Friday 14 January 2011

Karen James at TAM London 2010

The Beagle Project is one of those enterprises that's quite hard to categorise. Is it really an educational project, or should it be classified as a glorified publicity stunt? Sailing a replica of Captain Fitzroy's square-rigged Beagle along the same route the original took when Charles Darwin was five years aboard could be considered a relatively pointless exercise, especially when the cost (apparently some £3.3 million at 2007 prices) is taken into account.

This is not the only prospective replica sea-vessel currently touting for funds. There are people in Kentucky who want to build a "replica" of Noah's Ark. I don't know if they intend to fill it two by two with animals, but they'll have difficulty finding dinos and dodos.

So what's the difference between these two enterprises? Well, HMS Beagle actually existed. Darwin wrote a book, The Voyage of the Beagle, in which he documented the five years he spent as a sea-fairing "natural philosopher". In contrast to the Old Testament story of the Ark, Darwin's record is not only an eye-witness account, it is autobiography. The notes he made on his travels are available for free on the web. This is something that actually happened.

The proposed Ark, of course, is based on carefully excavated and meticulously documented archeological artefacts, from which a reasonably accurate replica of the actual vessel is to be reconstructed. No it isn't — it's based entirely on a story in a book that also tells of a talking snake.

So the difference between the Beagle and the Ark is that we know for certain that HMS Beagle actually existed, and all we know about the Ark is what is written in an unreliable and contradictory scripture that's so full of metaphor and scientific nonsense that it has to be treated as literature rather than historical record.

DSC_1817w_KarenJamesNow that we've got that out of the way, let's consider the merits of the Beagle Project. The idea is to marry the historical facts of Darwin's voyage and the discoveries he made, with a global educational enterprise illustrating evolution.

Dr Karen James is the Director of Science for the Beagle Project, and at TAM London she outlined the project's aims and benefits. These are also available on the project's website:
The 21st century voyage of the Beagle will inspire global audiences through unique public engagement and learning programmes, and original scientific research in evolutionary biology, biodiversity and climate change.

DSC_1820w_KarenJamesShe will cross the North and South Atlantic, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, round both Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. She will sail in her ancestor's wake, with international crews of young scientists and sailors aboard applying the tools of modern science to the work started by Darwin and Captain Fitzroy 170 years before. International friendships and scientific alliances will form, and people the world over will follow the voyage, adventure and science aboard through the Beagle's interactive website.
The replica ship won't be quite the same as the original:
She will be built of larch and oak planking on oak frames. Unlike the 1831 Beagle, her 2009[*] descendent will have diesel auxiliary engines, radar, GPS navigation, satellite communications and modern safety equipment. Her design will be approved by Germanischer Lloyds and she will be certified for Category A - unrestricted ocean sailing. The build will be carried out in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire under the supervision of master shipwright Detlev Loell.
(*It appears the website could do with some updating.)

Modern biology — including modern medicine — is so thoroughly underpinned by evolutionary theory that without the theory we would be back to the days of cupping and blood-letting, or even the four humours and demonic possession. And yet, in America at least, about 40 percent of the general population do not accept evolution as a true scientific account of living organisms. This is a shocking state of affairs, and while the Beagle Project risks being accused of Disneyfying science, a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. If the Beagle Project stands a good chance of educating people about evolution in spite of a pervading culture of denialism, it needs to go ahead. For the sake of the scientific literacy of future generations, the Beagle Project should receive wholehearted support.