bitter Atheist myth"--the idea that a dismissal of religion purely on intellectual grounds isn't enough; instead atheists must also be angry at God for some tragedy or other. In fact, I have tried to avoid calling the "Annie hypothesis" (the claim that Annie's death triggered Darwin's final loss of faith in Christianity), the "Annie myth", for fear of drawing legal action (c.f. the bogus legal action against Simon Singh's use of the term "bogus"). 

But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story has been propagated so widely because it appeals to some human need for an emotional narrative, and so in that sense the term "myth" is appropriate. Plus, those who want to persuade Christians and other religious believers that Darwin was a thoroughly good chap for his work on evolution will wish to avoid the idea that his ideas on evolution had anything to do with his own loss of faith (even though they didn't have much to do with it)--far safer to blame it on a personal tragedy! 

Anyhow, on further investigation, I have found a few more examples of the uncritical acceptance of the Annie myth:
It seems I really do need to get this paper finished and published to prevent this nonsense spreading further!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The surprising spread of the Annie hypothesis

As I have pointed out in previous posts, I have been working on a paper on the unsubstantiated claim that his daughter Annie's death led to Darwin's abandonment of Christianity. Once the paper is press, I will present my analysis of just what flimsy evidence the "Annie hypothesis" was based on by its originator, James Moore. But for now, let's just take a look at how far this modern "Darwin myth" has spread and how many people have suckered by it (even Carl Zimmer has been taken in!). 

Note, I use the term "myth" not so much in the sense of "false story" although I do think it is false, or at least unfalsifiable, but more because so many people wish to draw moral lessons from it. Most people seem far more comfortable with the idea that Darwin gave up Christianity only after something as traumatic as the death of a daughter, rather for the mostly dry intellectual reasons he cites in his Autobiography.

Anyhow, here is a draft of a table from the paper, showing quite how far the "Annie hypothesis" has spread. If you know of any additional striking examples of its presentation in print or on screen, please let us know by adding comments.

Table 1 Selected examples of the Annie Hypothesis in print, on screen and online



Quotations and context

In Print



1859 and All That: Remaking the Story of Evolution-and-Religion James R. Moore



"Perhaps it was the "bitter and cruel" death in 1851 of ten-year-old Annie, his favourite child, just a month after he had read the moral challenge to that doctrine in Francis Newman's "excellent" spiritual Autobiography Faith, that prompted Darwin, as he later said, to give up Christianity once and for all."

Of Love and Death: Why Darwin 'gave up Christianity', James Moore


See text of paper for discussion (in preparation).

Darwin, Desmond and Moore


Account of Annie’s illness and death interspersed with interpolations about Darwin’s loss of faith.

Charles Darwin, Voyaging. Janet Browne.


“His sense of God had virtually disappeared along with his daughter Anne.”

Rebecca Stetoff, , Charles Darwin And The Evolution Revolution


"Darwin's own Christianity, never very deeply held, gradually eroded as he worked out his theory of natural selection; the remnants of his faith were wiped out entirely by the suffering and death of his daughter Annie in 1851. Later in life he described himself as an Agnostic--one who questions but does not flatly deny the existence of God. ... [Annie's] death destroyed the last lingering remnants of Darwin's Christianity."

Evolution, The Triumph of an Idea, Carl Zimmer


“He could no longer believe that Anne’s soul was in heaven, that her soul had survived her unjustified death. It was then, 13 years after Darwin discovered natural selection, that he gave up Christianity”

Annie's Box Randal Keynes


"After Annie's death, Charles set the Christian faith firmly behind him."

Emma Darwin, Edna Healey


“The death of Annie confirmed Charles’s loss of faith”

Darwin and the Barnacle, Rebecca Stott


“Perhaps he [Darwin] wanted to say what he was beginning to feel himself… that after death there was nothing—no God waiting to scour Annie’s record book…”

Darwin’s Origin of Species, A Biography, Janet Browne


“Annie’s death may have finally tipped Darwin into disbelief”

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen


“The death of Annie in 1851, following the death of his father three years ealier, marks an important point in Darwin’s long, quiet disengagement from religious belief and spirituality”

Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World, George Levine


“But the hard experience of Annie’s death certainly had larger implications for his attitude toward religion, as James Moore has argued in his essay on this subject.”

“That Anna [sic] died on Shakespeare’s birthday is a coincidence (is “intelligent design” an option?) of which I wish to take advantage, as I return to Darwin’s comment that Shakespeare had come to nauseate him.”

Rebel Giants, David Contosta


“ For Charles, the death of this beautiful, kind, and beloved child was the last blow to any faith he had in God.”

“Call the Black Horses” from The Darwin Poems by Emily Ballou


"You can safely put God to bed now/the way you can’t your daughter anymore./Tuck the sheets so tight he cannot move/and lock the bedroom door."

On Screen



The Voyage of Charles Darwin, BBC series


Darwin voiceover on religion over funeral scene

The Devil's Chaplain, BBC documentary


Moore stands over Annie's grave proclaiming that it was here that Darwin lost his Christian faith

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, PBS documentary


Darwin family in black attends church, Darwin stays outside; Moore claims Annie's death destroyed Darwin's Christianity; claim repeated on PBS website

Darwin's Struggle: The Evolution of the Origin of Species BBC documentary


Narrator states that after Annie's death "With his own belief in a Christian God already shaken, Darwin now severed his ties with traditional faith"; Moore links Darwin's statements in the Autobiography about the doctrine of damnation to anger at Annie's death. Moore claims links between Annie's death and "face of Nature" statements in Chapter III of Origin of Species, culminating in declaration "she suffered at Easter that others may live"

Did Darwin kill God? BBC Documentary


Conor Cunningham bizarrely claims Annie died from cholera. Nick Spencer claims Annie's death once and for all finishes Darwin's Christian faith.

Creation (movie)


Director's Statement: "The Darwin we meet in CREATION is a young, vibrant father, husband and friend whose mental and physical health gradually buckles under the weight of guilt and grief for a lost child. Ultimately it is the ghost of Annie, his adored 10 year-old daughter who leads him out of darkness and helps him reconnect with his wife and family."




Wikipedia (accessed in 2009)



"With Annie's death Darwin lost all faith in a beneficent God and saw Christianity as futile. "