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Mike Sutton
Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.

What can we Learn from the Lunar Men? Not Quite Lunatics, United by a Common Love of Science

Apr. 13, 2015 6:19 am

Public Domain

Erasmus Darwin. Grandfather of Charles Darwin

Erasmus Darwin lived in Derby, the nearest city to my own domicile of Nottingham in England. He once stood on a box in Nottingham's market square to be better heard as he encouraged the people to let fresh air into their homes - for better health.

In Derbyshire, down a Blue John mine, Erasmus Darwin found fossilized fishes and that is said to have inspired his poetical writing on evolution. After seeing those fossils in 1767, Erasmus wrote to his friend: “I have been into the Bowels of old Mother Earth, and seen Wonders and learnt much curious Knowledge in the Regions of Darkness…”

Today, I started reading "The Lunar Men: The Friends who made the Future by Jenny Uglow (1998).

I am impressed by what Uglow wrote on pages xiv-xv of her prologue about the men who formed a club they called The Lunar Society of Birmingham; so called because they met as close as they could to each full moon, so that in those days before street lights they might better make their way home at night:

'Ten of these men became Fellows of the Royal Society but only a few had a university education and most were Nonconformists or free thinkers... They came from varied backgrounds but when they edged towards rows they agreed to differ, turning back to the things they shared: "We had nothing to do with the religions or political principles of each other" wrote Priestly"...Their passionate common exchange and endeavour was of a type that would never be possible again - until today, with the fast, collaborative intimacy of the Internet.'

This resonates with my current experience in many ways. For example, in my endeavors to be even-handed in my research into the true story of the discovery of natural selection, I have reported to my Internet associates on The Patrick Matthew Project some hard and independently verifiable evidence that Patrick Matthew, the subject and hero of my book, Nullius in Verba, more likely than not, in my opinion, plagiarized two minor observations reported by Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin (see Sutton 2015) those observations were associated with the original research and famous experiments of both Thomas Knight and Erasmus Darwin on trees. Some of those apple trees, bred by Knight, were famously in the garden of the house where Charles Darwin grew up see Kohn 2008

In the spirit of healthy scholarly progress, underpinned by the hard taskmaster of skepticsm, not all agree that I am right. But each of us is trying, in our own way, to approach a purer form of the truth in the story of the history of the discovery of natural selection. And we are doing so: ', with the fast, collaborative intimacy of the Internet.' But things are different on the internet. The discussion areas of blogs and websites do not resemble in any way the inside of a drawing room in a fine house full of like-minded friends who are there by invitation only.

On the internet there are those who behave like trolls, joining such sites, in part at least it seems, as deliberately anonymous disturbed immature spirits - virtual lunatics if you will - who cannot help but vent their spleens and disrupt the work of those who are seriously dedicated to using hard evidence to arrive at a purer form of knowledge.

How we keep important scholarly websites and blog-sites open to all who wish to add value to the discussion, whilst regulating the excesses of those who seek primarily to disrupt them with deliberately baiting time-wasting false statements and fallacies, is the problem.

Perhaps it is time some kind of universally acceptable 10-point ethical commandment codification of etiquette be drawn up? What might such a universally acceptable code look like, I wonder?

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It was a noble 10-year experiment, but it turns out that the writers with the best content are the least adept at the tech required to publish under our model, which in hindsight, makes perfect sense. If you are dedicating your life to becoming an expert in your specialty, you don’t have a lot of time left for figuring out publishing tech.

It hasn't helped that we have entered an age of unprecedented polarization and antagonism which doesn't foster demand for a website dedicated to the respectful engagement of diverse views.

Thank you, everyone!

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