Wednesday, July 30, 2008

From so simple a beginning…

Why this blog? 

Well, the superficial answer is that I have just finished writing The Rough Guide to Evolution (well almost finished—a couple of chapters still left to edit, plus an introduction, glossary and index to put together) and now want to promote the book (due out late Dec or early Jan). But the deeper answer is that I want to share what I have learnt with a wider audience. 

In writing The Rough Guide to Evolution I have been exposed to the profound influence of evolutionary thinking on science and society as well as come face-to-face with Darwin’s life and works (which, despite Olivia Judson’s plea for us to stop talking about Darwinism, must surely be worth a mention in the run up to the Darwin 200 year!) 

In preparing the book, I have ended up visiting places other writers on evolution seldom go—looking at popular music inspired by Darwin and evolution, speculating what Darwin would have had on his iPod or preparing itineraries for the Darwinian tourist (do you know where to find Darwin memorialised in the local McDonalds?). I have been amazed by what I have learnt, but also puzzled at the survival of some common misconceptions as regards Darwin and evolution.

But writing The Rough Guide did not mark the start of my interest in Darwin and evolution—that began over twenty years ago, when I first read Stephen Jay Gould’s first collection of essays, Ever Since Darwin. I guess I have to admit my interest has over the years verged on the obsessional (I cited Darwin’s views on marriage in my wedding speech and my first two children are called Charles and Emma) and my own life has been intertwined with Darwin’s: I grew up in south London a few miles from Down House; my college in Cambridge occupies the house where Darwin’s wife lived after his death; my wife comes from Staffordshire, a short distance from the Wedgwood family home at Maer (where Darwin was married) and as I write this, I am sitting in Malvern, a few hundred yards from where Darwin stayed and less than a mile from where his daughter is buried.

In addition, both the book and this blog build on my experience during the last five years in organising our university’s Darwin Day event—an inter-disciplinary meeting aimed at celebrating Darwin’s life, work and influence on his birthday. In organising this meeting, I learnt of the wide influence of Darwin’s ideas and became acquainted with some of the UK’s foremost Darwin scholars. Our local Darwin Day events have covered a huge range of topics: the evolution of antibiotic resistance, of literary manuscripts (including The Origin of Species), of genomes and of the human face and gait. Plus we have had presentations on the Darwin Correspondence Project, evolutionary art, the end-Permian mass extinction, the hunt for the remains of HMS Beagle, the origin of Darwin's finches, the Wilberforce-Huxley debate. The three most memorable highlights of the meetings were:

  • Readings of anti-slavery prose and poetry from Erasmus and Charles Darwin by Rastafarian poet, Benjamin Zephaniah (who I had the pleasure of chaperoning for the day two weeks ago when he received an honorary degree from my university).
  • The creation of the Origin of Species in Dub with my Jamaican colleague, Dominic White.
  • A scintillating eye-witness account of the Dover trial from Nick Matzke, shortly after its conclusion.

As a professor of microbiology, I guess I possess the scientific credentials to write about bacterial and genomic evolution—in fact, I have written several research publications on the evolution of the bacterial flagellum (a favourite topic of the IDiot movement). But I also have a promiscuous curiosity, with an eye for the whimsical, which will guarantee that everyone, including even the most enthusiastic of Darwin fans will discover some new and unexpected in this blog. 

So, please sign up to the feed and join the ride and I’ll aim to deliver an average of one post a day!

PS: There are just 197 days to go until Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (12th February, 2009)!





Kevin Zelnio said...

Excellent, looking forward to the blog and the book!

Anonymous said...

What Kevin said!

the mad LOLscientist said...

Hi! Got here via PZ's shout-out on Pharyngula. Can't wait to see your book. Meanwhile I've been checking out your "Origin in Dub." Dat's some goooood sheet, mon! :-)