Saturday, September 27, 2008

Q: Where would you find Darwin in a McDonalds?

A: In Darwin's hometown Shrewsbury, in the basement of the McDonald's in Pride Hill [postcode: SY1 1DQ ], where you can dine enclosed by ancient town walls! 

And this stained glass image provides another reason for religious bigots to hate McDonald's (on top of the chain's alleged promotion of homosexuality). It is a pity the likeness is so poor! 

You will have to buy a copy of the Rough Guide to Evolution to get the evolutionary tourist guide to Shrewsbury, but below are a few more pictures from my own visit to the town earlier this year. About Darwin also has some images from Shrewsbury.

St Chad's, where Darwin was baptised.
Darwin statue outside the building that once housed the Shrewsbury School.

Darwin's parents' grave in Montford

Church in Montford

Gardens now occupy the Dingle, formerly a quarry where the boy Darwin fished for newts.

Site of Darwin's first school

Darwin Gate: a modern public monument

Plaque outside the Unitarian chapel which the young Darwin attended with his mother.

Darwin is even memorialised in a Shrewsbury shopping mall!

The evolutionary tourist in Edinburgh

The Rough Guide to Evolution contains an evolutionary tourist guide, with guides to the places associated with Darwin in Shrewsbury, Cambridge and London. In an earlier draft, there was also a guide to Darwin's Edinburgh, but this was dropped by the time we got to the final draft, chiefly because the tangible links to Darwin in Edinburgh are rather scanty and it is probably not worth visiting the city just to see them. But for those of you who live near to Edinburgh or happen to be visiting the city anyway, here is the guide, complete with some hypertext links.

Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus took lodgings at 11 Lothian Street, but the house was knocked down to make way for the Royal Museum of Scotland. Nonetheless the museum is worth a visit for its geological and natural history collections, which include Dolly the sheep. A plaque has been installed over the rear entrance to the museum, commemorating the Darwin connection [BBC News link | Blog post from Kevin Williamson | Darwin's first letter home from 11 Lothian Street]

John Edmondstone, the former slave who taught Darwin taxidermy, lived at 37 Lothian Street—this building apparently survives. The medical school is located across the main road from Lothian Street.

The evolutionary tourist can re-live one of Darwin’s geology field trips by a visit to the Salisbury Crags, a series of 50-metre cliffs that rise in the centre of the city in Holyrood Park. Here, Professor Jameson bored Darwin with a lecture on the origins of the rock filing a local crevice. 

It is also possible to re-trace Darwin’s exploration of the local marine life by a walk along the rocky shore of the Firth of Forth at low tide at nearby Prestonpans, where Robert Grant had a winter residence at Walford House (post code EH32 9AZ,at the junction of the High Street and Ormiston Place). 

The first Charles Darwin (1758-78), uncle of the famous evolutionist, also studied in Edinburgh, where he died from meningococcal meningitis. He is buried in the Duncan family vault in th Chapel of Ease in St. Cuthbert’s Church, which is located in Lothian Road, at the eastern end of Princes Street.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Return of Heroes: the evolutionary cult show

According to Wired News, Heroes returns to US TV screens today, with the start of the third series (not sure how long it will take to reach the UK).

The Rough Guide to Evolution contains a small section devoted to cult TV shows influenced by evolution, and Heroes, alongside The Simpsons, features heavily. Here we have a whole TV series steeped in references to evolution, albeit a progressive, near-magical distortion of anything Darwinian.

During the first series, Mohinder contrasts human evolution with that of cockroaches, while Darwin permeates Mohinder ‘s relationship with his father. In the second episode, Eden tells Mohinder that she was going to give his father a first edition Origin. In a dream sequence, Charles Deveaux says that Peter Petrelli is a Darwinian, while Claude Rains later compares Peter to Darwin’s pigeons. And the show’s haunting melody is termed Natural Selection.

The evolutionary backstory continues in the second season, the opening episode of which has a science teacher--and Claire--misattributing a quote to Darwin:
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change

which in fact belongs to Clarence Darrow (it seems even Heroes nods!)

We await with interest to see whether the evolutionary themes continue in the third series.
PS. More info on the evolution links in Heroes can be found here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Palinology versus Pythonology

Further to earlier discussion of Sarah Palin, I just came across this YouTube video, which proposes that McCain picked the wrong Palin, and that he should have gone for Michael Palin instead!

Before you say this has nothing to do with evolution, there are clear links between Monty Python (if not Michael Palin) and evolutionary theory, as seen here:

In fact, the parallels between this sketch and Michael Behe's evasive and vague responses at the Dover trial led William Saletan writing in Slate magazine to label the exchange "Monty Python's Flying Creationism"!

Forget all those TV debates, let's judge the presidential and vice-presidential candidates on each side by how well they can perform the Dead Parrot sketch!

Cancer: a microcosm of evolution

With the imminent arrival of a next-generation sequencing capability at the University of Birmingham (sequences 100x faster and cheaper than before), many new previously undreamt of research opportunities are opening up. I spent last Friday morning rushing around editing, printing and delivering a proposal for a medical school studentship with the head of cancer studies to use deep sequencing to follow the evolution of a cancer gene in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Such deep sequencing in cancer, whether of single genes or whole cancers, is now all the rage. 

What has cancer got to do with evolution? Well, lots! In recent years, it has become clear that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection applies at the cellular level, with natural selection clearly driving the evolution of cancer cells. In a cellular struggle for existence, cancer cells compete for space and resources, evade predation by the immune system and evolve to disperse and colonise new organs. In addition, cancer cells evolve in response to treatment, often becoming resistant to anti-cancer drugs. Here are a couple of recent references:

  • Merlo LM, et al. (2006) Cancer as an evolutionary and ecological process. Nat Rev Cancer. 6(12):924-35. 
  • Goymer P. (2008) Natural selection: The evolution of cancer. Nature. 454(7208):1046-8. 

And our view of cancer grows ever more sophisticated. Although for many years, it has been accepted that cancer is usually a clonal phenomenon, i.e. any given cancer arises from a single cell, it is now clear that the cancer cell population in fact represents a diverse and dynamic cellular ecosystem, with many sub-clones bearing adaptive (driver) mutations and neutral (passenger) mutations emerging, persisting and/or undergoing extinction

And as proof that roaming the blogosphere can take you places you don't usually stumble upon in the peer-reviewed literature, I recently came across these two blog postings, which discuss the terrifying idea of transmissible cancers:

Fortunately, evolutionary theory does not just provide us with better explanations of cancer, but also provides new cures--a few months ago, I heard Cambridge molecular biologist Greg Winter describe how he had used a Darwinian approach to select for modified antibodies active against cancer.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Darwin's smelly rude bits

The traditional image of Darwin is the respectable elderly gent with the flowing beard and balding head. But he was once young and full of hormones and, like most young men, preoccupied with vulgar thoughts of booze and sex. 

His accounts of the Beagle voyage reveal just a little of this, with Darwin confirming his delight with the ladies of Buenos Aires, agreeing that they are:
the handsomest in the world.., charmingly so [link]
and waxing lyrical about the ladies of Lima:
There are two things in Lima, which all Travellers have discussed; the ladies "tapadas", or concealed in the saya y Manta, & fruit called Chilimoya. To my mind the former is as beautiful as the latter is delicious. The close elastic gown fits the figure closely & obliges the ladies to walk with small steps which they do very elegantly & display very white silk stockings & very pretty feet. — They wear a black silk veil, which is fixed round the waist behind, is brought over the head, & held by the hands before the face, allowing only one eye to remain uncovered. — But then that one eye is so black & brilliant & has such powers of motion & expression, that its effect is very powerful. — Altogether the ladies are so metamorphised; that I at first felt as much surprised, as if I had been introduced amongst a number of nice round mermaids, or any other such beautiful animal. And certainly they are better worth looking at than all the churches & buildings in Lima. [link]

But it was on his return from the Beagle voyage that we find his rudest ruminations. Darwin kept a series of notebooks, which, never intended for publication, reveal his inner thoughts, not just about geology or the transmutation of species but also about matters of a far cruder nature.  

In his earlier notebooks, Darwin shamelessly speculates on the evolution of female sexuality: 
Female genital organs...In some monkeys clitoris wonderfully produced [C Notebook]

In case of woman instinctive desire may be said more definite than with bitch for some feeling must urge them to these actions These facts may be turned to ridicule, or may be thought disgusting, but to philosophic naturalist pregnant with interest. [D notebook] (NB: a few lines earlier he describes monekys lifting women's petticoats).

However, it is his so-called metaphysical notebooks that the young frisky Darwin most obviously shows an earthy interest in booze and sex: 
The student who, when drunk, thought everyone was calling him a bastard:
In drunkedness same disposition recurs, such as . . . of Trinity always thinking people were calling him a bastard when drunk.—having really been so. [link]

The case of a Shrewsbury gentleman who tried to have sex with a turkey:

Case of Shrewsbury gentleman, unnatural union with turkey cock, was restrained by remonstrances on him [link]

The links between slobbering and sex explained by evolution:

Sexual desire makes saliva to flow /yes, certainly/ curious association: I have seen Nina licking her chops.—someone has described slovering teethless-jaws as picture of disgusting lewd old man. ones tendency to kiss, & almost bite, that which one sexually loves is probably connected with flow of saliva, & hence with action of mouth & jaws.—Lascivious women are described as biting: so do stallions always... The association of saliva is probably due to our distant ancestors having been like dogs to bitches—How comes such an association in man.—it is bare fact, on my theory intelligible [link]

And Darwin writes of stallions licking udders:

Stallion licking udders of mare strictly analogous to men's affect for women's breasts [link].

And dogs smelling each other’s bottoms:

Hyaena likes smell of that fatty substance it scrapes off its bottom. it is relic of same thing that makes one dog smell posterior at another. [link]

And grossest of all, Darwin revells in the smell of his own nether regions!!!

We need not feel so much surprise at male animals smelling vagina of females.—when it is recollected that smell of one's own pud[endum] not disagree[able.]—Ourang outang at Zoology Gardens touched pud of young males & smells its fingers. [link]
And perhaps hints at his own history of "self-abuse":
I often have (as a boy) wondered why all abnormal sexual actions or even impulses (where sensations of individual are same as in normal cases) are held in abhorrence. It is because instincts to women is not followed [link]
Darwin also links the profane to the sublime: 
A man shivers from fear, sublimity, sexual ardour. – a man cries from grief, joy & sublimity. [link]
One thing is clear, after reading Darwin's notebooks, the young frisky Darwin comes across as lot more interesting than that bearded old man!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Evolution rocks!

The Rough Guide to Evolution contains a whole section on music related to Darwin and evolution, from classical to hip-hop, and features the ultimate evolutionary playlist. But only now after the book is finished, I have just come across this hopeful contender for a place on the playlist (maybe it'll make the second edition):

The site comes complete with a making-of video available via YouTube:


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dispatches from the cutting edge of flagellar biology, part 2

Following on from my previous post, the second set of take-away messages from Keiichi Namba's presentation last week all centre on the ATPase associated with the flagellar protein export system. But first some background...

Since the early 1990s, it has been known, from sequence comparisons, that the flagellar ATPase (FliI) is homologous to the alpha and beta subunits of the F-type ATPase, a transmembrane protein complex (see figure) found in bacteria, mitochondria and chloroplasts (see 

In 2003, Nick Matzke (then at the NCSE and so a couple of years later science adviser to the plaintiffs in the Dover trial) wrote an essay summarising plausible evolutionary scenarios for the origin of the bacterial flagellum. He noted a couple of previous suggestions that the proto-flagellum might have originated from the F-type ATPase. Crucially, he predicted that additional homologies would be found between components of the F-type ATPase and the flagellar protein export apparatus, for example between the b subunit of the ATPase and FliH and between the delta subunit and FliJ. 

In 2006, I confirmed one of Nick's hunches through homology searches, showing that part of FliH was homologous to the b subunit. However, things turned out slightly different from Nick's predictions in that FliH is actual of a fusion of domains homologous to the b subunit and the delta subunit.

Last year Namba's group published the structure of FliI and confirmed the striking homology with the F-type ATPase enzymatic subunits. At that stage in the game, it had become clear that the ATPase was a universal component not just of flagellar export systems but also of non-flagellar type III secretion systems. Also, if it was also clear that if one knocked out the gene for FliI, one abolished flagellar biosynthesis. Thus, just about everyone in the field accepted that FliI was an essential component of the flagellar apparatus and that it energised secretion of proteins through the protein export system. In other words, if there were anything to the idea, put forward by Behe and others in the ID movement, that the flagellum showed "irreducible complexity", even experts might have accepted that FliI was one of the "irreducible" components!!

BUT earlier this year, Minamino and Namba (and independently a team headed by Kelly Hughes in the US) overturned all our assumptions by showing that it was perfectly possible to make flagella without FliI--what you needed to do was knock out FliH at the same time. Somehow or other FliH, which usually interacts with FliI, gums up the export apparatus in the absence of FliI. So, bang goes another pillar of support for the ID argument! In fact, it appears that flagellar protein export is powered not primarily by the ATPase by the proton-motive force

Anyhow, to get back to what Namba said at the Bristol meeting last week....

He provided a run through of all the work leading up to his recent Nature article on the dispensibility of FliI. I was then very proud to see him cite my paper on the FliH/F-type ATPase homology. But then he provided the final piece in the jigsaw (and Nick Matzke's ears should prick up at this point)!

Namba and colleagues have now solved the structure of FliJ, another protein that interacts with FliI and FliH. And what they found was clear evidence of homology with yet another protein from the F-type ATPase--the gamma subunit!

So, now we have deep and broad homologies between the flagellum and the F-type ATPase, just as Nick predicted. This provides another nail in the coffin of the idea that flagellum was intelligently designed. If the flagellum were the product of intelligent design, particularly by an omniscient deity, the designer could have custom-built it from scratch, so it need not resemble anything else in nature. By contrast, the processes of evolution tends to cobble together and tweak already existing components (something Francois Jacob called bricolage)--and slowly but steadily it is become clear that the flagellum has been built this way. 

There are now likely to be serious scientific payoffs--what all these homologies mean is going to occupy Namba et al for years to come, and it's a fair bet that comparisons between the two protein complexes are likely to clarify the structures and functions of both systems. 

Science rolls on while ID stays stuck in its non-productive rut! What we need more of is science!

Monday, September 15, 2008

From Bill Bailey to Alfred Russel Wallace

UK readers will know Bill Bailey as a veteran participant in the TV shows QINever Mind the Buzzcocks and Have I Got News for You--the guy that looks like a scarier white version of the Klingon Worf from Star Trek the Next Generation

But it turns out that Bailey has an emerging interest in evolution, particularly in Wallace's contribution. Bailey has spent months at a time retracing Wallace's footsteps and is currently on tour in Australia with his show Tinseltown. Read more in this Australian news report and on Bailey's blog and web site.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dispatches from the cutting edge of flagellar biology, part 1

Last week I attended the third UK type III secretion meeting, held at the University of Bristol. As with the two previous meetings, it encompassed a wide range of topics within the field of bacterial flagellar biosynthesis and type III secretion. For those of you not familiar with the field, the bacterial flagellum is the chief organelle of motility in bacteria and is related in structure, biosynthesis and evolutionary history to a molecular syringe known as the type III secretion system, which is used by bacteria to inject subversive "effector" proteins into eukaryotic cells. In both cases a complex macromolecular complex is assembled in the cell envelope, with proteins travelling through a central channel that spans two membranes and the periplasm.

The highlight of the meeting were keynote addresses by Keiichi Namba and his colleague Tohru Minamino on the structure and function of the bacterial flagellum. Tohru visited my group a couple of years ago, but I had not met Keiichi before, who has been at the cutting edge of the structural biology of the bacterial flagellum for over a decade. I had a chat with him over lunch. We briefly discussed the silly fuss that the "intelligent design" movement makes over the bacterial flagellum. When I asked him whether they had any problem with creationists in Japan, he just laughed and said, no, that was a problem only in America and Europe.

For more background on this issue, see Ken Miller's The Flagellum Unspun

and this movie of Ken:

and this paper by myself and Nick Matzke.

For me there were two take away messages from Keiichi's talk, one of which I will mention here, the other I will deal with in a subsequent post. Interestingly, Keiichi and colleagues are in the habit of getting superb videos made of their work every year or two, so in each post I will include (a link to) one of Keiichi's videos.

Watch this video from 2004 describing the work of Keiichi's Protonic NanoMachine Project (sorry for the link offsite, have tried and failed to upload it here). Remarkably, by then they had already achieved an atomic resolution structure that effectively spanned the whole flagellar filament (a structure visible by light microscopy!). 

In fact, the filament is part of a series of structures that form the axial components of the bacterial flagellum (filament; hook-filament junction; hook; plus the rod forming the protein export channel in the basal body). In Bristol, Namba reported that he and his colleagues now have structures for all the axial proteins. Interestingly, in every case, the structures show clear homology to one another and to flagellin, confirming earlier suggestions by myself and others that the flagellar axial filament has arisen by a process of successive gene duplications from a single progenitor protein. The way is now open to a detailed reconstruction of the steps leading to the evolution of the axial structures and even to resurrection and investigation of the original axial protein. 

This tremendous pace of advance in the mainstream scientific view of the bacterial flagellum (which accepts evolution as a given)  contrasts markedly with the poverty of the intelligent design viewpoint, which has spawned no new experiments or insights. 

The Speckled Monster: the eradication of smallpox

Since the spring of 2006, I have supplied scientific advice and ideas to a collaboration between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Thinktank, with the aim of creating a play and museum trail to improve understanding and appreciation of science among 14-plus school students. Early on I suggested the eradication of smallpox as an example of the triumph of the forces of science, reason and international collaboration over one of humankind's most fearful adversaries and I am pleased to say that the playwright, Jenny Stephens, and the rest of the team took up the idea with enthusiasm. 

Another trigger was the local connection--the eradication of smallpox began with the experiments of Edward Jenner, less than seventy miles from Birmingham down the M5 motorway in the Gloucestershire village of Berkeley. Sadly, the last cases of the disease, photographer Janet Parker and her mother Hilda Whitcomb, resulted from laboratory-acquired infection in 1978 in my own university, with a tragic outcome that saw the death of Parker from smallpox and the death by suicide of the virologist, Henry Bedson,who was  responsible for the laboratory from which she caught the disease. Although we held on to Jenner in our fictionalised account of the eradication of smallpox, in the end we dropped the Birmingham connection, sensitive to the feelings of friends and relatives of Parker and Bedson, several of whom are still alive. [see Hugh Pennington's account of laboratory-acquired smallpox in the UK].

We were fortunate to secure funding from the Wellcome Trust and this weekend our efforts culminated in the first public performance of "The Speckled Monster" (more info here). The play will be performed to groups of school children during the week and two performances will be open to the public (at 12.00 and at 15.00) every Saturday until 4th October. 

I attended the opening performance yesterday with my own children and I was delighted to see how wonderfully our collective ideas had been turned into reality by the playwright, Jenny Stephens, and by the actors and production team. The sets and lighting were great, the acting superb and the play hit just the right tone of poignant triumphalism. I filmed a few snippets of the play and uploaded them on to YouTube, but I have been asked to take them down at least for now, until we have copyright permission from the actors and playwright (would have thought they would appreciate the publicity!).

If you live in or close to Birmingham, please make the effort to come and see this remarkable show, particularly if you have children of  your own. 

And if you think smallpox is a little off topic for a blog centred on evolution, it is worth stressing that 
  • Charles Darwin's grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood was crippled by the disease, always walking with a limp.
  • Darwin's own correspondence contains several references to smallpox in Brazil, Britain and even in his own village of Down
  • Darwin mentions the topic in several of his books.
  • The evolution of the smallpox virus remains a lively research topic. Here is a figure illustrating the origins and spread of the virus from a recent PNAS paper:

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Palin-ological scatology

The similarity between my surname and that of the US Republican vice-presidential candidate has not escaped my attention. I see all the bad puns that have been associated with my own name rolling out (palin-drome, palin-ology etc). Plus, Sarah Palin does look a bit like my wife and curiously my sister traded the name Pallen for Palin when she got married (I wonder how often people with the same surname get married?).

I fully expect that the two names are "homologous", probably sharing a common ancestry in the Welsh "ap Alun", meaning son of Alan.

But in fact my paternal ancestral lineage and that of my surname soon diverge as you go back in time, as my father adopted the surname of his step-father, so at least I can say I am no more related to Ms Palin than the average person of "Anglo" origin, so don't tar me with her brush!!. 

A nice contribution to Palin-ological scatology comes from Jonathon Eisen:

Tracing the evolutionary history of Sarah Palin: links to a parasitic nematode and the pathogenic fungus Botryotinia fuckeliana

Those fond of fnarr fnarr bioinformatics will also delight in the following searches of the nucleotide or PubMed databases:
Fnarr fnarr...

Snowball Earth and the Cambrian Explosion?

A colleague just sent me a link to this presentation on the SciVee website (a kind of YouTube for scientists):

The genetic response to Snowball Earth: role of HSP90 in the Cambrian explosion
Department of Medicine, University of California

I liked it for a number of reasons. The spoken component was well presented and lucid, so it provided a good advert for this medium. The author also looked at ease on screen. However the slides were too small to read on my laptop and it wasn't clear how or whether you can zoom in on them. 

I also liked the way in which in the author attempts to synthesise evidence from highly diverse sources (steroid receptor and chaperonin biology, the fossil record, palaeo-climatology) into a new theory, which, in a nutshell, states that Snowball Earth (a series of extensive glaciations during the Cryogenian Period that ended around 635 Ma) was important in the evolution of signal transduction proteins in that lowered global temperatures led to a loss of function of molecular chaperones that unmasked otherwise hidden mutations. The author proposes that this might have contributed to the diversification of phyla that preceded the Cambrian explosion.

Do I actually believe him? I tend to be rather sceptical. The whole hypothesis seems too elaborate for its own good. If one wanted to try to explain the diversification of phyla by reference to Snowball Earth, it seems more likely that a rather more mundane explanation might work better, for example a series of repeated population bottlenecks among multicellular organisms that led to a series of marked founder effects (a similar idea has been posited to explain human racial differences on leaving Africa because of a population bottleneck resulting from the eruption of the volcano Toba). 

In addition, the origin of animal phyla (inferred from molecular clock studies) and the Cambrian Explosion (sudden appearance of animals with hard body parts in the fossil record) are in fact different phenomena, which most authorities now seem to believe were separated by a considerable period of time. Much closer in time to Snowball Earth is the emergence of the Ediacaran biota, multicellular organisms that bear little resemblance to modern animal phyla.

But to end on a positive note, it is clear we live in exciting times, as within a few years we will have sequenced the genomes of representatives of all modern animal phyla and in so doing gain fresh insights into their evolutionary origins and diversification. The latest contribution to this effort is the genome of a placozoan, Trichoplax--more information here:

The future is bright, the future is multi-genomic!

And God created E. coli K-12

As a medical microbiologist by training, I find it amusing and frustrating in equal measure that many of those working on E. coli in the basic research field spend so much time studying not just one strain of the organism, but one very odd strain, namely E. coli K-12. I have even written a piece about this for Molecular Microbiology:
Laboratory strains of Escherichia coli: model citizens or deceitful delinquents growing old disgracefully?

My chief grouch is that many of the attempts to gain a global understanding of this strain and of E. coli in general neglect its ecological and evolutionary context--they  treat it almost as something specially created for life in the Elysian fields of the laboratory, rather than as the descendant of an evolved entity, engaged in a fearsome struggle for existence in the bowel, in sewage etc.

Why I am telling you all this? Well, I am now preparing the opening talk for the upcoming meeting of the International E. coli alliance and at the risk of spoiling the suspense for the very few who read this blog and will be attending the conference, I'd like to share with you the image I have just created to make my point!

In fact, laughably, some in the creationist and ID movements do actually subscribe to something like the view parodied here, particularly when in comes to the creation of the E. coli flagellum! 

Which in turn provokes the question "why would a beneficent creator create something that causes so much misery to so many people, particularly, as a recent study shows,  to women with urinary tract infections that involve the kidneys?!

[I did not create this cartoon and as I am ignorant of its provenance, cannot credit its creator, but I take my hat off to him/her!]

And on the subject of model organisms, similar points apply to HeLa cells and humans. In fact, evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen has argued that HeLa cells, which were first derived from African American Henrietta Lacks, now belong in a separate species Helacyton gartlerion the grounds that:
  • They have a different chromosome number from humans.
  • They occupy a different niche.
  • They can replicate indefinitely (in fact they have contaminated many many other cell lines).
I guess the ultimate in the "let's forget about the real world context" is to look at interactions between E. coli K-12 and HeLa cells (and yes, some people do do this!?!).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Defend and extend the theory of evolution!

I have finally finished the book! Over the weekend I spent an exhausting 16 hours or so compiling the index (a very tedious but important task), which marks the final act of creation of The Rough Guide to Evolution. And so, my thirteen months and ten days hard labour which began in August 2007 are now over!

What was going to be the finale was cut by the editor on the grounds that it was too polemical and assumed that the reader wanted to be an evolution activist rather than simply learn more about the subject. In my defence, I should state that the section was modelled on a similar much longer section at the end of The Rough Guide to Climate Change!

In fact, it is interesting to compare and contrast evolution and climate change as hot topics. In both cases, a scientific consensus is challenged by people who find the truth inconvenient to their political, economic or religious outlook and in both cases critics attempt to use a lawyerly argument of establishing what the non-expert might see as reasonable doubt without providing any well-argued, well-informed alternative. And curiously, in both cases, the USA stands alone among the industrialised countries in the degree to which this has become a politically charged topic. I wonder if anyone has performed a scholarly analysis of the parallels between the two issues?

Anyhow, here is the "getting involved" section, with links added. What do you think of my suggestions? 

As for getting involved, there is lots you can do: 
Join academic societies with an evolutionary theme—for example, the Linnean Society (, which hosted the first announcement of the Darwin-Wallace papers. Join the campaign to have Darwin’s birthplace placed in public hands ( 
If you are applying to university, find out how much evolution is taught on each course and chose the university that does it best. If you do research in biology, start asking, not just how the system you are studying works, but how it evolved?

Join and support the National Centre for Science Education (NCSE: or its equivalent in your own country (and if there is no equivalent, set one up!) 
Monitor criticism of evolution in the media—challenge it and/or report it to the NCSE. Ensure your local schools, libraries and bookshops are well supplied with educational material on evolution (donate some yourself if necessary). If you want to be more subversive, go to your local bookstore and move any books on creationism or intelligent design from the shelves for science books to the religion or science fiction sections (see this post and blog). 
Educators, make sure that evolution is an integral part of your school and university courses. 
Parents, ask your children what they have been taught on the subject. 
Stimulate interest in your local community by organising Darwin Day or Darwin Weekend events. 
When interviewing candidates for teaching jobs, ask them about evolution. Personnel departments and educationalists, formulate a policy on what to do with the creationist candidate for a student place or staff position in life or earth sciences—should creationism be taken as a sign of a lack of critical thinking skills or is discrimination against creationists disallowed under freedom of religion laws, e.g. the UK’s Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003? If need be, think about provoking a test case. 
Write to your elected representatives at all levels of government (particularly school board members in the US). Challenge them to justify their views on evolution and the teaching thereof in publicly funded schools and vote against any creationists. 
Defend, and extend, the theory of evolution!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Darwinian miracle?

Evolutionist flock to Darwin-shaped wall stain

It is not April 1st, so I don't know quite what to make of this report of a Darwin-shaped stain on the wall of the building in which the Scopes trial took place.

I suspect all the comments are tongue-in-cheek... but I guess one never knows, given that we are talking about the home of alien abductions and 9/11 conspiracy theories. Anyone know if the stain really is there?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Charles Darwin the racehorse

Just been informed by my father that Charles Darwin the racehorse ran today in the 2.50 at Warwick. My dad, who knows about these things, said the horse could have won, "but unlike his namesake he is very inconsistent". In fact, he came in second at 20-1.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The British Centre for Science Education and more cuttings

Many readers will be familiar with the USA's National Center for Science Education, which has battled tirelessly for over a quarter of a century against the teaching of creationism and its more politically polished progeny ID in American public schools and has provided scientific support in key court cases, particularly the Kitzmiller versus Dover trial.

But now the UK has its own British Centre for Science Education (note original non-Websterian spelling and recognition that we are not the only nation in the world ;-) 

The BCSE is currently a volunteer-run single issue pro-science pressure group dedicated solely to keeping creationism and intelligent design out of the science classrooms in publicly-funded schools in the United Kingdom. BCSE membership is open to all who support our aims irrespective of religious or political affiliations and consists of professional and managerial people from all walks of life. You can join it for free, although donations are welcome. I have just signed up. 

Check out the BCSE's website on which it tracks leading creationists and creationist organizations, particularly those active in the UK and provides advice and resources for British teachers. 

Also take a look at the BCSE's blog:
And while we are on the subject here is some of my  prose that got cut from the Introduction to the Rough Guide to Evolution on grounds of being boring or pompous. Were we right to cut it? :-)
"As a brand name, Darwin is all around us—as the name of a racehorse, as part of the Mac operating system, as a character in the Wild Thornberries or the Marvel universe, as a ward in the British soap opera Holby City or as an XML standard. Darwin is commemorated by mountains on four continents, by craters on Mars, the Moon and Earth, in a Cambridge college, a Falklands settlement and an Australian city and university. He even has his own MySpace site!"

"The creationist contagion has now spread beyond American Protestant fundamentalism to infect the Islamic world and even the UK, where according to a recent poll, 39% supported creationism or intelligent design. In addition, the issues are clearly personalised—according to one Islamist video, Darwin himself is to blame for Hitler’s Holocaust and for Stalin’s gulag archipelago."

"In the Darwinian struggle of ideas, never in living memory has there been such an urgent need to defend science and enlightenment values—rationalism itself has never been so threatened since Leonidas and his three hundred held the pass at Thermopylae. "

"Evolution unifies biology with history. As Jamaican orator Marcus Garvey once said “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. In revealing and explaining the fascinating richness of life and its history, evolution provides the ultimate creation myth, the greatest story ever told. That the vast mass of humanity should remain ignorant of their own evolutionary history, and of the grand trajectory of life on this planet, is as unthinkable as leaving our children ignorant of Thermopylae, Magna Carta, the Emancipation Declaration, Auschwitz or the Normandy landings." 

"And the long lapse of evolutionary ages past stands as a sharp pin to prick the irresponsible arrogance of those fundamentalist Christians who believe in some immanent messianic apocalypse in which they will “raptured away” from this world and any responsibly for it. Instead, a proper analysis of the evolutionary record brings us face to face with the terrifying reality of global climate change and mass extinction."

Kennedy once said: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free”. While much of humanity is still shackled in ignorance of our common ancestry with each other and with the rest of the biological world, Darwin’s message is more relevant than ever before—our proudest hope is to be a Darwinian!""

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Darwin's Descendants: a Legacy in Science and the Arts

I am starting to turn my mind to organising next year's Darwin Day in Birmingham--the big one, for Darwin's 200th birthday. So far, I have Dover trial journalist Lauri Lebo pencilled in as one of the star attractions, but will sort out a fuller programme in the next week or two.

For last year's Darwin Day, it was my great pleasure to host visits to Birmingham of Dame Gillian Beer and Emma Darwin--the former an expert on Darwin's influence on the novel, the latter a Darwin descendent who writes novels. 

I managed to persuade Emma to visit Birmingham more on grounds of nostalgia (she did her undergraduate degree in Drama here in the 1980s) and because of an interest in her 18th century forebears, than through any desire to be involved in Darwin Day 

Emma has her own website  and a blog of her own (This Itch of Writing) detailing the writer's art. She has published two novels: The Mathematics of Love, which I have read and enjoyed, and most recently, A Secret Alchemy, which I have not yet tried.

During her visit, I took Emma to Soho House (Matthew Boulton's old house, now a museum), just north of Birmingham city centre, where the Lunar Society used to meet. When we visited the sitting room, I pointed out: "so this is where your great-great-great-great-grandfather met with your other great-great-great-great-grandfather!" 

Emma told me she had once visited a meeting of Josiah Wedgwood descendants, where everyone was given a badge with a number on it, representing the line of descent from Josiah 1st (1 for first child, 1.1. for first child of first child etc). She pointed out that she was a member of the exclusive group of descendants who could wear two badges (one line of descent via Emma Darwin, nee Wedgwood, the other via Charles Darwin and his mother, Susanna Darwin, nee Wedgwood).

Emma doesn't much like being lumped in as an honorary Darwin—she has written an amusing account of the reception of her first novel, which focused as much on her name and ancestry as her prose. Nonetheless, for our Darwin Day, she gave a well written and well presented talk on the Darwin legacy in science and the arts, which not only took in the remarkable achievements of the Darwin descendants, but also provided her own personal view of what it is like to be in such a family. She has given me permission to put her talk on the web—it was initially going to go on a planned Darwin Day website, which has not yet materialised, so I am sharing it with you here. Read on, and if you like it, buy Emma's books and sign up to her blog!


A legacy in science and the arts

Thank you.

            In my experience, people want Darwins to be scientists and they want to think that there’s a gulf – even an opposition – between scientific and artistic practice. But of course it’s not as simple as that. When my third cousin, the classicist and poet Ruth Padel, took her biologist mother Hilda to a poetry reading, Hilda said afterwards, ‘I see the point of poets now. They notice things.’ Hilda’s own mother Nora Barlow was a botanist: that respectably feminine outlet for scientifically-minded women in the 19th century. Nora’s cousin Gwen Raverat, the artist and wood engraver, who was born three years after her grandfather Charles Darwin’s death, wrote the classic memoir of growing up as a Darwin, Period Piece[i]. She, too, linked her creativity to a scientific kind of noticing that you will all recognise: observing that ‘The whole of a long life is spent learning to see, to know what one is looking at with one’s inner mind: not in gaining experience, but in losing it.’[ii]

            But that’s at the most abstract level. More generally Darwin’s children were great readers, and individually appreciated music and the visual arts to some degree, but on the whole the atmosphere Gwen describes as ‘benevolently Philistine’. Her father Sir George Darwin was Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, and she wrote of him and her four uncles:

They were apt to regard the arts as the inessential ornaments of Life: unimportant matters. But this is a superficial view of them: in their scientific work they showed many of the characteristics of the creative artist: the sense of style, of proportion; the passionate love of their subject; and, above all, the complete integrity and the willingness to take infinite trouble to perfect any piece of work.[iii]


Charles and Emma Darwin’s own children were of course descended from Wedgwoods through both parents, and Emma, it should be remembered, took piano lessons from Chopin and was brought up in an family as concerned with aesthetics as with science and industrial production. But as Gwen Raverat put it:

Darwins never cared enough about Art or Fashion, to be much interested in what was Right and Highbrow. When they bought an armchair they thought first of whether it would be comfortable and next of whether it would wear well; and then, a long way afterwards, of whether they themselves happened to like the look of it.[iv]


Of the other four sons, William became a banker, and Frank a botanist and his father’s biographer. Horace was a Major in the Royal Engineers, much involved with scientific projects, and later became President of the Royal Geographical Society, just as many a Darwin in both arts and sciences has gravitated towards the administration of their discipline. Leonard was an engineer whose odd little enterprise, known in the family as ‘The Shop’, became The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Only Bessy, the traditional unmarried daughter, who seems to have had some kind of specific learning difficulty, made no professional mark on the world. Her older sister Etty – Henrietta – edited her father’s The Descent of Man[v] as well as her mother’s letters[vi] and private papers. In fact I have her to thank for my own name, as those latter two volumes were by my mother’s bed when I was born. Names, too, are part of the family self-consciousness: I tried, and very properly failed, to persuade my non-Darwin husband that a suitable name for our first child would be Erasmus.

            And this family self-consciousness, this tendency to inwardness, can’t be denied. There is of course Period Piece, never out of print since it was published in 1952. And Frank’s son Bernard wrote, among many books about golf and sports, a memoir called The World that Fred Made,[vii] Fred being the gardener and co-experimenter with Charles in the laboratory that was the garden at Down. Gwen’s sister Margaret Keynes wrote The House By the River[viii] a history of their childhood home Newnham Grange, which is now Darwin College. Two more recent Darwin descendants, Matthew Chapman[ix] and William Pryor[x], grandsons respectively of the poet Frances Cornford and of Gwen Raverat, have written memoirs of their own, in which – to judge by the reviews – their ancestry appears to weigh heavily on their own lives.

            As we move down the generations, the direct influence of Charles Darwin is diluted, but the awareness of the world grows ever greater: the Darwin industry is not going to get any smaller or less obvious as the bicentenary approaches. Another path that later generations have taken is of reflecting on Darwin and Darwinism itself. Matthew Chapman has also published an account of the 2005 Dover Pennsylvania trial of Intelligent Design[xi]. In the footsteps of Frank’s biography of his father, Randall Keynes, one of Margaret’s grandchildren, has written Annie’s Box, about Charles and Emma’s beloved eldest daughter who died aged eleven. He is now active in various Darwin-related projects.

            But a closer look suggests that immediate family counts for more than the ever-more distant Ancestor. Of the great-grandchildren, it’s true that my father – a lawyer and diplomat – was a slight aberration in his own family: his four siblings were a crystallographer, an electronic engineer, a biologist and a civil engineer. But maybe it’s not so suprising: their father Sir Charles Darwin was with Rutherford when he split the atom, and while Head of the National Physical Laboratory worked at MIT on the development of radar, and their mother Katharine Pember was a mathematician, and the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. But Frank Darwin’s second wife was a lecturer in English Literature at Newnham: their daughter Frances Cornford became an extremely distinguished poet. Her older half-brother Bernard’s daughter Ursula Mommens is still a well-respected ceramicist, aged nearly a hundred, and his son Sir Robin Darwin was an artist and Principal of the Royal College of Art for over forty years. With Frances’s artist son Christopher Cornford as Dean, Robin presided over a notable revival of the College. Christopher’s older brother John Cornford was a poet and radical who was killed early in the Spanish Civil War, while Margaret and Geoffrey Keynes’s four sons follow their father’s combination of writing and biological science in varying proportions.

            My own generation, the great-great grandchildren, reflects our Darwin and non-Darwin heredity: the list includes not only biologists, bankers, mathematicians, IT specialists, and a botanical illustrator turned botanist, but also lawyers, historians, musicians, film-makers, poets, a novelist, landscape designers, hospitality managers, and a sheep farmer who may have an unusual profession for a Darwin, but who has upheld another family tradition by marrying an equally Darwinian cousin.

            But the traditions aren’t always either an advantage or a joke. The general impression that the whole family has always done good, serious work to the utmost of their considerable ability, has made a fair few of us rebel at some point against doing our homework or turning up at family weddings. Not for us the pride in being the first to go to university, to gain an honour or publish a book: someone’s always done it already, and a lot of the external world knows that too. That external world can even be offensive: I’ve been asked more than once if my novel would have been published were I not a Darwin, or whether I’m ‘obliged’ to ‘believe’ in Evolution.

            The family habits of mind can also be a handicap. As Gwen Raverat’s biographer Frances Spalding put it[xii] even personal matters have always been discussed in what Frances Cornford described as ‘…a thoroughly weighing Darwinian manner’. Spalding goes on to say, ‘Behind these debates lay the assumption that family characteristics, such as persistence, intelligence and common sense, would inevitably arrive at an authoritative truth.’ But the truth of art isn’t the same kind of truth, as Gwen and Frances knew better than most. And there’s always a risk that one’s more a-rational, intuitive, un-logical creative processes are broken on the wheel of rational analysis and ruthlessly reasonable thought.

            Somewhere in the middle, between those who base their careers on their ancestry, and those who struggle to get out from under it, are those of us who try to bend science and the Darwin industry to our own creative purposes. Ruth Padel, having become deeply involved with ecological issues, uses the Darwin name to gain publicity for her campaign to save the tiger and the ecological system of which it’s the top. My sister Carola Darwin, a singer by profession though originally a Cambridge-educated chemist, is involved in commissioning an opera, Children of Fire, which explores the encounter between Charles Darwin and the inhabitants of Tiera del Fuego. And though it annoys me when reviews of my work talk more about my ancestry than the book – it does happen – you could argue that I dropped myself in it. The thematic core of my novel The Mathematics of Love[xiii] is photography, and the first experiments in using light-sensitive substances to record images were made by Thomas Wedgwood, who died in 1806. The earliest part of my story is set, too late, in 1819. Luckily I also needed a doctor, and with the cavalier attitude to facts that is the fiction-writer’s privilege, used Tom Wedgwood’s brother-in-law, Robert Darwin, Charles’s father, not only to set a broken arm, but to offer the narrator, Stephen Fairhurst, and his artist and print-making friend, Lucy Durward, a personal introduction. In this passage,[xiv] set in a Brussels café, I wasn’t just borrowing my ancestors, I was taking their science, and putting it to my own creative and metaphorical ends.


After a while, I said, ‘Was your journey into Staffordshire a success?’

She nodded, and then words came to her tongue. ‘Indeed it was. They were most welcoming. Mr Wedgwood had taken the trouble to come back from his works at Etruria early only to show us his brother’s work – sun-pictures, he called them. My father and I were fascinated, although it was not easy to make out the images, for they must be kept in the dark, lest they darken further, and may only be looked at by candlelight. Mr Wedgwood explained how his brother brushed paper or white leather with nitrate of silver – in solution, you understand – and then the object to be copied was place on top of it, and the whole put in the sun. It took only a few minutes, he said, if the sunlight was strong enough.’ She pulled her chair close in, propped her elbows on the table, and continued. ‘You see, the nitrate of silver tarnishes by the agency of light, where the object does not protect it, even to the degree of translucency of each part of the object’

‘Rather as, when one lifts a long-fallen apple from the lawn, it leaves its mark in the pallor of the grass below.’

‘Yes! And of course, once the grass is again exposed, like the paper, the light darkens it once more. Only the sun-pictures are done in a matter of minutes, and they are so exact! Mr Wedgwood showed us one of a vine leaf. Every vein and stem was as clear as if I had drawn it, only white, of course, on a darkened ground, like a white-line wood engraving. My father was mainly interested in the precision of it, for he has an idea of copying prints automatically by such a process, but it was so beautiful, too! There were some pictures of insect wings, made through a sun microscope so that they appeared larger than in life. I almost feared that they would float off if I breathed too close.’ She paused, as if the mere recollection caused her to stop her breath.

‘And your sister, she accompanied you?’

‘Yes, but she stayed in the drawing room with Mrs Wedgwood and some of her daughters. She said they were charming, very easy and unaffected. But she could tell you more of them than I.’ She drank a little wine. ‘My father was disappointed because although Mr Thomas Wedgwood did try to copy prints with a camera obscura, time blurred the picture. My father and Mr Wedgwood agreed that there being so many difficulties precludes any profitable application of the process.’

I refilled both our glasses. Even Miss Durward’s concentration in drawing had quite a sober quality; I had not seen her face so animated for some time. ‘Tom Wedgwood tried muriate of silver too, his brother said, which turns pale lavender, and violet at the darkest, and in a matter of seconds even in twilight. But it is not so readily applied, because it is not soluble in water.’

A clatter from the back of the café made me aware that the waiter was lifting chairs onto tables, and that most of the other customers had departed. Miss Durward looked around her. ‘Goodness, it must be late.’

‘We should perhaps make our way back.’

‘I suppose we should,’ she said.

I signalled to the waiter and paid the reckoning. As we left the café she said, ‘The strangest thing was, to be able to make a picture of something real with no intervention – no agency – except the natural properties of the sun. The object creates its own image. Mr Wedgwood referred to the image as a simulacrum – a replicant. And then suddenly it has an independent life.’

‘It is like a ghost,’ I said. ‘The object is – may be – long lost, in another time. Its image lives on, in a different place – ’ I could not continue, for suddenly the image of my own love was too clearly before me for speech to be possible.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Durward. She tucked her hand into my arm, and I felt the thin firmness of her through my sleeve. ‘But only when it is kept in the dark.’


Thank you

© Emma Darwin 2008

[i] Raverat, G., Period Piece, London, Faber and Faber, 1952

[ii] Quoted in Spalding, F., Gwen Raverat, London, Harvill, 2001, p.viii

[iii] Raverat, G., Period Piece, London, Faber and Faber, 1952, this edition 1987, p.188

[iv] Raverat, G., Period Piece, p.126

[v] Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, London, John Murray, 1882

[vi] Litchfield, E., Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, London, John Murray, 1915

[vii] Darwin, B., The World that Fred Made: an autobiography, London, Chatto & Windus, 1955

[viii] Keynes, M., The House by the River, Cambridge, Darwin College, 1976

[ix] Chapman, M., Trials of the Monkey: an accidental memoir, New York, Picador, 200

[x] Pryor, W., Survival of the Coolest, Clear Press, 2003

[xi] Chapman, M., 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, New York, Harper Collins, 2007

[xii] Spalding, F., Gwen Raverat, p.162

[xiii] Darwin, E., The Mathematics of Love, London, Headline Review, 2006

[xiv] Darwin, E., The Mathematics of Love, London, Headline Review, 2006, p. 137 (adapted)