‘Acts of Kindness’ Event, Saturday 23 March

As part of Cambridge Science Festival, on Saturday 23 March 2013, the Menagerie Theatre Company is holding a full day event ‘Acts of Kindness’, centred around ‘The Altruists’, a new play by Craig Baxter (writer of Re:Design and Let Newton Be!). The Altruists is about the lives and ideas of evolutionary biologists, George Price, Bill Hamilton and John Maynard Smith in the late 1960s and early 70s.


The story hones in on the tragic figure of George Price whose work and life so fatally mirrored each other. A brilliant but under-achieving scientist and inveterate milk-drinker, he deserted his wife and children in the USA, and moved to swinging London in 1967. While studying altruism with Hamilton and Maynard Smith, he started to live out his research by giving away all of his possessions to the poor. Plagued by mental illness, he was a committed atheist who claimed he had seen Jesus, and looked forward to the day he would spend his final penny. Price’s story is tragic, but it is framed both within a world of new scientific ideas and a rapidly changing social climate of the late 60s and early 70s.


There will be sessions on game theory, bi-polar disorder, and the presentation of science on stage.


The Darwin Correspondence Project is organising a session from 2.30 to 3.30pm on:


Sympathy and altruism: Charles Darwin’s moral theories and The Altruists


Despite present neo-Darwinist debates, Darwin himself was not concerned with altruism, and he and his supporters distanced themselves from the positivist ideas of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. He did not think of moral questions in terms of ‘altruism’ or ‘egoism’ but, instead, his moral vocabulary included ‘sympathy’ and ‘selfishness’, and his project was to investigate the nature and origins of ‘conscience’ and ‘moral sense’. Through short talks by invited speakers, excerpts from The Altruists, and discussion, the session will compare and contrast Darwin’s moral theories with those of the characters in the play from historical, philosophical, and scientific points of view.


Catherine Wilson (Philosophy, York)
Joel Peck (Genetics, Cambridge)
Paul White (Darwin Correspondence Project)


Venue: Robinson Theatre, Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge CB2 8PE


Free to all.

Further details and booking for all the sessions at:


Supported by the John Templeton Foundation, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Black Venus

Black Venus


The last movie in our film series was the controversial Black Venus (Vénus Noire, 2010), by director Abdellatif Kechiche. The film is based on the life of Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman, who was exhibited in early nineteenth-century in Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus”. Kechiche’s film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival, and was previously shown as part of the Mosaïques Festival at the Institut Français in London. Kechiche later said that he had felt a ‘need’ to tell Sartje’s story (see the end of ‘Conversations with Abdlelatif Kechiche’ here).


Although Darwin did not see or know Sara Baartman– he was born one year before Sara’s exhibition in London– our speaker James Moore, from the Open University, pointed out that the world in which Darwin the young Darwin had grown up was that of grotesque exhibitionism and disregard for Human Nature. Darwin used the now offensive term ‘Hottentot’ to refer to peoples of south-western Africa in his letters of queries about expression.


He also used it several times in his correspondence with Charles Lyell to discuss intellectual gradation along the vertebrate scale, as well as the destruction of non-white races in a fashion that we find abhorrent today. Yet, Darwin’s conclusion, as opposed to Agassiz’s theory, was that humans had a single progenitor and consist of a single species.


Sara Baartman’s remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002, and the movie shows this in its end credits. However, the discussion after the film centred on how the second half lingers on Sara’s degradation in libertine salons and Parisian brothels. This makes for upsetting and distressing watching, that could be seen as voyeuristic or a reflection on an uncomfortable, unpalatable truth.


Listen to Jim Moore’s introduction to the film here.






Proteus is a bit of an Unidentified Film Object. A work that mixes documentary with animation, its subject is a scientist who walked a tight line between arts and sciences. Is the film a documentary or an artistic vision? As our guest speaker Nick Hopwood pointed out, Proteus is not an academic essay. Nor is it a documentary as we have learnt to expect them – with actors walking around pretending to be nineteenth-century naturalists on a day trip. The connections it draws between Haeckel’s inner life and work and the Ancient Mariner may be the fruit of director David Lebrun’s poetic and imaginative take on the great scientist life rather than a historical fact.


However, the tension between Haeckel’s scientific mind and his artistic bent could be felt even in a short, self-deprecative letter to Darwin – although he seems to have hidden behind a light, and apparently slightly condescending reference to Darwin’s family female members:

“You may, however, apart from a detailed representation of the Rhizopod organism, not find much that is valuable, particularly not much that is useful for the theory of descent. Perhaps the delicate siliceous shells can provide you an aesthetic pleasure, or at least, perhaps, they might serve the female members of your family as embroidery patterns or architectural ornaments in the making of feminine works.”

(Haeckel to Darwin, 2 January 1864)


Haeckel’s radiolarian collections of plates became an example of art forms in nature that influenced the pattern books of Art Nouveau design. A propagandist of Darwinism, who coined the word ‘ecology’, Haeckel was also a visionary artist whose work is strikingly remembered in this unexpected, entrancing movie.


You can listen to Nick Hopwood’s presentation here.

The Elephant Man

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, was in Cambridge on Wednesday to introduce David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man.


Thanks to world-wide publicity, magnificence of performance and make-up, (the Academy was prompted to create a new category of Oscar for Best Make-up), The Elephant Man is considered one of Lynch’s masterpieces. The film received eight Academy Award nominations and won the Bafta for Best Film, Best Actor (John Hurt) and Best Production Design.


Based on Frederick Treves reminiscences, it presents itself as is the story of Joseph (John) Merrick, a man suffering from severe deformities exhibited in a penny gaff shop in Whitechapel.


Most of the discussion focused on the problems the film posed, and the way movies and historical scholarship interact. A great piece of cinematography, the movie nevertheless confronts historians with serious issues.


Part of the problem comes from the fact that, although the film made Merrick one of the most famous side show participants, his act was virtually unknown in the nineteenth century. At the time Merrick was actually taking part in a rather dated form of freak show, a ‘footnote’ or ‘an anomaly’ in the history of entertainment in the capital in the 1880s.


Vanessa Toulmin particularly questioned the stereotyped depiction of the showman, who is unnamed in the movie, and portrayed as an alcoholic. Merrick had willingly signed a contract with a syndicate of four showmen. The manager, Tom Norman, far from being an alcoholic was actually member of a Temperance Society. The Norman family’s collection is still kept in the National Fairground Archive. Lynch had based his script on Treve’s 1920s reminiscences,  but was not so interested in depicting the real world of shows and entertainment of the late nineteenth-century London. A fact that is not clearly perceived amongst the level of care and details brought to the set-décor and costumes.


The issue of exploitation by the medical profession also came up. The movie presents Treves as a conflicted, repentant scientist who, although uses Merrick to further his career, takes him out of the gutter and, ultimately, makes his life worthwhile.  One could also deplore the mawkish ending to the movie, which sentimentally turns the ‘phenomenon’  into, not a Man, but a kind of angel – once more depersonalising the Human Being that was Joseph Merrick.


Listen to the film introduction by Vanessa Toulmin here.



Inherit the wind

The Darwin Correspondence Project was presenting yesterday the first instalment of the Darwin and Human Nature film series, “Inherit the wind”.


Inherit the Wind still

Inherit the Wind


If you ever have wondered about the title, it comes from Proverbs 11:29, which in the King James Bible reads:


He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind:

and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart…


In 1925, John T. Scopes created trouble in the house and was convicted for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in high school, contrary to the Butler Act, a 1925 Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of man’s origin.


The 1960 famous Hollywood adaptation of the same name, based on the 1955 play (the first film ever showed on a plane) is still a favourite today, especially thanks to Spencer Tracy, Fredrich March and Gene Kelly’s powerful portrayals of Drummond, Hornbeck and Brady.


Yesterday evening, the movie was introduced by Joe Cain (University College, London) and David Kirby (University of Manchester).The discussion that followed the show raised some interesting points. For instance, whilst the film does not claim to be a historical representation of the Scopes trial, it is often taken at such. This, in turn, put into perspective past and contemporary representations of Darwinism and its opponents. Joe Cain also pointed out that the build-up of the movie, and, as a matter of fact, of the trial itself, were a deviations of what was really at stake – a discussion of the origins of man somehow veered into a discussion of the whole creation.


Listen to the film introductions by Joe Cain and David Kirby here.


To come back to yesterday’s session…it was almost certainly the first time that the Arts Picture House audience had been led into a heartfelt a cappella rendition of “Give me that old time religion…”


If you are in Cambridge, please join us tomorrow evening for the Elephant Man. The film will be presented by Vanessa Toulmin from the University of Sheffield.

‘Darwin and Human Nature’ Film Series

22—31 October 2012


at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

38-39 St. Andrews Street

Cambridge CB2 3AR


Booking on: 0871 902 5720 or online here


The Darwin Correspondence Project presents a season of four films that explore the political, social and cultural implications of Darwinian ideas about human nature.   Expert speakers will introduce each film and there will be time for discussion after each screening.


Supported by the John Templeton Foundation, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


Monday 22 October, 6pm

Inherit the Wind

Introduced and with discussion led by:  Joe Cain (University College, London) and David Kirby (University of Manchester)

Director: Stanley Kramer. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly.

USA 1960. 128 mins, b/w.


Tracy and March deliver outstanding performances as two rival lawyers in this gripping courtroom drama, inspired by the 1925 ‘Scopes Monkey’ trial of a young Tennessee state school teacher charged with illegally teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution.  Despite the film (nominated for four Academy Awards) doing much to influence understanding of the original 1925 trial, it is more a contemporary critique of McCarthyism.


Wednesday 24 October, 6pm

The Elephant Man

Introduced and with discussion led by:  Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield)

Director: David Lynch. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft.

USA 1980. 124 mins, b/w.


In this moving and delicate film, Hurt plays the horrifically disfigured John (real name, Joseph) Merrick, who was hideously brutalised in childhood and scrapes a living in freak shows. As he battles with the prejudices of Victorian Society, Merrick’s gentle and refined true character is slowly revealed but his passions are inevitably doomed to frustration.


Monday 29 October, 6.30pm

Proteus: A Nineteenth-Century Vision

Introduced and with discussion led by:  Nick Hopwood (HPS, Cambridge) and Shelley Innes (Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge)

Director: David Lebrun. Starring: Marian Seldes, Corey Burton, Richard Dysart.

USA 2004. 60 mins.


A rare chance to see this beautifully animated documentary about the roles of science and art in the life of the 19th-century naturalist and fanatical classifier Ernst Haeckel. The film features early undersea exploration by the HMS Challenger expedition (1872—6) and Haeckel’s intricate and wonderful drawings of 4,000 species of the single-celled organism radiolarian.



Wednesday 31 October, 5.30pm

Black Venus (Vénus Noire)

Introduced and with discussion led by:  James Moore (Open University) and Sadiah Qureshi (University of Birmingham)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche. Starring: Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs, Olivier Gourmet.

France/Belgium 2010. 159 mins. In French, Afrikaans and English, with English subtitles.


A realistic and sensitive depiction of the tragic story of the black domestic servant Saartjes  Baartman (Torres), who leaves Southern Africa in 1808 hoping to find a better life.  She becomes part of a humiliating carnival act in London freak shows and Paris salons, and is declared the missing link between ape and man by French anatomists.


Ticklish baby!


Female Orangutan, from Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago

Female Orangutan, from Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago


Darwin had began to test his theory about expression in 1867 by gathering  information on emotional behaviour through a questionnaire, originally hand-written and later printed, which he sent to a variety of correspondents around the world ; Darwin’s questionnaire included questions on laughter and other expression of mirth, as first seen in his letter to F.J.H von Mueller in 1867:

(6) When in good spirits do the eyes sparkle, with the skin round & under them a little wrinkled & with the mouth a little drawn back in the corners?

(12) Is laughter ever carried to such an extreme as to bring tears into the eyes?

Darwin wanted to show that most expressions are innate in humans and that shared expressions are evidence of common descent not just of all human races, but of humans and other animals.

As mentioned in our previous post,  Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that “If a young chimpanzee be tickled—and the armpits are particularly sensitive to tickling, as in the case of our children,—a more decided chuckling or laughing sound is uttered; though the laughter is sometimes noiseless. “[Expressions page 132]

Darwin’s readers at the time could only imagine the scene, whichg Darwin’s description made very vivid… Well, for us,  it is actually possible to see baby monkeys being tickled and hear their laugh!

When in 2009, scientists studied human laughter, the BBC reported the piece of news by illustrating it with a video of a ticklish young orangutan (The scientists’ conclusion was that human laughter can be traced back to 10 to 16 million years ago).  You will surely smile when seeing this ticklish baby!





Soulful eyes…

Portrait of Lesula, Terese Hart (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) http://www.flickr.com/photos/teresehart/7975756791/in/photostream/

Portrait of Lesula, Terese Hart (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) http://www.flickr.com/photos/teresehart/7975756791/in/photostream/

The discovery of the lesula, (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) a species of monkey previously unknown to scientists, has led to a number of articles highlighting the similarities between the soulful, large-eyed gaze of the monkey and numerous famous faces of art and pop culture; the Guardian blog compared the monkey to a figure from a Rembrandt painting, while the CNN blog likens it to actor Jake Gyllenhall . We at the Darwin Project were reminded immediately of Darwin’s desire to draw connections between animal and human features, especially in his work Expression of the emotions (1872).


Darwin’s fascination with simians began early. In 1838, as a young man recently returned from his voyage around the world, Darwin went several times to the gardens of the Zoological Society, where he took notes on the human-like traits of the orang-utan Jenny. He wrote about her to his sister Susan, describing how she “kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child.— She then looked very sulky  …, she had great work to stop whining, she at last succeeded, & then got the apple, with which she jumped into an arm chair & began eating it, with the most contented countenance imaginable.—“ (letter to Susan Darwin, 1 April 1838)


Jenny, the orang-utan observed by Darwin. The Penny Magazine, 3rd February, 1838. © Cambridge University Library

Jenny, the orang-utan observed by Darwin. The Penny Magazine, 3rd February, 1838. © Cambridge University Library

Decades later, when Darwin published Expression, he devoted a whole section to the emotional responses of monkeys and apes. After saying that the different races of man express their emotions and sensations with remarkable uniformity throughout the world, Darwin wrote: “Some of the expressive actions of monkeys are interesting in another way, namely from being closely analogous to those of man” (Expression, p. 131). He describes interactions between humans and monkeys in a way that conveys his fascination and affection for them, often comparing them to human children, for example: “If a young chimpanzee be tickled—and the armpits are particularly sensitive to tickling, as in the case of our children,—“; Darwin, of course, was himself a doting father as well as a keen observer. They monkeys and apes in captivity in London gave Darwin ample opportunity for observing their behaviour.


Fig.18 from Expression, a Chimpanzee disappointed and sulky

Fig.18 from Expression, a Chimpanzee disappointed and sulky

Darwin’s observations of monkeys were nested in a larger study of similarities of behaviour between humans and animals. Simians served his purposes particularly well because of their physiological similarities with humans; in particular the facial characteristics that lends itself to easy anthropomorphization. He also relied heavily on domestic animals, such as dogs, which he was able to spend even more time observing, and with whom he had a close personal affinity.


It is worth noting, however, that not everyone was as scientific in their observations of monkeys as Darwin himself; in 1868 the zoologist Edward Blyth sent Darwin a set of observations that , like the CNN article, culminated in a comparison with a contemporary personality: the particular monkey he was describing presented “the most ludicrous caricature imaginable of H.M. the King of Prussia” – a figure easily as familiar in the nineteenth century as any celebrity is in the twenty-first.

Reflections on a BBQ

Roasting meat over a fire. Photo by Chi sin Gweilo, CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) http://www.flickr.com/photos/gweilo/3365231330/

Roasting meat over a fire. Photo by Chi sin Gweilo, CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) http://www.flickr.com/photos/gweilo/3365231330/


Our previous post blog post explored how curiosity and imitation could be unique human traits. But what helped us to evolve into the beings that exhibit these unique traits? A recent theory attributes our evolutionary success to, believe it or not, cooking, and, specifically, to cooking with fire. So, here is something to ponder on for when/if we next have a few days of barbecue summer.


Well before Darwin’s time, Boswell, in his Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, (1773) called humans the “cooking animal”. Darwin himself considered the art of making a fire was “probably the greatest [discovery], excepting language, ever made by man” (Descent, 1871, 1:132). However, in spite of this he did not regard cooking as anything more than a way for humans to respond to a natural challenge, and to make hard and stringy roots digestible. Edward Burnett Tylor, an author praised by Darwin in his correspondence, argued in 1878 that “People in Every culture know how to make fire, and everywhere they use it to improve their food”.


In the 1960s, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in The Raw and the Cooked that “cooking marks the transition from nature to culture” but “through it and by means of it, the human state can be defined with its entire attribute.”  Levi-Strauss’ theory, however, was purely cultural and psychological. The use of fire – and cooking – could have happened after human biological evolution.


So what is the more recent thinking on this front?


In 2009, Richard Wrangham, The Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, published Catching Fire, how cooking made us Human. Wrangham crossed a bridge and argued that not only are humans the only species to use fire for cooking, but are in fact biologically adapted to eating cooked food.  We became what we are because we ate cooked food, and there is a biological and nutritional explanation to our uniqueness…


If you want to know more about Richard Wrangham’s interesting theory, you can enjoy an interview and PowerPoint presentation on “the impact of fire on human evolution” that he gave as part of the Darwin 2009 Festival in Cambridge.



So, when you are about to barbecue that rib or vegetable kebab, remember that this is what “helped make our brains uniquely large, providing a dull human body with a brilliant human mind”.

Ideas from Darwin & Human Nature Conference: Tim Crane on Human Uniqueness

Darwin Conference Poster


Imitating for curiosity’s sake: what makes us uniquely human?



Ever since Darwin’s day, scientists have been seeking an evolutionary explanation for what differentiates humans from apes.  Many suggestions have been made, ranging from our brains to our language, to laughing and empathy.


At our recent Darwin and Human Nature conference held at CRASSH in Cambridge on 19 and 20 August, Tim Crane, Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy in the University of Cambridge, discussed how philosophers can contribute to the discussion. Tim’s particular interest is the philosophy of mind, its place in the natural world, and in particular, how the mental lives of humans differ from those of other animals.


Tim’s approach was to discuss the “interesting differences” between humans and animals, which he listed as language, ‘analogical’ reasoning, better developed social cognition, or an imitative ability. Out of this, Tim chose to focus on curiosity and imitation. Is it a uniquely human capacity to do something without seeing the point of it or out of pure curiosity, rather than for a rationally understood purpose? If we define imitation as “learning to do an act from seeing it done” (Thorndike 1898), it is clearly a very human activity – but are both humans and apes not able to learn by imitation?


Tim used the findings from Horner and Whiten’s experiment with a puzzle box (2005) which reveal that only human infants copy causally irrelevant (‘opaque’) elements of a task. The hypothesis is that this is the developmental mechanism for pure curiosity – interest in things for their own sake. Tim agrees with recent psychologist David Premack’s view that with ‘The child imitates to imitate, whereas the ape imitates to obtain food’ (Premack (2010) Why Humans Are Unique, Perspectives on Psychological Science January 2010 vol. 5 no. 1 22-32). Or, to broaden the perspective, animal abilities are limited adaptations restricted to a single goal, whilst human abilities are domain general and serve indeterminately many goals.


This could be seen as a ‘fundamental’ difference between animals and humans which would run counter to Darwin’s claim that there is no fundamental difference between humans and animals.


But the ontological question remains: could this be a matter of degree, only down to the fact that “Children have the longest childhoods of any primate, much of which is spent in play, practice and exploration, so there is plenty of opportunity to weed out wrongly assimilated aspects of the actions observed’? (Whiten et al, 2005: 280)


The discussion is sure to continue…