Tag Archives: natural history museum

The Beasts with Two Backs

Saturday was a busy, busy day. It started when I woke up in bed with two women and an empty champagne bottle. However, because this is the real world, the reason I was in bed with two women was because we’d passed out watching Moulin Rouge. The champagne is more complicated, and remind me to tell you about it some time.

Rashly, I had agreed to meet the Da and the Sis in London for lunch, and so I had to stagger back from Fulwell to Colliers Wood to get myself into some sort of respectable state. On the way, I decided that mobile phones should be banned on buses, purely because when you have a pounding headache and rising nausea, there is little that is more annoying than a guy sitting directly behind you, babbling non-stop for the entire journey. Well, actually, screaming kids are more annoying. There was one of those, too.

I had hoped a shower, a snooze and some lunch would take care of the hangover. Even a hair of the dog at the Princess Louise in Holborn didn’t help. This was particularly lame, as I was supposed to be meeting some of my theatrical chums at the Natural History Museum.

Our destination was the Sexual Nature exhibition, and after half an hour in line in the sun (with a hangover, I don’t think I mentioned that before) we were in. The exhibition, if you haven’t seen it, is basically devoted to the subject of reproduction in the animal kingdom. Reproduction is a hugely important part of life – if you go with Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, it’s basically the meaning of life. But what makes this such an interesting exhibition is the incredible variety of it out there.

The exhibition covers a very wide area, from mating displays to pheromonesto  The Deed Itself to birth and those early days of life. Each section in turn covers a huge and incredible variety. Take the seahorse, where the males are the ones who give birth. Or ducks, in which the females have evolutionary strategies to deal with gang rape. Or the angler fish, for whom the males are so much smaller than the females that scientists initially thought they were parasites (any radical feminists in the readership?).

Isabella Rossellini is a strange woman.

Although such a broad topic is by necessity going to be unable to cover any individual topic in great depth, it certainly brought home the incredible variation among the many, many species with which we share the planet. We were particularly taken by the section on scent, including a rather pungent exhibit enabling you to experience the smell of jaguar piss. And there were a number of very strange short films by Isabella Rossellini from the Green Porno series. Good fun.

Following a swift cheap-and-cheerful Chinese meal, we headed over to Holborn, to the Princess Louise. As I think I’ve said before, this is one of my all-time favourite pubs, due to its pure Victorian decor downstairs, its luxurious lounge upstairs and, not that I want to sound like a cheapskate or anything, the fact that you can get a round of drinks for a tenner without descending to the accursed levels of Wetherspoons. Here, we met Shoinan for more alcohol and inappropriate conversation. At this point, my hangover finally subsided and I could return to damaging my liver in earnest.

After this, Shoinan and I decided to move on into sinful Soho to see where a couple of reprobates like us could get some more booze. We came upon the Nellie Dean, a pub we’d visited once before. This is another old-skool place, unkempt, disreputable-looking, not too crowded and not remotely trendy. Therefore, ideal for us. It’s also open until midnight, which helps. We continued to put the world to rights over a jug of Pimms (executive decision by Shoinan) before heading home.

I feel we all learnt a lot that day. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it. Hey ho.

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The evolution of evolution

As you will no doubt be aware, Saturday was Charles Darwin’s birthday (happy 202nd, Mr Darwin!) and so to celebrate, Becky B held a loosely Darwin-themed party. My own shirt evolved several frills to frighten off predators, which seemed to work, as I am still alive. I even managed to avoid a hangover the next morning, which was impressive given that I’d started Saturday with a stonker of a headache.

Charles Darwin evolved an impressive beard towards the end of his life.

I’m something of a fan of Charles Darwin and, indeed, of evolutionary biology in general. I’m no scientist, it goes without saying if you’re a regular reader of this blog, but I take an interest. Call me an evolution groupie, if you like.

I was actually introduced to the concept at a very young age – I can’t have been much older than six or seven when I came across an ape-like man in a case in the Natural History Museum. How Wayne Rooney got in there in the first place, I shall never know, but next along was a case with a model of homo erectus therein. I expressed bemusement to the Ma, who explained that, in fact, people thousands of years ago looked like apes and, further back, actually were. This didn’t seem too ridiculous to me – if every generation looks different from the last one, well, what was so strange about the concept that we might have been apes a long time ago? After all, an ape sort of looks like a human if you squint.

[PARENTHESIS: The word “orangutan” is a Malay term meaning “man of the forest.” Which suggests that the people of Malaysia also saw the resemblance. Despite making such excellent librarians, orangutans are critically endangered and may be extinct in the wild by 2015.]

So anyway, I never found evolution to be a weird idea. Okay, it conflicted with the Bible on a lot of points, but I had the kind of nonconformist view of Christianity that was fairly typical of a British six-year-old (for instance, I thought the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost all being the same person was some sort of misprint).

Actually, Charles Darwin’s own religious background is something of a curiosity in terms of how very orthodox it was. Creationists tend to view him as a kind of Antichrist who came up with his theories purely to make Baby Jesus cry, but in his early years he seriously considered becoming a vicar in the Church of England. Unusually in his family, he was entirely C of E in his views, despite his father and grandfather being freethinkers and his wider family being largely nonconformist. Even at the end of his life, he never identified as atheist, preferring to describe himself as agnostic – although some accounts suggest that he didn’t see any real difference between the two, except that people who called themselves atheists tended to be kind of jerky. A quick tour of any Internet bulletin board on the subject of religion will show that he wasn’t entirely wrong there.

There’s nothing particularly strange about the idea of someone taking an interest both in holy matters and in biology (although Kent Hovind can still piss right off). Bear in mind that your average Victorian clergyman was an educated, middle-class fellow with a decent income and not much to do during the week. If they were in a country parish, studying nature was an agreeable way to pass the time.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to Gilbert White’s house if you should find yourself near Selborne. White was an 18th century curate and also a kind of proto-ecologist, believing in the importance of studying wildlife in its natural habitat. This led him to discover that, among other things, birds migrate as opposed to, e.g. hiding underwater in the winter (a serious theory at the time).

Or if you’re looking for another vicar who paved the way for modern biology, how about the Very Reverend William Buckland? Perhaps the first British paleontologist, he disputed the suggestion that modern rock formations had been created by Noah’s flood and in 1824 discovered the fossil bones that he would name “Megalosaurus” – this was the earliest identification of dinosaurs. He also reputedly ate the mummified heart of Louis XIV. Nothing to do with religion vs. science, I just thought it was an interesting fact.

Yet another irony, considering the question of religion vs. evolution, is the fact that although Darwin is perhaps the most important name in modern biology, there was one significant place in the 19th century where his name was mud – the Natural History Museum. More specifically, in the office of the Museum’s effective founder, Richard Owen. Now, I don’t want to dis Owen for his work as a biologist, and there’s no doubt that without his diligent work (and friends in high places), the nation’s natural history collections would have remained a mere collection of trinkets and curios overseen by erratic curators in a wing of the British Museum. But he refused to believe in the concept of evolution by natural selection, firmly coming down on the side of creationism. It’s said that the reason the Natural History Museum’s facade depicts only living species on the west wing and only extinct ones on the east was because Owen refused to even passively acknowledge that they might be linked. This also goes some way to explaining why Darwin’s statue is in the tea room – it was a late addition.

Although in the 1860s Owen’s views were those of an intelligent if conservative scientist, within a few decades they would become less and less credible and a hundred years later would have been abandoned by all except fundies and cranks. These days, the museum even has a research centre named after Darwin.

For all the likes of Richard Dawkins might complain about a rising tendency towards fundamentalism and the rejection of evolution, I don’t think there’s that great a risk in this country. Britain is an essentially secular nation – the Archbishop of Canterbury himself admits to the truth of evolution (so does the Pope, by the way). There might be Bible-bashers ranting about how Darwin burns in hell even as we speak, and there might be scientists being patronising and rude to religious folk, but for the majority of the nation, I don’t think we really give a damn.

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