Intrigue and bullshit : A night with Darwin

In a world of information banality, I had to spend a night with Darwin to realise why we are no longer intrigued.

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By Jack Peat

Aren’t worms just fascinating? Charles Darwin certainly thought so, he spent weeks on end using elaborate research methods to analyse whether they could sense light, feel hot or cold, smell, feel vibrations or hear. Today we can visit the Galapagos in the click of a button, undress a worm’s anatomy with a Wiki search and take a guided tour of a coral reef as a holiday add-on. In an age where information is so prevalent it has almost banal, I had to spend a night with Darwin and the Central London Humanists to find out why we are no longer intrigued.

Robin Ince, taking the compare role at the Stand Up for Darwin comedy evening at Conway Hall, had a library of Darwin books to choose from as he introduced the great man on his (slightly premature) birthday.  Most known for his works on evolution, the Origin of Species and his observations of the finches on the Galapagos Island, he decided to use…. The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

But he isn’t alone in finding Darwin’s last book the most intriguing. When it was first published in October 1881 it sold thousands of copies in its first few weeks, despite Darwin’s comment that is was “a small book of little moment”. Worms have lost their pseudo-celebrity status since then, but the fact that they captured Darwin’s imagination tells us a lot about the man, and a lot about society as we know it today.

Education

“A book is a friend that will do what no friend does – be silent when you wish to think.” – Will Durant

Education is a journey, not a destination. I arrived at Conway Hall with a copy of Louis L’ Amour’s Education of a Wondering Man in my back pocket, a short work that I’ve read a few times now but it’s one I don’t mind returning to, each time I find myself picking out parts more relevant to my stage of learning. His work, although not  directly referencing rationalism, humanism or atheism, intersected heavily with the wider theme of the night.

Mr L’Amour has no educational qualifications (so to speak), but his thirst for knowledge warrants him recognition from any learning establishment in the world. Forever curious and always eager to know more, his journey from a wandering man to one of the world’s most popular writers was made possible by his appetite for learning. He believed that if people don’t leave school thirsty to learn more then the curriculum has failed – an education shouldn’t be about ticking the right boxes but continuingly making boxes of your own.

The point is that if you don’t have intrigue then you get fed bullshit. Nick Doody took the stage with a shocking revelation –  evolution has caused more deaths than cancer. Whimsy of course, but the next ten minutes was a great portrayal of how easily we get fed rubbish and believe it for the fear of questioning. I wonder, for example, if those of us taking Berocca throughout the winter realise how expensive their urine is? Or whether those checking-in at an airport ever queried why you can take as many 90 mil liquids as you please through security but as soon as one of those exceeds the 100 mil mark you’re a potential terrorist?

We get very easily led because, for the most part, we lack the intrigue to ask. In what may be a variation on the ‘loss aversion’ theory, where people chose to avoid loss rather than making gains, it is the reason dictators still exist, the reason we blame the banking crisis on immigrants and not bankers, and the reason –hence the purpose of the night- we still have evolution sceptics.

This is it

So to the central theme of the night (apologies for my detour) – humanism. Iszi Lawrence opened the night commenting on how nice it was to perform in front of a crowd all looking up with excited faces thinking – “this is it for us”. And that’s the point, why waste our time on earth and not be excited about the now but be concerned about the tomorrow?

Take that attitude and out of the window goes prejudice. Who’s got time for such negativity anyway? Rosie Wilby entered the stage simply stating: “gay marriage to be legalised” – to wit a huge applause went echoing around the hall. Luke Meredith had a similar line to play, wistfully explaining how he was born gay but raised a Methodist. Indeed, the concept of a gay phobia (homophobia) was ripped throughout, Dean Burnett highlighted that it’s rare to see homophobic people shiver with fear when confronted with a gay person like an arachnophobic might when facing a spider.

I returned home after an all-around entertaining night to find Ricky Gervais’ Science stand-up tour on the television. I was tired so turned the TV off after a few minutes, but before I did heard him exclaim: “Fear is the biggest threat to rational thought”. Fitting, I thought, as I started to drift off.

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