Performer Channels Darwin

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Today is Darwin Day. Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of natural selection, would be celebrating his 199th birthday. Richard Milner, star performer in his one-man musical Charles Darwin: Live and in Concert and author of The Encyclopedia of Evolution, joins us to channel Darwin.


So in case you didn't know, today is Darwin Day, marking what would be pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin's 199th birthday. Celebrations, lectures, and a surprising amount of barbecues are being held in honor of the author of "The Origin of the Species" and the father of the theory of natural selection. Now, our guest in-studio is Richard Milner. He has Darwin Day off for the first time in many years, we understand. He's usually performing his one-man musical called "Charles Darwin: Live and in Concert" at some Darwin party or another. He did it last week in Brooklyn, and will be putting it on in Seattle on February 20th. He'll be back for a couple shows at the Botanical Gardens here in New York in May. Milner is author of the "Encyclopedia of Evolution," and his study of Darwin is so extensive that he can pretty much channel Darwin, we understand, which we will ask you to do in a minute. First, though, happy Darwin Day, Richard Milner.

Mr. RICHARD MILNER (Author, "Encyclopedia of Evolution"; Performer, "Charles Darwin: Live and in Concert"): Happy Darwin Day to you.

MARTIN: Thank you for being with us.

Mr. MILNER: A great pleasure. Now I'm speaking as Darwin, you want me as Richard Milner, first.

MARTIN: Wow. We went right into it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, one question as Richard.

Mr. MILNER: Yes?

MARTIN: How did this happen? Your interest in Darwin goes way back. How old were you when you started thinking about this man and his impact?

Mr. MILNER: Well, he was a hero of mine as I was growing up. And I was a kid who was catching frogs in the Catskills in the summers. I was always looking for fossils. And I had a young friend named Stephen Jay Gould, who turned out to be one of the great evolutionists of the 20th century, and his heroes were Charles Darwin and Joe DiMaggio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILNER: But when we honor Darwin, I was thinking about this last night, why just hero-worship this person, who's so contentious and still so controversial, after all this time? When we honor Darwin, we honor the spirit of science in ourselves. We honor the spirit of inquiry, the sprit of trying to apply the human mind to the mysteries of nature. And Darwin was well aware - he said it was like a dog trying to comprehend the mind of Newton. He tried to find a way to grasp the wonders. He had a sense of wonder, a sense of rapture. When he was in a rainforest, he said the mind is a chaos of delight, just looking at the birds, the plants and so-on.

And there were so many Darwins. There was the young explorer, the sailor. There was the kid like myself, hunting frogs. There was the young scientist. Later, there was the sage, the philosopher, the icon. He's so many Darwins. Again, it's like, you know, the young Elvis, the old Elvis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILNER: There's a Darwin for all seasons.


I'm laughing because my Mom taught biology for 35 years. So we had big Darwin discussions in our house. (unintelligible) yeah. So I'm just highly amused. (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. MILNER: Another thing that was wonderful about Darwin is that he always collected any facts that were opposed to his theory. And he wasn't a dogmatic person like so many today that fight religion versus Darwinism, and each one takes a stand and digs their heel in the dirt. Darwin never fought religion. He said, let's just try to focus on positive achievements in science and maybe the light of reason will banish some of the shadows of superstition. He said you don't gain people's interest by telling them that they're just full of it and, you know, they must abandon their faith. It's just - let's concentrate on trying to understand the universe.

MARTIN: Of all the ways you could have honored him…

Mr. MILNER: Yes?

MARTIN: …why a musical?

Mr. MILNER: Oh, because I've always loved musicals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That makes sense.

STEWART: There's got to be something in it for him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILNER: And I love to perform, and my songs are in many styles, from Gilbert and Sullivan, to Lerner and Loewe, to the blues. And that's the fun of it, too, to try to translate these ideas and these personalities. In the show, I do Darwin, Huxley, Alfred Wallace, many - the Scopes trial, I have the blues for Mr. Scopes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Have you ever grown your beard as long as Mr. Darwin? You've got a little bit of white beard, but from the pictures I've seen, you should have a longish beard.

Mr. MILNER: Yes, well, I - first of all, it makes me look too old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILNER: And secondly…

MARTIN: One-hundred and ninety-nine is old. You don't want to age yourself.

Mr. MILNER: No, no, no, no. And secondly, during the show I do other characters. If I do young Darwin, then it wouldn't suit it to have the long beard. So…

MARTIN: Before we get to a little - we do have a clip of some of the music from the musical, but we would like to ask a couple of questions to Charles Darwin. Is that possible?

Mr. MILNER: Well, let's see. I think I hear his cane tapping as he walks along his path.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. MILNER: Mr. Darwin? Could we speak with you?

Certainly, what would you like to know?

MARTIN: Oh, sir. Well, thank you for being with us. First of all, happy birthday.

Mr. MILNER: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate the attention. That's very kind of you.

MARTIN: I have to ask you. There are a lot of people who take issue with your theories and have made you out to be someone who is anti-religion. What do you think about the current modern controversy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILNER: It's not a modern controversy. This has been going on for hundreds of years. It's always amusing to me how the modern people think that they've invented everything, you know? In my day, the religious were very strong. You see, I was the rebel, I was the one who was on the outside. And there was a philosopher, a theologian called Paley that I studied when I was a lad. And Paley wrote a book saying that everything in nature pointed to design, to a designer. He was the one that made up the analogy, or the metaphor, of the watch. If you find a watch in a field, he said, and see all the intricate parts of this, well, it didn't get there by accident; it must imply that somewhere there is a designer.

And, in fact, there was a 19th-century preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, here in Brooklyn, who was the greatest preacher, but a very liberal preacher of the 19th century. And he said, well, you know, the watch is remarkable, but I think it's much more remarkable when I see a watch in a field that there's a factory somewhere that turns out 100,000 watches a week. And a man had to design that and set up, you know, the processes by which these 100,000 watches would be produced, and the tools, and everything else, and train the people to make them. He said, so I think evolution is fine with religion, because it's just as grand in the wholesale as in the retail.

MARTIN: Now, do you know that there is a man out there name Richard Milner who has made a musical about you and your life?

Mr. MILNER: Oh, I've heard about him through my descendants. You know, Richard knows my great-grandson Randall Keynes and my great-great-granddaughter, the whole Darwin family has embraced Mr. Milner. So, yes, I do.

MARTIN: And you've heard the music? You approve?

Mr. MILNER: Well, it's not a matter of approving or disapproving. I mean, I did my thing. Mr. Milner does his thing. But I'm very pleased that there are Darwin Day celebrations all over the country, because -and really, I'm not an egotist and I never was. But that sprit of enquiry, you know, I always thought that by this time my theory would be either obsolete or disproved or have another better scientific theory built upon it. It has not so far. But that's the nature of science, that each good theory becomes the rubble upon which the next is built. But I would have never expected the tenacity of organized religion to be so persistent right up into the 21st century. And going back to your original question, there's nothing new I this at all. The astounding thing is that this has gone on for hundreds and thousands of years and no - shows of no abating, nothing new in it at all.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, we do want to hear a little bit of this tribute that Richard Milner has crafted for you, part of his musical. This is a little bit from the musical. It's called "Why Didn't I Think of That?" from "Darwin Live and in Concert."

Mr. MILNER: Yes. Can I tell you something about that?

MARTIN: We'll have it going on while you…

(Soundbite of stage play, "Darwin: Live and in Concert")

Mr. MILNER: (as Thomas Huxley) How incredibly stupid not to have thought of that myself.

Mr. MILNER: It's Thomas Huxley, my champion, explaining that when he first read my book that he wished he'd thought of himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Richard Milner's one-man show is called Darwin: Live and in Concert. The man he channeled, Charles Darwin, would have been 199-years-old today. Thank you, both of you, for being with us today.

Mr. MILNER: Thank you. Let's give Huxley a listen.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Darwin: Live and in Concert")

Mr. MILNER: (as Thomas Huxley) His hands have grown to flippers, and he has a fishy tail.


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