Beatrix Potter and the National Trust: for science

Beatrix Potter wrote fantasy stories for children that were grounded in her scientific understanding of real animals and plants. The National Trust, her chief heir, is now promoting stories to children that are intended to give them a warped understanding of the geological history of the Earth. Does this make sense to you? It’s confusing me.

Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck and and Mr Jeremy Fisher, Mr Tod and Tom Kitten, the Flopsy Bunnies and the Tailor of Gloucester: the people of the floppy ears and bushy tails, the hedgehog who takes in washing, the frog who fishes with a rod and line, the rabbit with a nice new blue jacket, and the cat who hid the cherry-coloured twist. There never was a rabbit in a blue jacket or a hedgehog that took in washing, but they are real beasts in the pictures she drew.

The books and toys – written, illustrated, designed, licenced by Beatrix Potter from the age of 36, bought her freedom from the duties of being, as the unmarried daughter, her parents’ unpaid housekeeper. But before she became a writer of fantasy stories for children, an illustrator and a toy designer, she was a scientist:

At the age of 26, Potter began corresponding with a rural postman and enthusiastic naturalist named Charles McIntosh, who was interested in fungi. He promised to send Potter samples of new species he discovered by mail, so she could draw them. Throughout their long partnership, Potter drew detailed, accurate pictures of 350 fungi, mosses and spores, mailing one copy to McIntosh, and keeping one for her own records.

With drawings she made from her observations of lichen, Potter believed she had evidence that the organism consisted of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a photosynthetic partner, algae. In her zeal to find out the truth for herself, she cultivated both the algal cells and the fungal spores in her kitchen. Her observations of how the two partners joined to form one organism placed her in a small group of believers, including Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist, and Anton de Bary, an accomplished botanist who wrote an early textbook dealing with fungal biology. However, this symbiosis theory of lichen was unpopular in England at the time, and many scientists failed to take Potter seriously.

Beatrix Potter grew fungal spores in her parents’ kitchen, observing and drawing them every 20 minutes to record the changes.

In April 1897, after painstaking preparation, Potter was ready to present her first and only paper, “Germination of the spores of the Agaricineae,” to the Linnean Society of London. While there is no record of the paper’s content, her notes and journal suggest that she described her experiments cultivating the germinating basidiospores and her in-depth observations. In a letter written prior to her paper submission, Potter said she grew 40 to 50 kinds of spores, but only submitted observations of A. velutipes (now known as Flammulina velutipes).

However, women were not allowed to attend official Society meetings. Potter’s paper was offered instead through a botanist at Kew Gardens, George Massee, a member of the Society. In her journal, which was published in 1966, she wrote about Linnean Society members’ dismissive attitudes towards her work. (Beatrix Potter, scientist – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences)

Peter Rabbit and all the rest of them bought Beatrix Potter the Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey in the Lake District, and other farms and her herds of Herdwick sheep: the founding secretary of the National Trust had been a close family friend since Potter was a teenager, and when Beatrix Potter died, she left most of her property to the National Trust: the largest gift that the National Trust had received in its 49 years in existence. She also gave the National Trust the copyright of all of her book illustrations, which still provide them with an income: and the Lake District National Park and fell farming in the Lake District is preserved because of her gift: her husband, who survived her by only 18 months, left the National Trust the share of her property she had left him.

So what has the National Trust done in her memory? They’ve named the central office of the National Trust in Swindon “Heelis” after her husband. That was in 2005, 62 years after her death.

And this year, they’ve decided they don’t need scientists.

Between fifty or sixty million years ago, in what is now County Antrim, there were volcanos where there is now Bushmills. The liquid basalt flowed through chalk beds, cracked as it cooled, and the cracks propagated downward through the lava, creating vertical stone columns. This was a huge Thulean Province of basaltic lava that was broken up during the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. What’s left, in Antrim, is 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, that form a causeway from the cliff to the sea. tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. That’s what we know.

For as long as there have been humans in Ireland to make stories about the Giant’s Causeway it has been explained in one way or another. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Ireland.

The National Trust’s exhibit has a dialogue of explanations between historical and ahistorical characters: Thomas Molyneux and St. George Ashe, Nicholas Demarest and Abraham Werner, James Hutton and Reverend Doctor William Richardson. Rector of Clonfeacle, and even Captain Charles Morton, Royal Navy. That’s all right.

What is not all right, not at all, is what follows:

The Debate continues today

No, there is no debate – not on the age of the Earth, not on how old the Giant’s Causeway is, not on any aspect of geological science that creationists disagree with because it doesn’t suit their religious belief that the Earth was created in six days six thousand years ago. There is no “debate” about this. There’s the known facts, and there are disgruntled religious people who idolise the Bible and reify the several creation stories first told in Mesopotamia several thousand years ago.

To claim “the debate continues” as if any educated person actually took this nonsense seriously makes us look like the Texan Republican Party claiming that the Loch Ness Monster might really exist. What’s next, climate change denial?

The National Trust goes on:

Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant’s Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed.

This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth’s rocks were formed.

This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.

To which the Caleb Foundation (“a hardline Northern Irish evangelical lobbying organisation”) joyously and thankfully responded:

Give thanks for the developments at the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. The new centre included a respectful reference to creationism. Pray that our efforts in this regard will bring blessing.

Pray for Christian politicians at Stormont, Westminster, Europe and the Local Councils – that they might be prepared to take a strong stand in the face of growing opposition, and raise Biblical standards in our Province and nation.

Pray for our ongoing efforts in relation to the “Gay Pride” parade in Belfast this summer. We have had several meetings with the Parades Commission and the organisers of Gay Pride, and we are confident that real and meaningful progress can be made by all sides.

The National Trust should never have given into this organisation of ignorant fanatics who want to have their religious views posted up as if they were facts. (See: Remove Creationist Display From Giants Causeway Visitor Centre)

It does not matter what any religious group thinks about the age of the Earth or the formation of the lava causeway. The National Trust was never a religious organisation. The idea that the views of a group of ignorant fanatics should be superimposed on a fascinating natural phenomenon is monumentally outrageous.

The National Trust is still trying to avoid having to take down the creationist material or acknowledge it is just a fantasy, not based on even as much scientific reasoning as the fossilised bamboo theory:

Lastly there is the ‘debating characters’ exhibit, which sparked the discussion. This exhibit consists of five different audio samples triggered by buttons. It is designed to give a flavour of the historical debates there have been over the Causeway’s formation – starting with arguments between Sir Thomas Molyneux and a mystery correspondent (probably George Ashe) over whether the columns were fossil or mineral. The next clip sets out a flavour of the argument between Vulcanists and Neptunists. The next clip details how James Hutton’s work opened the way for definitive proof of an ancient earth. The fourth clip mentions a theory published in the 1800s that the Causeway was fossilised bamboo. Then the final clip states that Young Earth Creationists exist who wish to continue the debate today, as they believe the earth is only 6000 years old.

Once again we urge all those who can visit the Causeway to do so. We believe we have approached this topic fairly, proportionately and entirely scientifically, and hope you will agree once you come to the Causeway in person.

But they met with the Caleb Foundation when setting up the Giant’s Causeway exhibit:

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, says:

Now while the phrase “mainstream science” is misleading, which implies that the creationist view is not “science” and the secularist one is (both are accounts about the past when no human observer was there—so both are different accounts of historical science), it is refreshing to see an exhibit at a major tourist attraction acknowledging the creationist view. I doubt anyone would ever see that happen in the USA!

That text should be deleted, and the National Trust should apologise for ever including it, to all its members (yes, I am a member of the National Trust), and to the memory of Beatrix Potter, scientist, who gave the National Trust so much.

This is no way to honour her memory.

Plus, it makes the National Trust look stupid.

Petition: The National Trust: Remove creationist exhibit from the Giants Causeway Visitors Centre

Update, 14th July:

Oh, this is great. Michael Gove’s “education” department has approved the Exemplar Academy in Newark, Nottinghamshire, to open next year, a free school with a “faith ethos” run by the evangelical and creationist Everyday Champions Church. The church proposed for it last year as a free school that would teach creationism as a valid scientific theory alternative to evolution, and got turned down, but now “a group of individuals from the Church, but without its formal backing” who promise all big-eyed and sincere that they’ll only teach creationism in RE, has been accepted.

The Department of Education said that the new school would be banned from teaching creationism in science classes, but it would be allowed in religious education lessons.

Want to bet that suddenly biology will become religious education?

Last year, Pastor Gareth Morgan, the church’s leader, told the Independent:

“Creationism will be embodied as a belief at the Everyday Champions Academy but will not be taught in the sciences. Similarly, evolution will be taught as a theory.”


Filed under Charities, Education, Personal

2 responses to “Beatrix Potter and the National Trust: for science

  1. Brian Jordan

    I don’t know how long the Caleb Foundation “worked with” the National Trust but they’ve been about their dirty work, trying to subvert the new Visitors’ Centre, for over six years. See them in action here:

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