interviewsINTERVIEW with David Orenstein, Ph.D

Dr. David Orenstein
When did you first become interested in anthropology?

That’s a great question to begin with because anthropology and its methods are central to my humanistic outlook. The field has shaped my curiosity about the world and the universe. It excites me to go beyond the daily, often mundane day-to-day experience and the news cycle, and it leads me to always step back and look how we are all connected to each other and the planet.

But to offer an accurate chronology, it was the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, that my father took me to see when I was six years old. That film put me on my life’s journey. You could say that I was corrupted by Pierre Boule (who wrote the book), and Rod Sterling (of Twilight Zone fame), who is credited with the screenplay.

Fast-forward to 2019, and you’ll find that little boy’s voice in me still fascinated by the primates, still so captivated by evolution, and so enthusiastic about science. Still asking questions and interested in the fundamentals of how we all got here, what makes us tick, and how we have to hold those in authority to account for their policies, behaviors and actions.

Who were your mentors when you were growing up?

Well, my dad was a big influence, and I miss him to this day. He was a Depression Era child and was in foster care. He never finished school, but he was a hard worker and loved language and music. If things were different, I’m sure he would have been an academic of some sort.

I had a fifth grade science teacher who loved chemistry and was passionate about teaching. Getting older and while in College I had the best mentor ever. His name is Dr. Benjamin Pacheco and he taught sociology in City University of New York. I was lucky to take one of his classes, he saw my serious interests and really helped connect me. He put me on my path. He made me want to teach anthropology – keep the cycle going.

Certainly growing up in Brooklyn, which after all my years and travels I now live again, I’d add Carl Sagan, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Diamond, Isaac Asimov...the list goes on forever. Has to be something in the water.

What are your top five favorite books of all time?

Ok, so the list I give you now could change at any moment, because I’ve been influenced by so many fine authors, scientists and activists. But here goes:

  1. Dr. Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Because Sagan’s work in science reads like poetry to me)
  2. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (Because this fundamental book changed the world)
  3. William Bridges’ Transitions (because this book helped me better understand life’s constant change, both the good and the not so good)
  4. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Leo Buscaglia’s The Fall of Freddie the Leaf (Children’s books which taken together and you’ll never need a bible to discover both human empathy and human purpose)
  5. Christopher Hitchens’ – Essentially every sentence uttered and every book published.

What inspired you to write a book about Darwin and the scientists who supported him?

I think that there’s an invigorating story to tell. Darwin was all about juxtaposition. He was a brilliant scientist but deeply cautious about offending the status quo. He was a visionary researcher, writer and colleague but not a public speaker. He was a loner with many friends and he was a quiet man with an explosive story to tell.

Because of his fears, he was known to suffer great emotional and physical torments. Many of his illnesses were self-induced. However, his influential works and writings had many supporters and advocates. Remember the Beatle’s song, “With a little help from my friends“ That’s what’s so great about Darwin’s relationship with Draper, Huxley, Hooker, Gray and Wallace. There was always symbiosis to Darwin’s work, relationships and writings.

These five in particular (certainly there were others) were in many ways central to getting Darwin’s work out in 1858, like in the joint paper with Wallace. They were instrumental in pushing for Origin’s publication in 1859, and most spoke and were on hand at the great Huxley-Wilberforce debate of 1860. Each of the apostles would support Darwin throughout their own fascinating lifetimes and their own contributions to the sciences and social change.

What do you think Darwin would say if he could know just how far our understanding of evolution has come?

My guess is that Darwin would be quietly pleased that through his observations of the natural world that he had unlocked the mechanics of nature without the essential keys. In Darwin’s time, there was no science of DNA, no genetics research, no micro-biology. In fact, whole scientific fields of study within medicine, chemistry, biology and numerous other fields would not exist without his (and Wallace’s) disruptive work.

Theodosius Dobzhansky’s quote sums it up best, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This holds true today as it did when he wrote the phrase in 1973. It holds true today as it did in 1859, when Darwin published Origin.

Darwin would probably be a little shocked to see so many of the creationist and religious arguments for misunderstanding nature still accepted by many groups. But possibly not so shocked that the fervent one’s who need to use theology as the defining process of discovery are still working from authority and intimidation. The religious critics of1858 and the critics today still believe and say the same wrong things. Many still see natural selection as a sin against their god.

What is your favorite part in Darwin's Apostles?

Well now we’re getting to the Sophie’s Choice questions. I love the whole book and I loved the writing process with my co-author, Dr. Abby Hafer. Our editors at the Humanist Press have also been wonderful.

The book is now coming in well over 300 pages of text with something like 180 citations. But if you want an actual answer, I’d say without being cheeky it’s the dedication, here goes:

“The authors wish to dedicate this book to the researchers and teachers on the front lines of scientific investigation and science education. Without your hard work, dedication, and expertise our world and our lives would surely be darkened by ignorance, folly and the fear of the unknown.”

How is your book different than other books about Charles Darwin and evolution?

Darwin's Apostles, by David Orenstein

That’s a really great question. There is a Darwin cottage industry out there in the bibliographic world with several new books about the man and his ideas being published yearly. No doubt there are many, many good books on Darwin and based on our new book, we’ve probably cited them in our work in one way or another. Darwin’s Apostles will add to that chorus.

Really for me writing this book is about being part of a much wider conversation on the importance of science, freedom, rationalism, humanism, the power of personal relationships, and not giving up or giving in to conventional wisdom.

We certainly offer the reader many really very accessible insights into the life and times of Darwin and his apostles. There’s a whole chapter on Victorian culture which puts into context the scientific and social changes occurring while Darwin was traveling, researching and writing.

We also have a wonderful chapter on how Darwin’s work impacted the 19th Century freethought movement in England and the United States. How freethinkers used Darwin’s ideas to help liberate, bring about social change and also social justice. So freethinkers in our time have been influenced by Darwin simply because we’re all standing on the shoulders of advocates and activists who came before us.

Our biographical profiles of the apostles I think make for fascinating reading. There’s also two chapters on the reactions to Darwin’s work both at the time of Origin’s publication, as well as how creationists then as now have attempted to stifle and censor Darwin’s work in favor of religious doctrine.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing and researching this book? 

Patience! I learned how Charles Darwin, for all of his foibles, was a deeply patient man. I take from his life many lessons into my own life. Be patient with people. Be patient with time. Be patient with struggle. Be patient with loss and most of all be patient with those you love and who love you.

Finally, be patient with writing. It took Darwin 20 years to publish Origin and it took me three years to write this book.

What were some of the highlights you experienced while traveling with students to the Galapagos Islands?

students at galapagos islandsDuring Darwin’s five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle (1831-1836), he traveled around the world and, ironically, only spent about 19 days in the Galapagos Islands. But he’s mainly remembered there because of the incredible biodiversity he collected which is both fundamental and central to understanding natural selection.

Taking students to Ecuador, hiking deep into the Amazon Rain Forest and traveling to the Galapagos Islands is always an honor. We essentially get to walk in both Darwin and Wallace’s footsteps.

Certainly my students, who are mainly from urban areas of New York, see a world that can only be imagined until you set foot on the islands and forests.

We’ve met so many indigenous people, we eat local foods, visit Quechua tribal lands, we work on farms to rehabilitate and heal the earth. The islands are majestically beautiful and every creature stunning and wonderful. Every day we explore as a group and nights are there to relax and discover on our own. galapagos islands trip

Probably the most outrageous thing that’s ever happened occurred in 2018 at this rainforest zoo we visited in Napo. A huge monkey jumped onto the back of one of my students. He refused to dismount him.

It was scary but we would never have had the experience had we not traveled in to this beautiful exotic place that deserves to be protected and conserved. Fortunately, he did get off my student’s back and no one was injured.

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