Today was biology day, beginning with 2 talks by Pulitzer-prize winning science historian Ed Larson: ‘The Reception of Darwinism’ and ‘Darwinism, Eugenics and Religion’ . I won’t say much about the first (see the video here), except how refreshing it is to hear a science historian who carefully distinguishes between evolution, general modification, natural selection and neo -Darwinism from the very start. There was also a very nice discussion of the initial problems with the theory, e.g. the age of the earth according to Kelvin’s calculations, the precise mechanism of natural selection, the absence of early fossils and the gaps in the record…
The second talk was quite shocking, as Prof Larson detailed how the work of Francis Galton and others quickly led to the dominance of eugenics over theories such as ‘soft’ heredity and ‘blended heredity’ – the result was the emergence of repressive legislation on reproduction for the mentally deficient (segregation and sterilization) throughout northern Europe and the U.S.
Thankfully, the idea went out of fashion almost as quickly as it appeared, partly because of the horrors of Nazi Germany, and partly because of the emergence of scientific evidence that the model was deeply flawed.
Denis Alexander, the director of the Faraday Institute, then gave a talk on ‘God and Memetics’, which consisited of an analysis of Dawkin’s theory of memes, and a discussion of the Dawkins description of religion as a ‘virus’. This was always going to be a lively talk and so it was. Dr Alexander had a field day dissecting the ‘virus’ theory in analytic terms (your humble correspondent pointed out at question time this might be a little unfair, as Dawkins probably uses the term in a metaphorical sense). More seriously, Denis also dissected the Dawkins ‘meme’ theory unmercifully, which I’ve seen a few biologists do recently. That said, he was very complimentary of many of Dawkin’s other ideas…more tolerant than vice versa anyway!