Monday, December 29, 2008

Darwin: a new anniversary and an old atheism

The week before Christmas I was interviewed on the phone by Madeleine Bunting, who works as a journalist for the British broadsheet newspaper, The Guardian. Today Madeleine has published a piece in The Guardian based on her interviews with myself and others.

It is great to see The Rough Guide to Evolution described as "helpful" and cited as frontrunner in what Bunting estimates to be fifty new publications appearing for the Darwin bicentenary year. All this publicity has already pushed my sales rank to a little over 4000 overall (at least momentarily) and into the top ten best-selling books on evolutionary biology and to number four in Rough Guides Reference Titles--but see these links on the hazards of sales ranks:
And all this before the official publication date of January 2nd!

However, those that know me will be amused and bemused to see me apparently on the side of the angels in the "Darwin versus God" debate, with a single quotation from me in Bunting's article: "A defence of evolution doesn't have to get entangled in atheism"!

In fact, Madeleine and I spoke for around 45 minutes, so that one quotation doesn't quite do justice to the breadth and depth of our discussion, although many of the themes we touched on do surface in the article. 

I was keen to sidestep the Darwin-versus-God debate for two reasons.

Firstly, in my opinion, the bicentenary should be more about a positive celebration of Darwin's life and legacy than about his negative impact, supposed or otherwise, on religion. As I pointed out to Madeleine, even if Darwin had not hit on evolution, here was someone who would still rank as
  1. one of the nineteenth century's foremost adventurers and travel writers, as evidenced by his Voyage of the Beagle.
  2. someone who made important contributions to geology (particularly on the formation of coral atolls)
  3. a great collector of geological, botanical and zoological specimens
  4. a natural historian of the highest order, on account of his descriptions and analyses of the flora and fauna of the Beagle voyage, of barnacles and of orchids.
If you are unconvinced as to Darwin's credentials as an adventurer, here is a snippet from the Rough Guide to Evolution on his Beagle voyage:
Threading through Darwin’s voyage were the twin themes of adventure and discovery. Less than a year into his journey, Darwin was already comparing his escapades to the fantastical adventures of Baron Münchausen. To the modern reader, he is perhaps best envisaged as a geologizing Indiana Jones.

There was risk and privation. Afloat, the quarters were cramped, the seasickness unrelenting. On land and sea, Darwin faced storms. Three of his shipmates died of malaria; fellow crewman, Edward Helyer, drowned collecting specimens. Darwin himself was ill on several occasions, once seriously. The voyage brought Darwin face to face with war and rebellion. He saw Napoleon’s tomb on St Helena. He visited the Falkland Islands barely two months after their seizure by the British. In a feat of derring-do, Darwin escaped revolution in Buenos Aires. He helped suppress an uprising in Montevideo, but he was confined to ship during an insurrection in Lima. In the South American equivalent of the Wild West, Darwin witnessed the ruthless genocidal destruction of Native Americans. He met the Argentinean dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, and rode and camped with the gauchos (the Hispanic equivalent of cow boys). He recoiled from the sight of drunken men belching blood and was disgusted by the bloody massacre of bullocks in Buenos Aires.

Darwin felt the full fire and fury of nature. He watched an Andean volcano erupt; he felt the earth move beneath his feet. At Concepción in Chile, he was fascinated by the devastation wrought by the shuddering earth and terrifying tsunami... Afloat, beneath the southern stars, he watched the Beagle’s masthead and yardarm shine with St Elmo’s fire, the ship afloat on a ghostly luminous sea. He saw waterspouts and precipitous blue-iced glaciers... He gloried in the exuberance of the tropical forests, the magnificent desolation of Tierra del Fuego and the boundless plains of Patagonia: “no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body”.

But as Madeleine points out, Darwin's biggest idea, evolution by natural selection, guarantees him the status of "Newton apart, the greatest British scientist ever". Yet, something more sets Darwin apart—his liberal-minded agreeable "family-man" personality and his consistent intellectual integrity place him well above the irascible Newton in the scientific hero stakes (Newton never married, was often petty-minded and wasted his talents on alchemy and the occult). In his solid opposition to slavery, Darwin chimes perfectly with the modern mindset. And to top it all, his work remains accessible to today's non-expert reader.

With so much to celebrate, why then get bogged down in the Darwin-versus-God debate? And so that brings me on to the second big reason for sidelining this issue during the bicentenary. Atheism doesn't need Darwin and it is daft to dump all the blame for any decline in religious belief on Darwin. 

As Bunting points out, the Victorian crisis of faith was well underway before Darwin published the Origin in 1859. Tennyson's famous lines date from 1848 or even earlier:
Who trusted God was love indeed; And love Creation’s final law–Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw; With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.

And Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach was probably already finished by 1851.

Although Darwin did lose his own religious belief, I am not aware that he ever blames this on his studies on evolution—as pointed out in an earlier post, in his Autobiography, he firmly lays the blame on plain old common-sense arguments, for example as to the cruelty of the Old Testament God (and here I agree with him—my son just covered Abraham's plans to slaughter Isaac in his RE homework and I cannot see this story as anything other than an abomination). Futhermore, Darwin's doubts surfaced at a time in his life before his evolutionary ideas were well formed.

So, why blame Darwin for atheism, when a generation before Darwin, the likes of David Hume (now there's a Scotsman we should have on Bank of England notes!) and Thomas Paine (see recent posting) had already articulated persuasive arguments against revealed religion? Ironically in fact, in one of the Fundamentals, the tracts that launched modern American Protestant fundamentalism (a movement which post-dates Darwin), George Frederick Wright wrote that "Hume is more dangerous than Darwin". Why the need for New Atheism, when Old Atheism was so very dangerous and so very persuasive!

OK, two centuries after Darwin's birth, we still have to deal with creationism, just as two centuries after Paine's death, regrettably, we still have an established church, faith schools and an hereditary monarchy to deal with here in the UK. But as the much maligned "soapy Sam" Wilberforce, pointed out, any battle here has to be fought on the scientific facts, rather than theology. Here is what Wilberforce said in his arguments against The Origin: 
"Our readers will not have failed to notice that we have objected to the views with which we are dealing solely on scientific grounds. We have done so from our fixed conviction that it is thus that the truth or falsehood of such arguments should be tried. We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-intrusted faith."
So let us hope we can spend 2009 celebrating Darwin's amazing life, adventures, collections, writings and scientific legacy, rather than re-hashing same-old same-old arguments about religion that should have disappeared with Hume and Paine! 

Friday, December 26, 2008

RGE New Year Quiz and competition

In line with the festive spirit and to help rouse you from the intellectual torpor induced by too much food and drink, I have devised a New Year Quiz for you to complete before the start of 2009, Darwin's bicentenary year. 

And there is a prize! The first complete set of correct answers or the highest scoring set received before 00.00hrs on January 1st will receive a signed copy of The Rough Guide to Evolution. E-mail me your answers at

All the answers can be found within the pages of The Rough Guide to Evolution, so the quiz will also give you some idea of the wide-ranging eclectic flavour of the book. Answers will be posted here on New Year's Day.
  1. What Darwin descendant died fighting with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War?
  2. What did English schoolboy Roger Mason discover in the Charnwood Forest in 1957?
  3. According to Darwin in his M Notebook, with what kind of animal did a "Shrewsbury gentleman" attempt an "unnatural union", only to be "restrained by remonstrances on him"
  4. What colour eyes did Darwin have?
  5. What is the subject of Isaac Asimov's short story The Ugly Little Boy?
  6. Which American creationist and founder of the organisation Creation Science Evangelism is currently in prison on tax offences?
  7. Which husband and wife exponents of evolutionary psychology claim that "our modern skulls house stone-age minds"?
  8. Which American lawyer wrote the 1991 book Darwin on Trial despite a lack of any formal education in biology?
  9. What living land mammal is most closely related to a whale?
  10. Which nerdcore artist has released a track "F*#k the creationists"?
  11. Which physician-scientist who headed the human genome project proposes a theistic evolutionary view he calls BioLogos?
  12. Who was chief plaintiff in the Dover, Pennsylvania trial?
  13. In which city is the cathedral from which Stephen Jay Gould borrowed the term "spandrel"?
  14. What is best-known creation of concerned Kansas citizen, Bobby Henderson?
  15. Who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest"?
  16. Which Darwin descendant stars in the Chronicles of Narnia films?
  17. What was Megalonyx jeffersonii?
  18. What ceremony occurred for the first time in the Australian federal government building on Darwin's 199th birthday?
  19. What did German archaeologists Ralf Schmitz and Jürgen Thissen re-discover in the late 1990s?
  20. What did Darwin learn from John Edmonstone?
  21. Where is the likely resting place of the hull of Darwin's HMS Beagle?
  22. What shop now occupies the site of Darwin's first lodgings in Cambridge?
  23. Why was John Maynard Smith's poor eyesight a selective advantage?
  24. What kind of animal was "Mr Arthrobalanus"?
  25. Where is Darwin's daughter Annie buried?
  26. Which Polish-born Jew wrote to Darwin in Hebrew, praising The Origin of Species?
  27. Which German taxonomist is buried in a mountain cemetery in Tübingen?
  28. Why did ALH84001 hit the headlines in the mid-1990s?
  29. What did Scottish bus driver Mike Newman discover in 2004?
  30. Which German philologist pioneered the phylogenetic approach to manuscript research known as stemmatics?
  31. Whose landmark 1970 book, The Origins of Eukaryotic cells, breathed new life into the endosymbiotic theory of mitochondrial origins?
  32. What did Lars Ramsköld and Hou Xianguang do to Hallucigenia?
  33. Which zoologist who attended Marx's funeral also corresponded with Darwin?
  34. According to the fantasy Darwin's Watch, what book does clergyman Darwin write after being prevented from travelling on the Beagle by the Discworld deities?
  35. To what phylum do conodonts belong?
  36. What is the more accurate name for sea scorpions?
  37. How did the Beagle's captain Robert FitzRoy die? 
  38. What was the shortest distance, by road, in miles, that ever separated Darwin and Mendel in life?
  39. Which American founding father wrote an essay in 1751 on population growth that later influenced Malthus who in turn influenced Darwin?
  40. Which Scottish fruit grower outlined the concept of natural selection in 1831, at least a decade ahead of Darwin?
  41. What is the name of the 1972 evolutionary progrock album by Italian rock band Banco del Mutuo Soccorso?
  42. What divorce lawyer worked alongside Clarence Darrow defending John Scopes in Dayton Tennessee?
  43. Which American President made an analogy between the US Constitution and Darwin's theory of evolution, stating that "living political constitutions must be Darwinian".
  44. What term did Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert coin to describe a primordial biology that existed before DNA became the chief genetic material?
  45. What did John Fallon find in a mutant chicken?
  46. What happened to William Jennings Bryan five days after the end of the Scopes trial?
  47. What was discovered in Liang Bua?
  48. What black African tribe from Southern Africa claim Jewish ancestry and possess some genetic markers to support their claim?
  49. Which Permian tetrapod is widely hailed as the first exponent of monogamy?
  50. What is the silversword alliance and what evolutionary principle does it illustrate?
  51. Which contemporary English novelist weaves Darwinian themes into his 2005 novel Saturday
  52. What is Coelurosauravus jaekeli famous for?
  53. What new species of australopithecine did Maeve Leakey describe in the mid-1990s?
  54. Which Birmingham University anthropologist championed the hypothesis of ancestral arboreal bipedalism in 2007?
  55. What gruesome end did the head of the Taung child come to?
  56. In which species has Ted Garland bred hyperactivity?
  57. What predicted feature of Velociraptor was confirmed in 2007?
  58. What is the olm and what evolutionary principle does it illustrate?
  59. What is the link between the eye of a squid and recovery from a human hangover?
  60. What nickname did JBS Haldane apply to Cambridge University's academic lawyers, who found him guilty of sexual impropriety?
  61. Which American palaeontologist starred in a cameo role in The Simpsons?
  62. Which Welsh song did Darwin commonly hum to himself?
  63. If punctuated equilibrium is "evolution by jerks", what is the alternative, phyletic gradualism?
  64. Which British astronomer gives humanity only a 50% chance of surviving the next century?
  65. What relic of the Carboniferous period did Howard Falcon-Lang discover in an Illinois coalmine?
  66. Which American theoretical physicist has proposed a theory of cosmological natural selection?
  67. Which nineteenth-century German linguist proposed a family tree theory of languages that paralleled Darwin's theory of common descent?
  68. Which Austrian-born philosopher wrote that "our theories... suffer in our stead in the survival of the fittest"?
  69. To what species are the earliest European hominins from Atapuerca assigned by their discoverers?
  70. Who or what were the rudists?
  71. Which English clergyman-scientist mentions Darwin, Huxley and Owen by name in his children's novel The Water-Babies?
  72. Where and what is the Chicxulub crater?
  73. What common name is applied to the phorusrhacids?
  74. Which Victorian novelist, who attended Darwin's funeral, makes geologist Henry Knight the hero of his novel "A Pair of Blue Eyes"?
  75. What did Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye discover?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Charles and Emma" would be illegal in many parts of the USA

Just read this piece from Wired Science on this editorial in Public Library of Science Biology. It seems that marriages between first cousins remain illegal in over 30 states of the USA. So, if they were alive today and American (an odd thought!), the marriage of Emma Wedgwood and Charles Darwin would be banned in most of America (Charles' mother, Susannah was sister to Emma's father, Josiah Wedgwood II).

Charles did worry about the potential genetic ill effects of marrying his cousin. However, the editorial in PLSB reports that the risk of ill effects in the offspring of first cousin marriages is only marginally greater (~3%) than in the general population and is about equivalent to that seen in mothers over forty. Given that no one has ever suggested that laws should be brought in to prevent births in the over-forties, the authors of the PLSB piece argue that laws banning first-cousin marriages are unjustified.

Among the children of Charles and Emma, three died in childhood (Mary Eleanor Darwin at less than four weeks old; Annie at age ten and Charles Waring at six months). I am no sure whether there is any evidence to suggest a cause of death for Mary Eleanor. Randal Keynes has suggested that Charles Waring, born when Emma was 48, suffered from Down's syndrome. However, the baby's death from scarlet fever may or may not be related to his mother's age or parents' cosanguinity. I am not aware of any increased susceptibility to scarlet fever in Down's syndrome, so it could just be a coincidence that the baby suffered from both conditions. The cause of Annie's death is unclear. Tuberculosis has been suggested but the issue has never been subjected to scrutiny in the peer-reviewed literature.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Darwin and evolution in the Black Country (and back in the USSR)

On Saturday my wife banished me from the house for the day while she got things ready for Christmas, so I took the children on a tour of Darwin and evolution in the Black Country (a distinctive area of the English Midlands west and north of Birmingham, renowned for its local accent).

First stop was Dudley, unofficial capital of the Black Country. Dudley and its surroundings (particularly Wren's Nest) are famous for a local abundance of fossils from the Silurian period, especially trilobites. One species in particular, Calymene blumenbachi, is so common here that it was nicknamed "Dudley bug" or "Dudley locust" and features in the Dudley coat of arms. We visited the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, which houses a number of interesting exhibitions on topics as diverse as dinosaurs and the ancient Greeks. I was a little disappointed that the trilobite collection, which is supposedly one of the finest in existence, was not given a more prominent place in the museum. It was only more or less by accident that we stumbled across a drawer in the Fantastic Fossils exhibition that housed an extensive collection of trilobites. I guess part of the problem is that trilobites are just too small to compete in the visitor's imagination with the dinosaurs and mammoths given pride of place (but as replicas!) in the museum.

Next, we drove a few miles further north to the city of Wolverhampton (which strictly speaking is outside the Black Country). We parked in the car park of a shopping centre named after Wulfrun, the Saxon noble woman who founded the town in 985. Thanks to tip-offs from several bloggers (including Karen James at the Beagle project, Adrian Thysse at Evolving Complexity and Emma Townshend at Reading the Origin), I was keen to visit a new and all too ephemeral exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery called "Dreams of Science: The Life of Charles Darwin in the Russian Imagination". The Art Gallery is an impressive building and the Darwin exhibition itself well worth a visit (although the children didn't agree with me on that one!).

The exhibition is on loan from the Russian State Darwin Museum (which was established in 1907 to celebrate Darwin and natural history in Moscow), and features the work of two artists, Russian artists Mikhail Yesuchevskii (1880-1928) and Viktor Yevstafiev (1916-1990s). I managed to snap a few photos of some of the pictures (using the camera in my iPhone, which worked remarkably well under the circumstances). I cannot understand why the images are not already available on the web, so have included them here (but enjoy them while you can, because I will remove them if the Darwin State Museum asks me to).

The two artists hail from different eras: Yesuchevskii's work is from the 1920s, whereas Yevstafiev's pictures are all from 1948. There are also considerable differences in style. Yesuchevskii's depicts several other scientists in addition to Darwin (Cuvier and St. Hillaire, Lamarck, Buffon, Goethe) and is to my uneducated eyes somewhat reminiscent of van Gogh in style. The image here shows "Darwin discovering a prehistoric skull". One poignant observation in the text accompanying the exhibition is that the museum's founder, Alexander Kohts, managed quite literally to save Yesuchevskii from starving by employing him as an artist at the State Darwin Museum.

Yevstafiev's work is more literalist and often rather sentimental, particularly in the numerous portrayals of Darwin as a child. Here is "Darwin and his sister on a fishing trip". I can vouch forthe accuracy in the depiction of Darwin's childhood home, the Mount, as I was there only on Thursday!

Here are three more images from Darwin's childhood, of him fishing, collecting beetles and reading:

Also welcome are some images of Darwin as a young man ( a nice counterpoint to the usual bearded sage/ saint images from his old age). Here is young Darwin learning taxidermy in Edinburgh from freed Guyanan slave, John Edmonstone:

And here he is courting Emma at Maer Hall, with his father Robert seated to the left:

And finally here is my favourite (apologies for missing bird's head): "Darwin hunting on the plains".

So, if like me you live within an hour or so's drive of Wolverhampton and the Black Country, both museum's are well worth a visit. You will have to hurry to see the Dreams of Science, as it closes on 17th January 2009 (but I did discover that Wolverhampton Art Gallery is doing a play about Darwin later in the bicentenary year).

Oh and while we are on a Russian theme, here is the closing words of the Origin in Russian:

Есть величие в этом воззрении, по которому жизнь с ее различными проявлениями Творец первоначально вдохнул в одну или ограниченное число форм; и между тем как наша планета продолжает вращаться согласно неизменным законам тяготения, из такого простого начала развилось и продолжает развиваться бесконечное число самых прекрасных и самых
изумительных форм!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Yes, it looks like you can get The Rough Guide to Evolution in time for Christmas!

Just received this e-mail from

Dear Customer,

We wanted to give you an update on the status of your order #026-2438100-5325966.

We are pleased to report that the following item will dispatch sooner than expected:

Mark Pallen "The Rough Guide to Evolution (Rough Guide
Science/Phenomena)" [Paperback]
Estimated arrival date: 23/12/08 - 25/12/08 is saying it is in stock and are saying it will be on Monday, so it looks as if you will be able to get it in time for Christmas, just! 

NB: But I cannot give any guarantees!

Steve Jones (and I) on Stephen Jay Gould

I guess I have to confess that the course of my life would not have been the same without Stephen Jay Gould. My lifelong interest in Darwin and evolution was sparked by his book "Ever Since Darwin". But,  like many others, I have an ambivalent relationship to his life and work. This week in Nature, Steve Jones has written a balanced and nuanced appraisal of Gould while reviewing a new book Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on his view of life. Steve Jones's review is well worth a look and I am looking forward to getting my hands on the book too.

My own book, The Rough Guide to Evolution, (which is due to be published on 2nd January, but is apparently available from on December 22nd) contains numerous pen portraits of evolutionary scientists. Here is what I wrote about Gould:

Stephen Jay Gould – Darwin’s essayist
Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002) was an American palaeontologist who eloquently wrote essay after essay, interweaving Darwin and evolution with the details of history, baseball and light opera. For over twenty years he reigned supreme as America’s foremost spokesman for evolution and defender of his hero, Darwin. His status as the people’s palaeontologist even earned him a cameo role in The Simpsons!

A New Yorker by birth, upbringing and sporting affiliation, Gould spent almost all his working life at Harvard, as professor of geology and curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. His 1977 book Ontology and Phylogeny prefigured the evo-devo movement. That same year, he published a collection of essays, Ever Since Darwin, the first of over a dozen volumes that thrilled and informed readers for the next quarter century. In his 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, Gould fearlessly defended human equality. Throughout his life, he attacked biological determinism, particularly in sociobiology and its offshoot evolutionary psychology. In the courtroom, he fought against the teaching of creationism in American schools.

Gould courted controversy at every turn. His punctuated equilibrium theory stirred up things in palaeontology. Gould’s opposition to adaptationism – the idea that every feature of an organism has to have an explanation in natural selection – led to him being misquoted by creationists and derided by his “ultra-Darwinist” critics. Gould’s belief that Cambrian fossils proved that life’s history depended on luck and was non-repeatable – popularized in his bestselling book, Wonderful Life (1989) – brought him into dispute with fossil expert Simon Conway Morris. And Gould’s attempt to categorize religion and science as two separate fields of human experience, as “non-overlapping magisteria” has been seen as excusing religion from intellectual scrutiny.

In 1982 Gould was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a usually fatal form of cancer. After two years of aggressive treatment, sweetened by non-recreational use of cannabis, he recovered to write a magazine article, “The Median isn’t the Message”. Here he highlighted the perils of hasty conclusions when faced with the statistics of cancer survival, giving hope to many subsequent cancer sufferers. He died twenty years later from an entirely different kind of cancer, surrounded by books in an attic room in an apartment in his beloved Manhattan. He lived just long enough to see his 1400-page magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Thought published. Creative in his controversy, Gould’s legacy is perhaps best summarized by the title of a paper written by two fellow palaeontologists shortly after his death: “Wonderful Strife”!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Annie Darwin and Darwin's loss of faith: it ain't necessarily so!

I have just read this article from the Independent by Darwin's great-great-grand-daughter, Ruth Padel. I look forward to Ruth's forthcoming book of poems, but I am distressed to see her repeating the commonly expressed, but undocumented, claims that Charles Darwin's loss of faith was attributable to the death of his daughter Annie just across the road from where I sit in Malvern.

Let me put this plainly: there is no direct documentary evidence for this claim from anything Darwin himself ever wrote. This is an inference (as is TB as a cause of Annie's death) that has somehow hardened into a "fact" in the last decade or so, starting with the "rediscovery" of Annie's grave in Malvern by Jim Moore and amplified by Randal Keynes' book Annie's Box.

Now, in case you missed my point there: there is NO evidence for the idea that Darwin's abandonment of Christianity was influenced by the death of his daughter or that this event precipitated an agonising crisis of faith. If anyone of you out there have some, then let's have it. But I cannot find a single jot. If this really were the case, wouldn't Darwin have said so somewhere? His life is among the best-documented of all scientists, but there is nothing there to support this claim! Take a look at what he says on this topic in his Autobiography:

"Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

No mention of Annie's death there!

So, please let's pull back from continually asserting as fact something that is mere supposition. It is entirely possible that Annie's death had an impact on Darwin's religious beliefs, but there is no documentary evidence for this! I remain an Annie-sceptic! If you disagree, show us your evidence!

New site: Species of Origin

Just came across this site, The Species of Origin, which decribes itself as "a live site that actively invites you to contribute as well as discover new thinking on Charles Darwin and contemporary art and culture." 

With backing from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Natural History Museum and arts and law faculties in Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, it comes with impressive credentials and is packed full of articles and information about the interface between evolution and the arts. 

(NB, there is a broken link to Gillian Beer's evolution of the novel; here is the correct link if you can't wait for them to fix it.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish

It seems to be a fact of modern life that however hard you look for all the typos in a thesis, for all the proof-of-principle references that would help bolster a grant proposal or, when writing a book section about evolution and literature, for all the poems influenced by evolution, there is always something that comes to your attention only after you have finished what you were doing! 

In The Rough Guide to Evolution, I survey Darwin's and evolution's influence on poets as diverse as Gerald Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy. And I quote from Mathilde Blind's The Ascent of Man and May Kendall's Lay of the Trilobite...

But, until this recent posting by Michael Barton, I had not come across Evolution, A Fantasy by Langdon Smith. And this despite the fact that the opening and closing lines form part of a song from Richard Milner's Charles Darwin Live and in Concert--in fact, it is one of my children's favourites, even though I had no idea as to the provenance of the lyrics.

Anyhow, now on reading the entire poem (which I append), I am impressed. OK, the transmigration of souls interwoven with the progress of evolution makes for decidedly dodgy metaphysics, but for me Langdon Smith's magnum opus works well as whimsical poetry. 

Also worth a look are the beautiful Art Nouveau illustrations that surround the poetry in the 1909 edition that Michael links to (for example, the highly sensual human forms emerging from the tree of life). 

And it is a pleasure to read (but with tongue in cheek) the purple prose in praise of Darwin in the accompanying  essay marking the centenary of Darwin's birth. Here's an excerpt:
Like a meteor, fell "The Origin of Species into this placid pool of thought, on the banks of which Theology, Philosophy and the youngest of the pilgrims, Science, had halted in their march several years before, and where they still lingered dreaming dreams and telling each other tales of folklore. Instantly Science, his young blood and imagination electrified by the message, darted forward on winged feet, his eyes ablaze with the promise of measureless service to mankind. His elder companions paused awhile sniffing the air for brimstone and calling after him to stay his pace, but as in his wake followed first one and then another of their disciples the chill of loneliness fell upon them, and they too set out to overtake, if might be, the leader now far in the distance.

I wonder how much from the bicentenary will be worth looking at in a hundred years time?

Evolution By Langdon Smith (1858-1908)

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into life again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man's hand;
We coiled at ease 'neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was passed.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing sod
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Auroch bull
And tusked like the great cave bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o'er the plain
And the moon hung red o'er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland lank
And fitted it, head and haft;
Than I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O'er joint and gristle and padded hoof
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o'er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Til our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico's.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet --

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnish’d them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world's dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone men made war
And the ox-wain creaks o'er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then as we linger at luncheon here
O'er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Charles Darwin Genome Project

Now I am probably put two and two together and making five, but having read in the last few days that:
  1. the mammoth genome has been sequenced using mammoth hair as a starting point
  2. Charles Darwin's beard hair has gone on display at the Darwin's Big Idea exhibition
I should like to launch the Charles Darwin Genome Project, by suggesting that DNA extracted from the hair is used to sequence the great man's genome. In the era of personal genomics, with four individual genomes already completed (including Jim Watson's and Craig Venter's), what better way to mark the bicentenary than getting started on this project! But beyond that, it might also shed light on any genetic predispositions that contributed to Darwin's long-standing ill-health (for example, genotypes associated with inflammatory bowel disease, which has been suggested as one cause of his illness)

Sequencing Darwin will not be quite as straightforward as sequencing Craig Venter or Jim Watson, but recent successes with the mammoth and with the Neanderthal genome provide grounds for optimism. I propose a three-pronged attack on the problem:

1. Studies on Darwin's hair. My understanding is that amplifying DNA from human hair, even recently shed hair, is considered difficult and the dogma was that this would work only on mitochondrial DNA.  In fact, even getting mitochondrial DNA from Darwin's hair might be tricky--a recent attempt to obtain a mitochondrial hypervariable sequence from Isaac Newton's hair delivered several different sequences, so that none could be assigned with confidence to "the greatest Englishman before Darwin". But the mammoth genome sequence forces one to re-evaluate this assumption and nothing ventured, nothing gained. Once the exhibition is over, I suggest that Darwin's hair be turned over to Svante Pääbo to see what he can do with it.

2. Studies on Darwin's descendants. There are now hundreds of Darwin descendants and between them they provide two easy targets: Darwin's Y chromosome and Darwin's mitochondrial genome. Darwin's Y chromosome (give or take a few mutations) is alive and well in his male-line descendants, so obtaining that sequence should be technically straightforward, in that one just needs to sequence the genome of one or more male Darwins. However, there is an ethical problem in that such a genome sequence might reveal predispositions to disease that the owner does not want to know about. Although this could perhaps be circumvented in masking the most obvious disease-associated loci (as Jim Watson did), it probably prevents this becoming an immediate reality, until a better framework for dealing with personal genome data is in place. However, using information from a male-line descendant would provide a means of assigning Charles Darwin to a relevant Y chromosome haplotype. I know of at least one Darwin descendant who might be willing to provide a sample for such an investigation. Watch this space!

Similar arguments could be made for determining the CD mitochondrial genome. Here one would need a matrilineal descendant of one of Darwin's matrilineal ancestors (mother, grandmother etc). From a brief look at the Darwin-Wedgwood family tree, I got quite excited that one such lineage led to the Vaughan Williams family (i.e. sisters of the composer Ralph), but it appears that the line died out in the twentieth century. If anyone can help find suitable descendants, please let us know!

A more ambitious project would be to sequence the genomes of all living Darwin descendants and attempt to re-construct the entire CD nuclear genome. This would be quite an undertaking and perhaps not worth thinking about for a few more years. However, the technology for sequencing genomes is progressing very quickly and there is a thousand human genomes project underway already. A study of all descendants of CD would provide an interesting contrast to current studies which tend to focus on human diversity rather than an in-depth analysis of one family.

3. Studies on Darwin's remains. The most obvious source for Darwin's DNA are his bones, which lie under the floor of Westminster Abbey. Given that the Neanderthal genome sequencing project is progressing well using material from long bones, which in life house the DNA-rich bone marrow, an obvious place to start would be with Darwin's femurs. A current sense of propriety is likely to forestall any current moves in this direction. But given this recent headline about Copernicus, in which his >400-year-old bones have been subjected to DNA analysis, it is only a matter of time before Darwin's DNA becomes a substrate for genome-sequencing. I confidently predict that by Darwin's 500th birthday, in 2309, we will have a complete genome sequence of the great man! And anyone reading this in the twenty-fourth century, take note that the Charles Darwin genome project started here!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Darwins talking dirty

As a follow-up to my earlier post on Charles Darwin's smelly rude bits, readers might be interested to see that this week Emma Darwin has been writing about writing about sex—not CD's wife, his great-great-granddaughter, the novelist

Emma has made a contribution to a new compilation of erotic fiction just out called" In bed with..." and has just blogged on the problems of writing sex scenes. Emma points out that a major worry is being nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction award. Emma also notes that the key to success is that "you have to imagine is that your parents are dead". 

What would her illustrious great-great-granddad have made of all this?! Well, judging by his notebooks, the young Charles Darwin might have revelled in a bit of sexy fiction. But as an old man he was a bit of a prude. Here is what he had to say about contraception:
"I believe that any such practices would in time lead to unsound women & would destroy chastity, on which the family bond depends; & the weakening of this bond would be the greatest of all possible evils to mankind"
I guess that might allow some wiggle room for writing about sex inside marriage, but extra-marital sex is beyond the pale! Luckily for Emma, the old man  is long dead. But how about a new challenge for her next historical novel: writing about her great-great-grandfather in bed with her namesake? Or with some chambermaid during his riotous years as a student? The mind boggles! 

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Rough Guide to Evolution mentioned in the journal Nature

Nature, a journal founded with help from Darwin's associates Huxley and Hooker, has this week run a special feature on Darwin200, the Darwin bicentenary year. 

The timing is rather odd, as we still have over two months to go to Darwin's 200th birthday, but the supposed hook on which it all hangs is that Monday marks the 149th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species. I guess does make some sense to fill people in on the bicentenary a few weeks in advance, so they can buy all the relevant books and read them in time to appreciate why we are celebrating this remarkable man!

Anyhow, I was delighted to see The Rough Guide to Evolution gets a passing mention in an article entitled Books in brief: a Down House bookshelf:
"The Rough Guide to Evolution by Mark Pallen (Rough Guides) provides a popular summary, including the cultural impact of Darwin on music, plays and novels, and a list of Darwin bicentenary events."
although I have to stress that there is much more in the book than just a "popular summary" of evolution, including a a brief biography of Darwin, which delves into his notebooks, an overview of the evidence for evolution and an account of creationist opposition. Plus a fair bit of palaeobiology and palaeoanthropology!

But it is nice to see the first of what I hope will be many mentions and reviews!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Suzi Quatro's "Hey Charly!": the song for the Darwin bicentenary!

A while back I started a thread on the ultimate Darwin concept album:
Well, I never did get around to revealing my top choice: a unique concept album from 1991 called Darwin (The Evolution), by the Bolland Project: an eclectic mix of prog-rock, rock ballardry, electronica and euro-pop. 

For the album, brothers Rob and Ferdi Bolland (a talented duo with many production credits to their name) enlisted talents as diverse as: 
In addition, for those in search of chilled out music with an evolutionary bent there are two tracks from Future World Orchestra, “The Beagle” and “Origin of Species”, which are still available on a later compilation album "The Hidden Files" (2000).

But, alas, the album as a whole and most of the tracks on it are no longer on sale, which is a great shame, as it would form the perfect musical backdrop to the forthcoming "year of Darwin". One of the tracks, Suzi Quatro's "Hey Charly!" in particular would be the ideal song for the Darwin bicentenary. 

I have tried contacting the Bolland brothers without success. So, in a plea to Suzi and the Bolland brothers, I have placed the track (plus a little video I threw together, see below) on YouTube in the hope that they will somehow get the message and re-release the track and even the whole album in time for Darwin's 200th birthday on 12th February 2009! Please share the video with friends and if you wish to add your voice to this request, e-mail Suzi's manager on

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Charles Darwin - a different viewpoint. Lecture at Thinktank Birmingham

Just picked up this information about a lecture in Birmingham:

Most people who have heard of Charles Darwin tend to associate him only with the issue of evolution. However, Darwin's ideas have influenced fields as diverse as geology, genetics, immunology, philosophy, psychology and, of course, religion and politics.
In this, the 150th anniversary year of Darwin's great book The Origin of Species, you are invited to hear Jon Hodge explain how Darwin was able to leave so many diverse legacies.

Jon is a Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds and author and co-editor of numerous books on Darwin and evolution. As such, he is well-placed to give us fascinating insights in his talk "The many legacies of Charles Darwin". This is to be held on 26th November 2008, 7pm, at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, Millennium Point, Curzon Street, Birmingham B4 7XG, courtesy of the West Midlands Branch of The BA ( Entry is free.

Sylvia Miller
Tel: 01384 373360

The hummingbird on the ten pound note

Not quite sure why Steve Jones is getting quite so upset about the humming bird on the British ten pound note. His complaint is that
'The note is supposed to encapsulate Darwin's trip to the Galapagos, with him looking at a hummingbird as a source of inspiration. But there are no hummingbirds on the islands'

OK there are no hummingbirds on the Galapagos, but according to the Bank of England:
" the ship HMS Beagle... is depicted on the back of the note. Also pictured is an illustration of Darwin 's own magnifying lens and the flora and fauna that he may have come across on his travels."
In other words, the illustrations on the note are not specifically about Darwin's trip to the Galapagos, but illustrate all his travels on HMS Beagle. And there is no question that he saw hummingbirds. He might not have written about them in The Origin but then he doesn't specifically mention Galapagos finches in The Origin either. So, this all strikes me as a storm in teacup. Why is this news?!

If one wanted to rant about Bank of England notes, let's start with the way in which they replaced the quintessential English composer with a Scotsman on the £20 note! Hrmmph! When did the Bank of Scotland last put an Englishman on one of their notes? If one wanted to start a conspiracy theory, one could blame it on the Scotsman who is running England ;-)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bing Crosby name-drops Darwin

I am grateful to Jerry Pritchard for bringing this clip to my attention, in which Bing Crosby name-drops Darwin in the film High Society!

Darwin’s botanists: Henslow and Hooker

One of the problems with writing The Rough Guide to Evolution was that trying to get everything that I wanted to say about evolution into 344 pages was like trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. Similarly, the Press Release didn't include everyone I wanted to say. In particular, I think one of the books unique selling points is the collection of pen portraits that are scattered throughout its pages, bringing to life the colourful characters behind the history and science of evolution—from Thomas Huxley to John Maynard Smith or from Ernst Mayr to Willi Hennig. 

So, to give you a taster, here is one of the boxes that had to be cut from the final edition, documenting Darwin's botantists, Henslow and Hooker.

John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) was Darwin’s teacher, travel agent and publicist—he taught Darwin botany, found a place for him on the Beagle, forwarded his specimens and published extracts from his letters. Thanks to Henslow, Darwin’s reputation was established by the time he returned from the Beagle. 

Henslow was first Professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge, then Professor of Botany. He played a key role in establishing the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. In the late 1830s, Henslow was appointed vicar in the Suffolk village of Hitcham. Here he established parish schools, clubs, shows, allotments, and excursions. His experiments on phosphate fertilizers led to the founding of local company Fisons

But Henslow remained active on the national stage, coaching Queen Victoria’s children in botany and attending scientific meetings. He chaired the notorious 1860 meeting in Oxford where Wilberforce faced Huxley. Although Henslow never fully accepted Darwin’s ideas on evolution, the two men remained firm lifelong friends. After Henslow’s death in 1861, Darwin wrote: “I fully believe a better man never walked this earth.” Henslow is buried at his church in Hitcham, his grave decorated with wild flowers.

Further reading: Darwin's Mentor: John Stevens Henslow, 1796-1861 by S. M. Walters and E. A. Stow

Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) graduated as a medic in 1839, then, like Darwin, started life as an adventurer. As assistant surgeon, he sailed on HMS Erebus on a four-year expedition to the Southern Oceans that included stops at numerous islands and visits to South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. 

Shortly after his return from the Antarctic, Hooker was asked by Darwin to help classify some plant specimens and so began an enduring friendship and collaboration. In later life, Hooker recalled their intellectual discussions "as iron sharpeneth iron" (a quote from the book of Proverbs). 
After a few unsettled years in England, Hooker carried out a survey of northern India and the Himalayas in 1847-9. Following an unsanctioned border crossing from Sikkim to Tibet, he was arrested and imprisoned by the local Rajah, only to be released after a British threat of invasion. 

On retuning to England, Hooker wrote several books, detailing his travel experiences and his discoveries in natural history. He married Henslow’s daughter Frances and subsequently (like Darwin) was devastated by the childhood death of a daughter. In 1865 he succeeded his father to become director of Kew Gardens, a role that drew him into fierce arguments with Darwin’s rival, Richard Owen. Hooker is buried next to his beloved Kew Gardens in the churchyard of St Anne’s Church.

The Press Release!

The Press Release for The Rough Guide to Evolution is now available as a PDF on the Rough Guides website. The press release includes a list of the book's features plus an excerpt from a box on cult TV shows influenced by evolution.

And it brings some good news and some bad news:
  • The good news is that a deal has been struck with the Natural History Museum in London, so that you get 20% off the entrance fee to the Darwin Big Idea exhibition if you take a copy of The Rough Guide to Evolution.
  • The bad news is that the Press Release is quite unequivocal about the publication date: 2nd January, 2009. This means not only will you have to wait to get the discount at the NHM, but it is not safe to rely on the book arriving before Christmas. It is possible that some booksellers will get it on sale before the official publication date, but please don't depend on it. However, rest assured it will be on sale well before Darwin's 200th birthday on February 12th 2009!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Darwin's pallbearer speaking in Birmingham on democracy

Given current opposition to Darwin in much of the United States, it is surprising to discover that among the pallbearers at Darwin's funeral was the then American ambassador to the UK, poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell

Given the recent illustration of American democracy in action and my earlier post about the Darwin-Birmingham links, I was interested to discover that Darwin's diplomat-pallbearer gave a speech in Birmingham, England a couple of years after Darwin's death, in October 1884, on the occasion of his becoming President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute

Lowell was 65 at the time and begins his speech with a reflection on the differences between the strength of one's opinions in youth and old age. The opening of the speech might strike today's attention-deficient reader as rather long and rambling (TLDR!), but soon there are plenty of nuggets in the eloquent defence of democracy that follows:

"I shall address myself to a single point only in the long list of offences of which we are more or less gravely accused, because that really includes all the rest. It is that we are infecting the Old World with what seems to be thought the entirely new disease of Democracy."

"Accordingly they find it simpler to class under one comprehensive heading whatever they find offensive to their nerves, their taste, their interests, or what they suppose to be their opinions, and christen it Democracy, much as physicians label every obscure disease gout, or as cross-grained fellows lay their ill-temper to the weather."

"it should not be overlooked that the acorn from which it [American democracy] sprang was ripened on the British oak."

"...the sentiment which lies at the root of democracy is nothing new.... What we used to call the tendency or drift—what we are being taught to call more wisely the evolution of things—has for some time been setting steadily in this direction. There is no good in arguing with the inevitable. The only argument available with an east wind is to put on your overcoat."

"Your grandfathers mobbed Priestley only that you might set up his statue and make Birmingham the headquarters of English Unitarianism. "

"...we should remember that nothing is more natural for people whose education has been neglected than to spell Evolution with an initial R."

"But I believe that the real gravamen of the charges [against Democracy] lies in the habit it has of making itself generally disagreeable by asking the Powers that Be at the most inconvenient moment whether they are the powers that ought to be."

"The framers of the American Constitution were far from wishing or intending to found a democracy in the strict sense of the word... They were not seduced by the French fallacy that a new system of government could be ordered like a new suit of clothes. They would as soon have thought of ordering a new suit of flesh and skin. It is only on the roaring loom of time that the stuff is woven for such a vesture of their thought and experience as they were meditating. "

"..the traditional Irishman, who, landing in New York and asked what his politics were, inquired if there was a Government there, and on being told that there was, retorted: Thin I’m agin it!"

"We have taken from Europe the poorest, the most ignorant, the most turbulent of her people, and have made them over into good citizens, who have added to our wealth, and who are ready to die in defence of a country and of institutions which they know to be worth drying for. "

"In point of fact, far-seeing men count the increasing power of wealth and its combinations as one of the chief dangers with which the institutions of the United States are threatened in the not distant future... I am a little impatient of being told that property is entitled to exceptional consideration because it bears all the burdens of the State. It bears those, indeed, which can most easily be borne, but poverty pays with its person the chief expenses of war, pestilence, and famine."

" is cheaper in the long run to lift men up than to hold them down, and that the ballot in their hands is less dangerous to society than a sense of wrong in their heads. "

"...calling democracy that form of society, no matter what its political classification, in which every man had a chance and knew that he had it. If a man can climb, and feels himself encouraged to climb, from a coalpit to the highest position for which he is fitted, he can well afford to be indifferent what name is given to the government under which he lives."
But perhaps more pertinent than ever in the current time of crisis and following the election of no-drama Obama is the speech's closing paragraph, which I quote in full:
"But for artificial evils, for evils that spring from want of thought, thought must find a remedy somewhere. There has been no period of time in which wealth has been more sensible of its duties than now. It builds hospitals, it establishes missions among the poor, it endows schools. It is one of the advantages of accumulated wealth, and of the leisure it renders possible, that people have time to think of the wants and sorrows of their fellows. But all these remedies are partial and palliative merely. It is as if we should apply plasters to a single pustule of the small-pox with a view of driving out the disease. The true way is to discover and to extirpate the germs. As society is now constituted these are in the air it breathes, in the water it drinks, in things that seem, and which it has always believed, to be the most innocent and healthful. The evil elements it neglects corrupt these in their springs and pollute them in their courses. Let us be of good cheer, however, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never come. The world has outlived much, and will outlive a great deal more, and men have contrived to be happy in it. It has shown the strength of its constitution in nothing more than in surviving the quack medicines it has tried. In the scales of the destinies brawn will never weigh so much as brain. Our healing is not in the storm or in the whirlwind, it is not in monarchies, or aristocracies, or democracies, but will be revealed by the still small voice that speaks to the conscience and the heart, prompting us to a wider and wiser humanity."

Read the full text of the speech here:
Read the New York Times review of the speech here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Evolution, education and the University of Birmingham

The Guardian video podcast Teachers TV has just released an interesting documentary The creationism controversy in the classroom on the teaching of evolution in British schools, available via The Guardian website or via iTunes.

I was particularly pleased to see colleagues from the my own university, the University of Birmingham, Jerry Pritchard and Susannah Thorpe, taking a prominent role in the video. And the skulls you see are the same skulls that Susannah let me use in the videos from The Origin of Species in Dub!

In fact, as Jerry has pointed out to me, the links between our university and Darwin's time go deep: Thomas Huxley laid the foundation stone of Mason College, which was the forerunner of our university. Huxley's speech on opening the college makes for interesting reading, stressing the importance of a scientific over a classical education, but curiously, towards the end, making a plea for sociology to be taught at the new institution. The last lines should be brought out at every graduation ceremony:
"In conclusion, I am sure that I make myself the mouthpiece of all present in offering to the venerable founder of the institution, which now commences its beneficent career, our congratulations on the completion of his work; and in expressing the conviction that the remotest posterity will point to it as a crucial instance of the wisdom which natural piety leads all men to ascribe to their ancestors."
Also, each year the university holds a Huxley Lecture--a tradition which goes back over a century (see this reference in Nature from 1915). Curiously none of these historical links feature on the university's web pages!

In fact, we have Darwin built into the very fabric of our university, in that he is one of a handful of figures from the history of Western Civilization to stand above the entrance to the University's most imposing building, the Aston Webb building. But again, I can find no information anywhere on the University's web site as to who decided to put Darwin there and why or who created the statue and how, which is surprising given that the university has badged 2009 the Year of Darwin

I guess, in time for Darwin200@bham (ignore typo as to year on web site), our bicentennial Darwin Day, Jerry and I will have to dig into the university's archives and find out more about these links!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

First African-American president, first African genome

Hot on the heels of the election of the first African-American president comes news in today's Nature of the first human genome sequence from an African--that of an unnamed male Yoruba from Ibadan, Nigeria. The article is also a landmark first description of the use for this purpose of one type of next-generation sequencing technology, the Solexa or Illumina approach (next-generation approaches promise to deliver sequence data 100 x faster and 100x cheaper than established approaches). The paper focuses more on technical details rather than biological take-home messages. But it is clear that this is just the start of a flood of new genome sequences that will be completed in the near future. A thousand human genome project is already well underway and I would not be surprised to see tens or even hundreds of thousands of new bacterial genome sequences appearing within the next five years.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

From Darwin and Lincoln to Obama: Freedom Evolves!

Darwin’s grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, were linked through the Lunar Society of Birmingham to Founding Fathers, Franklin and Jefferson. Thomas Paine’s skull was once housed in the vicarage in Darwin’s village of Downe. But another striking coincidence links Charles Darwin to the history of Great Republic. As American freethinker and Illinois orator, Robert Ingersoll wrote in the 1890s:
“On the 12th of February, 1809, two babes were born—one in the woods of Kentucky, amid the hardships and poverty of pioneers; one in England, surrounded by wealth and culture... One associated his name… with the emancipation of millions, with the salvation of the Republic. He is known to us as Abraham Lincoln. The other broke the chains of superstition and filled the world with intellectual light, and he is known as Charles Darwin.” [link]
But much else links the two men in addition to their shared birthday. Both opposed slavery—Darwin with passion, Lincoln with action. Darwin wrote just before the British government passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833: 
"What a proud thing for England, if she is the first European nation which utterly abolishes it. I was told before leaving England, that after in Slave countries: all my opinions would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negro character.”
Over two decades later, Darwin supported Lincoln’s war: “In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity.”

Lincoln was familiar with and supportive of evolution. His law partner William Herndon wrote: 
"About the year 1843 he [Lincoln] borrowed The Vestiges of Creation... and read it carefully... Mr. Lincoln had always denied special creation, but from his want of education he did not know just what to believe. He adopted the progressive and development theory as taught more or less directly in that work" [link]. 
For both men, there was little in their early life that hinted at later greatness. Darwin flunked out of medical school in Edinburgh and was a wastrel while studying at Cambridge. It took the Beagle voyage to launch him on the trajectory towards greatness. Lincoln was born in a log cabin, worked as shop keeper, then slowly gained a reputation as an eloquent lawyer, rising to fame in Illinois before finally, despite a lack of political experience on assuming office, going on to become one of the greatest American Presidents.

Both men’s rhetoric justified death. Lincoln with 
“these dead shall not have died in vain… this nation…shall have a new birth of freedom”
Darwin with 
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving… directly follows.” 
The two men were just two handshakes apart—via abolitionist Moncure Conway or through Lincoln’s biographer/Darwin’s pallbearer James Russell Lowell.

Later American President Woodrow Wilson linked Darwin and Lincoln in the cause of progress and wrote of the US Constitution that 
“Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice... All that progressives ask or desire—in an era when "development", "evolution" is the scientific word—is to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle." [link]
In one of his notebooks, Darwin wrote: “Has not the white man, who has debased his nature by making slave of his fellow Black, often wished to consider him as other animal… I believe those who soar above such prejudices yet have justly exalted nature of man.”

A hundred years to the day after Darwin and Lincoln's joint birthday, W.E.B. du Bois and others established the National Association for Advancement of Colored People.

A little over a hundred years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King “let freedom ring” in Lincoln’s “symbolic shadow” and dreamt that his "nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Like the early Lincoln, Barack Obama was until recently merely a lawyerly political rookie from Illinois. But in February 2007, Obama declared his candidacy for President of the United States on the very spot where Lincoln delivered his historic "House Divided" speech.

And now, a hundred days before Darwin's and Lincoln's two hundredth birthday, the American people have elected Barack Obama, the first American President of (recent) African origin and a leader comfortable with and worthy of Darwin's and Lincoln's joint legacy. What's more, a modern understanding of human evolution sees all humans as Africans under the skin, linking former slaves and former slave owners together as the scatterlings of Africa and providing the strongest evidence that “All men are created equal”.

And, so, today, American history links Darwin, Lincoln and Obama together in a simple dictum: Freedom evolves!