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What South Park tells us about Charles Darwin

Just about everything that's known about Charles Darwin has already been said or written. Even so, Norbert Peeters – together with Tessa van Dijk – has managed to write an original book about the great English scholar. In the run-up to Darwin Day (12 February) he tells us about his new book.

Congratulations on Darwin Day!

‘Thanks. I'm generally only reminded about it on the day itself, which means an extra long session trawling Twitter. But this year I am celebrating it. I've been asked to give a talk on our book Darwins engelen (Darwin's Angels) for the  Darwin Café 2019 in Café Rad van Wageningen.’

Why is it important for us to commemorate this day?

‘I remember an episode of the South Park cartoon where “Simpsons did it!” kept on being repeated, to show that just about every conceivable scenario had already been done by The Simpsons. It's the same for biologists. There's nothing you could dream up that hasn't already been done by Darwin. From paradise birds, parasitic wasps and barnacles to flesh-eating plants, orchids and earthworms. Even the things that Darwin didn't look at can often be explainied on the basis of his theory of evolution. As famous American-Ukrainian geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it: “Nothing in biology has meaning, other than in the light of evolution.”’

‘Not only that, we also need to recognise his inquisitive spirit. I sometimes illustrate that with Darwin's visit to Stonehenge. The vast majority of tourists take a couple of turns around the stones, shoot a few selfies and then leg it to the nearest café for cake and hot chocolate. But not Darwin; having spotted some earthworm casts, he started thinking about how earthworm activity might have affected the subsidence of the monoliths.' 

Mary Treat

You and Tessa van Dijk have produced a book about the women around Darwin. Why not about Darwin himself?

‘By this stage, all the literature on Darwin would be enough to fill a whole library, from fairly obvious topics such as the Galapagos finches to speculations about the possible illness he was suffering from, his dogs and the plant seeds that he picked out of bird droppings. Tessa van Dijk and I discovered that in this whole wall of books and articles almost no attention was paid to the women scientists with whom Darwin corresponded. In his botanical studies in particular he had a lot of contact with female botanists. In his book about insect-eating plants he writes, for example: "Mrs Treat from New York is much more successful than any other observer." So, Tessa and I thought it would be a good idea to compile a volume with other authors with portraits of Darwin's many female correpsondents.'  

What makes these women so special?

‘In the second half of the nineteenth century, natural history - what we refer to today as biology - was a subject that fascinated many people outside the walls of the university. Upper and middle class people would spend their free time out in the natural environment and in the evenings they would go to lectures and special science shows where images from microscopy would be projected. Bird watching, searching for fossils and collecting and pinning insects were not considered acceptable hobbies for Victorian women. If, in the face of this opposition, you're still prepared to pend your time working on a particular subject, it's a sign not only of determination and persistence, but it also of real class.' 

Sophia Bledsoe Herrick

Can you tell us the best anecdote from your book?

‘That's a difficult question. If I had to choose just one, it would probably be the discussion between Darwin and American scientist Mary Treat. The two of them were examining the trap mechanism of a carnivorous plant called bladderwort (Utricularia). In Insectivorous Plants (1875) Darwin described how he made frantic efforts to find out how the plant's small bladder traps worked. Using a needle and a fine camel-hair brush, he gently touched the traps of the bladders, but to no effect.' 

‘Mary Treat was more successful. Although the movement is too fast to really observe, she came up with the right explanation: "If a partial vacuum is created in the bladder, the sudden opening of the trap will produce enough force to suck in everything that is in the vicinity of the trap; and this illustrates the movement we see happening." Darwin nobly admitted his mistake and adopted Treat's explanation. This gives us a good idea of just how determined she was. She had no hesitation in trusting her own expertise and criticising this celebrated British biologist.'  

Shouldn't there be a special day for the women around Darwin?

‘In the mass of awareness days, I wonder whether there are actually any days left over in the calendar. However, I do think it's important for historiographers and popular science communicators to pay attention to women in science. Fortunately, women in science are slowly but surely claiming their rightful place in the canon of science. Besides Newton, Linnaeus and Darwin, such names as Mary Anning, Maria Sibylla Merian or Barbara McClintock ought to be household names in the history of science. The importance of women as scientific role models - from the past as well as the present - shouldn't be underestimated. British primatologist Jane Goodall is a good example. And in the Netherlands we could do with a female counterpart to Freek Vonk.’

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