Photobook: Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Doorway to the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Doorway to the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh. The Museum is open about one day a month to visitors who are not medical students. I’m excited to finally discover it today!

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from near the door, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from near the door, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Anatomy Lecture Hall, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from above, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Downstairs foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Downstairs foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh. It’s full of interesting skeletons, plaster casts, art, and so on, in a lovely vaulted chamber below the the main museum hall.

View in foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

View in foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

A collection of life masks from men and women of the world, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

A collection of life masks from men and women of the world, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

A portrait head of Chief Bokani in the Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

A striking portrait head of Chief Bokani in the Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Detail of an illustration repoduced from De Humani Corporis... by Andreas Vesalius, 1543, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Detail of an illustration repoduced from De Humani Corporis… by Andreas Vesalius, 1543, in the hallway to the main display hall. Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Image of Benjamin Rush, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Image of Benjamin Rush hung in the stairwell to the main display hall, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School. Rush attended the University of Edinburgh from 1766 to 1768.

Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School University of Edinburgh, photo credit Scots Magazine. Photography is not allowed without prior arrangement, since there are human specimens and pieces from private collections that do not have permissions granted for general photography scattered among the collection. Among the many, many fascinating objects here, there is a large phrenology display, a discipline now considered pseudoscience but once a cutting edge field of research. In this display, I gaze upon the faces, through their life / death masks, of: Robert Owen, John James Audubon, composers Ernst von Weber and Liszt, Robert the Bruce (skull cast), Sir Walter Scott, Johnathan Swift, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson, William Pitt, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jean-Paul Marat, William Herschel, Voltaire, John Ross, George Combe, George Washington, and many others.

Life mask of George Combe, Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

I was naughty only once, and snuck a picture of the life mask of George Combe. Frederick Douglass was a fan of George Combe and wrote glowingly of their meeting. This episode is particularly poignant because phrenology would come to be used to reveal the supposed inferiority of black, Semitic, and other peoples. Evidently, there was no such association to Douglass in 1846. He would have been confident, I think, that Combe’s research would align with what Douglass knew to be true: the rationality and set of capabilities that all humans share.

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Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

A Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Let’s remember and salute Charles Darwin, the thinker who came to understand the basic mechanism by which we and all other species on earth come to be.

Born on February 12, 1809, Darwin was the grandson of Enlightenment physician, poet, and botanist Erasmus Darwin, who posited his own theory of evolution, as had many others, who observed its effects but had not successfully formulated a theory to explain how it worked. Given that his father was also a physician, it seemed natural that young Charles would take up the family profession. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (my university!) from the age of 16 to 18. Darwin would have attended classes in the original building on South Bridge, now called the Old College, beautifully designed by Robert Adam (it didn’t yet have the dome it has now). While he loved the excellent science education he received there, Darwin decided being a physician was not for him.

Old College Building on South Bridge, University of Edinburgh, where Darwin attended classes

His father then sent Darwin to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with the idea that he could be a minister instead. Darwin did well at Christ’s College, but it was his pursuits as a naturalist that really captured his imagination and into which he poured his best efforts. After he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831, he continued his scientific study of animals and geologic formations. When the opportunity arose to travel to South America on the HMS Beagle later that year, Darwin took it, and spent the next five years gathering specimens and making detailed notes of his observations of the natural world. Among the wealth of valuable scientific information he amassed, Darwin’s observations of the appearance of apparently designed adaptations in living things; fossils of known and unknown animals sometimes found in the most unexpected places (remains of ancient sea life embedded in rocks at high elevation?!?); and the incredible amount of waste and suffering throughout the natural world, from wasps who laid their eggs in living caterpillars so that the growing grubs would devour them slowly from within to the genocide and slavery routinely practiced against the native people there, gave him much to think about.

Finches in a Charles Darwin display case at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. The adaptations of finch beaks to food sources provided Darwin a perfect example of how natural selection works to produce the appearance of design.

With his experience broadened, his understanding deepened, and his body strengthened by the rigors of his expeditions, Darwin returned to England a wiser, stronger, more serious man. The first publications of his findings, together with his friendships with influential scientists such as the geologist Charles Lyell, made him famous. Darwin had found his profession. He began to pull together the evidence of his own eyes with the work of other naturalists and scientists to formulate a theory that would explain it all. What would explain a world of living things replete with beauty and waste, some joy and contentment but far more suffering, animals marvelously wrought but more often than not hidden from the human eye either by remoteness, incredibly tiny size, or time through extinction? It was the work of Edinburgh’s own self-made geologist James Hutton, popularized and developed by Lyell, which gave Darwin one key to the mystery. Since it had become clear that the earth was indeed ancient, not young as popular interpretations of the Bible would have it, species had plenty of time to adapt and change to their environment as needed, just as the earth itself had plenty of time to form as it is.

Hutton’s Section near the foot of Salisbury Crags, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland. On my twice-weekly hikes, I regularly pass by this rock formation. It sparked James Hutton’s realization that the earth must be ancient indeed to give the rocks time to layer, fold, and bend as they do here.

Another key to the mystery was the mass suffering and death Darwin observed. While he mourned it, it was no doubt a comforting realization that it was not designed into the natural world by a divine mind that he was nonetheless bound to worship. Rather, Darwin realized that the living things that could not survive in the environment they found themselves in left those better equipped to do so to reproduce and pass on their adaptations. This realization, this theory of natural selection, Darwin recognized to be explosive as well. It took him about twenty years of careful thought and self-questioning to publish this theory. He knew, for one, that his theory went against people’s natural squeamishness and desire to think of the earth as a friendly home. More than that, Darwin knew perhaps better than anyone what a profound challenge this theory was to orthodox Christianity. But when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently arrived at the same theory, Darwin was galvanized to publish his findings in 1859. His On the Origin of Species went on to become one of the most influential works in the history of thought.

Another Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Darwin’s life is a fascinating one in so many more ways outside of the scope of this piece. To learn more about this husband, father, writer, and restless seeker for truth, I recommend the excellent works I’ve linked to below.

Before that, one more thing: I’ve always hated the term ‘Social Darwinism’ because I think it’s terribly misleading. It refers to the idea that societies can be structured so as to direct evolution in some way, for example, by allowing the weakest or least able, as defined by that society, to die off so that the strongest and most able are the most likely to survive and reproduce. But Darwin did not espouse that idea, nor do scientists now understand him to have implied it. For Darwin, as for those who understand the theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation of a natural process rather than a policy of action, the reason why human beings have become such a successful species is precisely our capacity for empathy and solidarity. It’s the fact that we care about each other as individuals, that we help each other survive and develop our unique capacities that makes us so adaptable, so creative, so able to get by in such a wide variety of environments. Social Darwinism, then, is contrary to Darwin’s own theories about human evolution. Eugenics, ‘survival of the fittest,’ and other such ideas that later thinkers claimed as part of Darwin’s intellectual legacy are not, in fact, his, or ideas that he would endorse given what he actually wrote. The shameful thing about putting Darwin’s name in the term ‘Social Darwinism’ is that it misleads people into thinking that he came up with it, and therefore to think of him as a cruel and heartless thinker, responsible for ideas which have caused much suffering and death. He was nothing of the sort.

Charles Darwin’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey, London, England. I was naughty and snuck in a quick photo, though photography is not allowed in the city’s places of worship.

Charles Darwin placard at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Learn more about this most influential of scientists and thinkers:

Charles Darwin: British Naturalist ~ by Adrian J. Desmond for Encyclopædia Britannica

Charles Darwin: Evolution and the Story of Our Species ~ iWonder at the BBC

Charles Darwin: various articles ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Darwin Correspondence Project ~ at the University of Cambridge website

Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought ~ by Ernst Mayr for Scientific American, November 24 2009

Darwin Online ~ read Charles Darwin’s books, articles, and other publications online

The Evolution of Charles Darwin ~ by Frank J. Sulloway for Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005

The Origin of the Thesis ~ by Claire Pettitt for The Times Literary Supplement

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Say What? Colin MacLaurin on Evidence, Reason, and Knowledge

Left, logarithmic radial photo of the universe by Pablo Budassi. Right, Isaac Newton’s entry on ‘Furnace’ in his notebook, 1666, Special Collections University of Chicago Library, both public domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘It is not therefore the business of philosophy, in our present situation in the universe, to attempt to take in at once, in one view, the whole scheme of nature; but to extend, with great care and circumspection, our knowledge, by just steps, from sensible things, as far as our observations or reasonings from them will carry us, in our enquiries concerning either the greater motions and operations of nature, or her more subtle and hidden works.’

Colin MacLaurin, An Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries1748

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin!

Benjamin Franklin, earliest known portrait by Robert Feke, 1738-1746, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

My philosophy and history of ideas travels and research have now led me to many, many sites associated with the life, ideas, friends, and colleagues of Benjamin Franklin in two continents and the United Kingdom, and I have more on my list to visit still. Just the other day, I visited Benjamin Franklin’s house in London (see below). And I’ve discovered more links between this man and other great thinkers and ideas that will be the topics of future stories, stay tuned!

This long-lived, very sociable polymath was born January 17th, 1706 and died April 17, 1790. He was a printer, writer, publisher, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and American founding father, mentor to many, friend to countless more, and mediator extraordinaire between rivals, colleagues, friends, and nations. Always on a quest to further expand and expound human knowledge, Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society, which persists to this day.

Learn more about this extraordinary man:

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin ~ by Benjamin Franklin, 1791

Benjamin Franklin: American Author, Scientist, and Statesman ~ by Theodore Hornberger and Gordon S. Wood for Encyclopædia Britannica

Benjamin Franklin: An Extraordinary Life, an Electric Mind ~ PBS

Benjamin Franklin FAQ ~ The Franklin Institute Website

Benjamin Franklin Joins the Revolution ~ by Walter Isaacson for Smithsonian.com, July 2003

What Led Benjamin Franklin to Live Estranged From His Wife for Nearly Two Decades? ~ by Stephen Coss for Smithsonian.com, September 2017

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Benjamin Franklin House in London, evening visit, left, interpretive tour, right, exterior

Photobook: Joseph Priestley’s Chemical Flask

Joseph Priestley’s chemical flask at the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. I took this photo while on the first of my Thomas Jefferson history of ideas tours, 2015. Priestly discovered oxygen on this day, August 1, in 1774 (not 1775 as the placard says) and he became most famous for his discovery since he was the first to publish a description of it. It was, however, first discovered two years earlier by a Swedish chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, independently.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Book Review: Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

Well, it’s sort of a book review. It’s more like a very informal description of a reaction to the book.

Which was: immense enjoyment.

My sister was nearly finished reading it when she left it behind at my house one day. In short order, I ‘accidentally’ forgot to bring it back to her the next time I saw her, or to remind her to take it with her when she came to visit. Perhaps I’m a bad sister, but that’s what she gets when she leaves such a marvelous book behind. Oh, the trials of having excellent taste in reading materials!

Anyway, I picked it up and started browsing through it, since she had already mentioned it to me, and from the start, I could hardly put it down. The long inward struggle that Charles Darwin went through prior to publishing his discovery of the evolution of species (or, rather, the primary mechanism that drives it), is well-known. Yet only the broad outline is really known: no-one can entirely imagine what goes through your mind at a time like that. What tortured thoughts must you wrestle with when you know a truth and believe it’s too important to remain untold, but are also shy, torn by loyalty to family and friends, and fear scorn, notoriety, and persecution?

The book begins with the story of Darwin around this time, just after he published On the Origin of Species, when he had finally been spurred on to do so after another naturalist, Alfred Wallace, made the same discovery independently sixteen or so years later. The book returns often to the story of Darwin’s struggles before publishing, since so many, whose stories are also told in this book, went through similar trials; it first opens with Darwin considering how best to acknowledge and properly credit those whose work contributed most to his theory.

The author proceeds to first takes us on a giant leap far back into the past, to ancient Greece, where the great natural philosopher Aristotle gathered sea sponges and fishes and was the first known to describe them systematically. Then she guides through a history, from Aristotle to Darwin, of the intensely curious, intellectually brilliant, and restless thinkers and observers who gave us modern science. Throughout, I was enthralled. Rebecca Stott tells of awkward, cranky loners who spent most of their time in dusty specimen cabinets or crawling about on hands and knees, meticulously recording the denizens of the natural world, of precocious, highly educated children of privilege who went on to lavish their money and leisure hours in the cause of scientific advancement, of pious priests and moralistic skeptics and atheists who considered the natural universe the most sacred and the most beautiful treasure trove of knowledge available to all, and of many more: a wide variety of people of various temperaments, backgrounds, advantages, types and levels of ability and creativity, are represented in this wonderful history of ideas and of discovery.

Among other scenes in book, I felt myself longing to have had the chance to take part in any, if just one, of those salons of Enlightenment Paris or Edinburgh. Fashionable, educated women and men hosted dinner parties to bring together the best and brightest minds, full of the most original, revolutionary, and fascinating ideas that human minds were creating. But these salons were not where it was all happening: some of the greatest discussions and intellectual achievements at the time happened in ordinary and humble studies, attics, homemade labs, lecture halls, monk’s rooms, coffee shops, and student’s quarters. It was a time when thinking and knowledge was, it seems to me, more widely and more highly valued. Not only familiarity with facts and factoids, but real understanding, was the greatest prize to be sought, the greatest goal in life.

If you want some of the best examples of how to be a part of that great quest, pick up this book and romp through the history of ideas with her. I think you’ll be as glad you did as I was.

*****************************

Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.
https://books.google.com/books?id=5Lt_MXhNJEoC&pg=PP5&dq=darwin%27s+ghost