A really stupid way to honor Darwin

http://www.thebeagleproject.com/

The HMS Beagle Project

In 2009, the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth we will build a sailing replica of HMS Beagle. An icon of scientific progress, she will circumnavigate the globe in Darwin’s wake, crewed by aspiring scientists and researchers. They will carry out original research both at sea and on land, updating Darwin’s observations, breaking new scientific ground and relating the adventure of science to enthuse a new generation of young students. If you support our vision, contact us, donate to the build fund, request a sponsorship pack, or visit the Beagle Project Shop USA or Europe/Japan, buy the t-shirt and show ’em you want a Beagle sailing the world in 2009.

Why is this idea stupid? Because you can accomplish a lot more scientific research with a modern ship dealing with present day biological issues rather than merely reenacting Darwin’s voyage. Science is not about taking the road already traveled, but going down a previously untraveled path to see what might be found.  I will not contribute a dime to such a dubious project. Indeed, I think it is a SCAM!

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14 thoughts on “A really stupid way to honor Darwin

  1. Dear Dale,

    Are you serious? If not, please ignore the following.

    By your argument, there’s no point in a scientist re-visiting any place that has ever been visited before by any other scientist, from any other discipline regardless of whether that visit was one, ten, one hundred or one thousand years ago. Indeed, by your argument Darwin himself would have been well advised that going on the Beagle was a “stupid idea” because he should be focusing on “present day biological issues” rather than merely reenacting Banks, von Humboldt and countless other naturalists voyages and inland expeditions.

    Your view is not only obviously wrong, is also demonstrably wrong: see, there’s a big pile of peer-reviewed literature out there reporting the results of studies that were carried out on repeat visits to places, questions and objects.

    I mean, do you really think that one man peering over the deck of a ship and occasionally sticking his net in the water (in between bouts of seasickness) or wandering inland from ports of call 175 years ago means that that scientific road is “already traveled”?

    Yes, we do plan to “take the road already traveled” in the sense that we will follow the Beagle’s 1831-6 voyage route, but that does not mean we will be “merely reenacting Darwin’s voyage” complete with Victorian instruments and the odd leech. Rather we will be hosting a string of today’s best researchers using today’s best methods, providing much-needed ‘ship time’ for their projects (and what a ship!) while facilitating public communication of that science via the media the ship will attract. In other words, it’s not the path that’s important, it’s what you do on the path.

    Moreover, and with all due respect, I don’t think you have given enough thought to the varied reasons beyond science itself for rebuilding the Beagle. It is true that if science alone, that is, the actual collection, analysis and interpretation of data, were the only important thing that needed doing, then I’d agree with you, and I’d say that any old (or better yet new) research vessel would do, and the more high tech bells and whistles the better.

    But it’s not just about collecting data.

    It’s about engaging children, students, teachers and, especially, the general public around the world in the excitement and adventure of science, as symbolized by a ship like the Beagle.

    It’s about raising the global profile of the living science of evolutionary biology, the importance of conserving biodiversity, and highlighting the shared challenge of climate change.

    It’s about streaming contemporary science experiments into classrooms around the world, using the captivating site of a historic square-rigged sailing ship to hit home that science is an adventure.

    And it’s about publicly asserting the primacy of the scientific method for answering questions about how the world works. I would have thought, based on your blogroll, that you would agree with such an endeavour.

    Karen James PhD
    Director for science
    The HMS Beagle Project

  2. “….crewed by aspiring scientists and researchers. They will carry out original research both at sea and on land, updating Darwin’s observations, breaking new scientific ground and relating the adventure of science to enthuse a new generation of young students….”

    How is this “re-enactment”? Use the excitement to get a good vessel (and I bet there will be several “modern” boats going along with the Beagle once this happens) to go to important places to do important research. Publicity helps to bring lay people and kids excited about it.

  3. I hardly think it is a scam. It’s not like there’s a bizarre network of pseudonyms of the people involved in the project. A little research will show they are quite serious.

    And I strongly disagree that this is a waste of time! Science should be forward-looking in many ways, but the distinction here is that The HMS Beagle Project has the potential to publicise and draw attention to how important Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection remains to us today. It is a powerful understanding of how the natural world actually functions.

    Should we stop sending up space shuttles over and over because it has been done since the Eighties? No. Not only do space shuttles and the new Beagle have the potential to contribute, they also carry the hope to inspire.

    (For the sake of transparency, lest you think this is furthering some “scam”, I am an artist also donating proceeds from shirts and prints to The Beagle Project.)

    -Glendon Mellow
    The Flying Trilobite
    Art in Awe of Science

  4. Hi Dale, like you I am very skeptical by nature, particularly of historical voyage reenactments. Most of them, unfortunately, try to prove historical points about the past by “recreating” it in the present. However, as I see it, the Beagle Project does not fall into this category. It does not attempt to prove issues about Darwin or his voyage, rather it attempts to accomplish other things: 1)a conscious-raising memorial to the work of Darwin (which being a skeptic, I would think you would approve of), 2) a modern day platform for science, and 3) an opportunity in experiential education, the benefits of which are accepted by all kinds of schools and universities through internship programs, years-abroad, etc. I’ve written up my own process of wrestling with this issue here:

    http://timetoeatthedogs.com/2008/05/30/the-voyage-reenacted/

    All best,
    Michael

  5. Can somebody explain to me why the hell we should build a sailing vessel from the keel up, name it the Beagle, and sail it around the world to inspire a new generation of would-be scientists? Carl Sagan did it with his COSMOS series, by emphasizing current scientific topics. Maybe if you were shooting a movie about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle (to counter that EXPELLED movie promoting Intelligent Design), building such a ship would make sense. Otherwise, my original point stands. Just take an already existing ship of MODERN design, send THAT to go on a unique voyage rather than duplicating Darwin’s historic voyage, and use THAT to illustrate Darwin’s ideas. Or better still, illustrate how science really works by pointing out that Darwin’s specific ideas about evolution have already been greatly added to and even replaced completely to some degree. Making evolution all about Darwin and his works is actually doing science a disservice. We need to keep moving forward.

    Bora, it just seems strange to me that one would use a vessel of 19th Century design to attempt to do original research and break new scientific ground. It’s a contradiction I will give no quarter.

  6. What you can’t possibly know (for lack of research?) is that ocean exploration is grossly and continuously underfunded. The entire annual budget for the agencies responsible for ocean exploration is roughly equivalent to the annual maintenace for a small bridge in New Jersey.

    So, unlike yourself, the Beagle Project will provide a lightning rod, an icon that will draw private, state, and federal funding to the greater cause of science, and to ocean exploration. A half dozen state of the art research vessels could be expected to rendezvous with the Beagle as she makes her rounds through the hemispheres. Do you get it now?

    Next time, think for a minute before you set out to insult and slander hard working and creative people trying to make good things happen. Otherwise, you’re gonna wake up with egg on your face, and a blog title one adjective shorter.

  7. Can somebody explain to me why the hell we should build a sailing vessel from the keel up, name it the Beagle, and sail it around the world to inspire a new generation of would-be scientists?

    The building of the Beagle is as much symbolic as it is utilitarian. Did you get past the front page and explore the website a bit? The journal Science wrote a short piece about the project:

    The HMS Beagle Project Wales, founded by David Lort-Phillips, a Welsh farmer, and British environmental writer Peter McGrath, intends the ship as a sailing classroom and laboratory.
    (snip)
    One project he is considering is using the Beagle’s logs to compare the climate of the 1830s with that of today. Broadcasts of experiments as well as lectures will be available to labs and classrooms around the world via an as-yet-unbuilt Web site.

    The project is intended to put some “awe back into science” and attract more young people to the field, says McGrath: “We need to use props like the Beagle to get their pulses to quicken.”

    I also recommend reading the Science page of the Beagle Projects website.

    Carl Sagan did it with his COSMOS series, by emphasizing current scientific topics. Maybe if you were shooting a movie about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle (to counter that EXPELLED movie promoting Intelligent Design), building such a ship would make sense.

    This actually makes less than using the ship as a symbol to stir imaginations and a source of inspiration, as a device for science education and outreach by having classes sail and participate onboard and as part of a fleet to conduct and carry out high quality science with the latest technology to understand real problems and get the data we need to address them. Carl Sagan did amazing things for astronomy and planetary science, no doubt. The working replica Beagle will indeed offer a fantstic opportunity to be used as a prop or a tool in several forms of media to enlighten a general audience about science and in particular, evolution. But that is secondary in my opinion.

    Otherwise, my original point stands. Just take an already existing ship of MODERN design, send THAT to go on a unique voyage rather than duplicating Darwin’s historic voyage, and use THAT to illustrate Darwin’s ideas. Or better still, illustrate how science really works by pointing out that Darwin’s specific ideas about evolution have already been greatly added to and even replaced completely to some degree.

    Speaking as a marine biologist with a fair amount of ship time, I can say that there is a already a lack of “modern” vessels in the global research fleet. They take years to build, cost millions of dollars and can exceed your yearly salary for one day’s operation. With the rising costs of oil, our fleet is struggling to maintain even a barebones crew. Several have been docked awaiting funding. With regards to “modern”, aside from the engine and mechanical parts, the gear offered on some ships is often lacking to do the projects they are funded to do. There are some well-outfitted ships, but each ship can only do X amount expeditions a year (typically 9-12 depending on length of time at sea). As a rule, marine biologists get excited whenever a new ship is commissioned. But the funding is holding steady while costs are rising. The new Beagle will be able to be sailed in addition to an engine which helps to offset costs a little.

    Making evolution all about Darwin and his works is actually doing science a disservice. We need to keep moving forward.

    This project is all about moving forward. They are using Darwin only as a segue into science. Relaying the excitement of discovery to a public that is content with reality television is not an easy choir. But children are naturally curious and excited about such things. The opportunities for students in low income communities in the western world and developing nations is tremendous. This isn’t “all about Darwin”, but pays homage to man with which the field of biology would be at an enormous loss without his contributions. Again, I refer you to Beagle Project’s Science page to see how forward thinking this project is.

    Bora, it just seems strange to me that one would use a vessel of 19th Century design to attempt to do original research and break new scientific ground. It’s a contradiction I will give no quarter.

    I can’t speak for Bora, but I will say while the exterior is 19th century the interior will be fully modern and up to date with the latest 21st century technology. Again, I refer you to the Beagle Project website to learn more.

  8. http://www.thebeagleproject.com/thereplica.html

    “The 2009 HMS Beagle will be a sailing replica of the ship Charles Darwin boarded in 1831. 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.”

    This would be an application of what I call the Familiarity Effect, using something already known to sell a new product. You could accomplish the same thing by using songs from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones to sell auto insurance. I find that repugnant. If you NEED to do that sort of thing for a new generation to be inspired to support more research into biology, that says more about public apathy due to the dumbing down of our society in general than about science itself. I would rather deal with the actual problem of the dumbing down itself, thank you! I would never resort to gimmicks like the Beagle Project and I remain skeptical of all this.

  9. Next time, think for a minute before you set out to insult and slander hard working and creative people trying to make good things happen. Otherwise, you’re gonna wake up with egg on your face, and a blog title one adjective shorter.

    That’s sounds like a typical fanatical response to skepticism. I just hope your blind faith doesn’t leave you embarrassed in the end, Petnoyer. Especially since if this project were authentic, I would expect its backers to arrange for the building of the ship by the British Royal Navy with government funds, and NOT BE SOLICITING PRIVATE FUNDS! THERE ARE MANY CHARITIES AROUND THE WORLD THAT DESERVE ALL THAT MONEY!!!

  10. This would be an application of what I call the Familiarity Effect, using something already known to sell a new product. You could accomplish the same thing by using songs from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones to sell auto insurance. I find that repugnant.

    Why? What is so repugnant about using a familiar brand – in this case the Beagle – to celebrate our scientific inheritance and as a toe-in to get people interested and literate in science and re-engaged with the natural world, something “many charities around the world” are trying to do? Unlike the auto insurance company, we are not out for profit, but for a public good.

    If you NEED to do that sort of thing for a new generation to be inspired to support more research into biology, that says more about public apathy due to the dumbing down of our society in general than about science itself.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I would rather deal with the actual problem of the dumbing down itself, thank you! I would never resort to gimmicks like the Beagle Project and I remain skeptical of all this.

    How’s the view from the cheap seats, Dale? What is your suggestion to “deal with the actual problem…”? Is it, as you mentioned above, to “shoot a movie about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle”? Well, that’s already been done (and can and will be done again – using our Beagle as a set), but how is making a documentary not a “gimmick” while other efforts – efforts that will actually get people off their couches and out of doors doing science – are?

    …if this project were authentic, I would expect its backers to arrange for the building of the ship by the British Royal Navy with government funds, and NOT BE SOLICITING PRIVATE FUNDS! THERE ARE MANY CHARITIES AROUND THE WORLD THAT DESERVE ALL THAT MONEY!!!

    You accused Peter Etnoyer of a “typical fanatical response” but then you give us all caps and multiple exclamation marks. Hmm.

    Nitpicking aside, when you wrote “if this project were authentic” what exactly were you suggesting? That we are pretending to do something for science, for the environment, for education when really we’re just out for our own personal interest? And what personal interest would that be? Maybe it’s the one where we spend almost every waking hour outside of our day jobs (in my case as a scientist) working for no pay to try and get this thing built? Or is it the one where we pay for plane and train tickets out of our own pockets and use our holiday allowance to meet with potential science collaborators and backers? The co-founders, directors and other volunteers for the project are the most authentic bunch of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, I’ll have you know, and I won’t stand for someone calling them frauds in the debauched name of “skepticism”.

    Karen

  11. To those who support the Beagle Project, I have just one more thing to say:

    I’ll be watching it. I wasn’t even aware of it until the day I wrote the blog above, and I’m sure the project would appreciate a lot more media scrutiny, if it is genuine. Such scrutiny would also be most likely to expose a scam too. The negative reaction I’ve gotten for merely QUESTIONING the validity of the project makes me wonder all the more about it. What are you afraid of, if I’m no threat?

  12. One thing I hope you will remember Mr. Husband, is that the scientific and skeptical communites are very welcoming when a person admits an error or mistake. It’s part of the general scientific worldview to revise, even opinions.

    Perhaps if any of these responses or the effect of the actual Beagle setting sail and inspiring people change your mind, you’d state that. Remember it can be admirable to change your stance in the face of error.

  13. Dale;

    You didn’t “merely raise a question,” you outright asserted that a project you apparently know next-to-nothing about it stupid because you personally find it distasteful. All of the qualms you brought up have already been addressed in more detail by others here, but I think the Beagle Project is valuable both symbolically and scientifically. This isn’t a historical re-enactment but a celebration of scientific discovery, and if your biggest gripe is the ship design then I guess there’s just no pleasing you. Your subsequent comments are indicative of goal-post shifting, and you can sit there feeling smug all you like, but the truth is that you went on a brief diatribe about a project you didn’t even bother to further research and have been defending that mistake rather than owning up to it.

    And about COSMOS, have you ever even seen the program? You said;

    “Carl Sagan did it with his COSMOS series, by emphasizing current scientific topics.”

    There was a bit of new science (for the time) in COSMOS, but much of the series centered on history. There were tons of historical reenactments in the series, and Sagan spent a lot of time talking about the history of science. I think that is what makes COSMOS such an excellent documentary; it acknowledged science history as well as explained new ideas. I see the Beagle Project as trying to do much the same.

    This isn’t about “Who is more skeptical” or “What better uses could all that money be put to.” I’m sure you make more than enough to live on, as I do, and that we both could give more to charity. Such an argument is a non sequitur, and has nothing to do with whether the Beagle Project is a valid scientific endeavor. If you have a substantial claim as to why this project isn’t worthy (other than your distaste for science history), then it would be better to make it than claim that everyone else isn’t as skeptical as you.

  14. Perhaps if any of these responses or the effect of the actual Beagle setting sail and inspiring people change your mind, you’d state that. Remember it can be admirable to change your stance in the face of error.

    Of course. When I am satisfied that the project is indeed legitimate, I will say so openly, as well as delete this blog entry. I just think there has to be a better way than this, and I would encourage us all to seek it. We write books, teach classes, and make TV shows about evolution already. Can’t we improve on those?

    Laelaps, even Carl Sagan didn’t build a ship from scratch and send it to reenact a historic voyage over several years. Note that earlier I actually suggested that a MOVIE about Darwin’s voyage be made and THAT would justify the building of the Beagle replica. I actually thought at first that this was the intent of the Beagle Project until I examined the contents of its website. When I saw what was specifically being proposed instead, I was profoundly disappointed and puzzeled. I still am.

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