Monday, July 9, 2012

Visit of Randal Keynes part two

Following on from the previous post, Randal has now sent me the speech he gave while receiving his honorary doctorate. Here it is:

Deputy Pro-Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, my fellow Graduates, Graduands and guests,

My thanks first to Professor Raine for his citation tracing all my relations and explaining my interests in conservation and science heritage.

Fellow Graduands, I’ve come here today to join you in this wonderful ceremony with a strong sense of the excitement of Birmingham Biosciences in 2012, your success in your courses, and what now lies ahead for you all in all the different fields in which you’ll be putting to use all the knowledge and understanding you’ve gained here through your studies.

For myself, thinking of links with the past as I do so often in my work on science heritage, the Lunar Society of Birmingham comes first to mind. Among its members were Joseph Priestley, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, scientists, doctors, manufacturers and inventors, each with different interests and skills, and all glad to talk freely together about their many interests. There must now be many echoings of those discussions in the collaborations that take place between the many teams in the School of Biosciences as they work today across its wide range of interests. I guess the School is working so well now just as the Lunar Society did before partly because these open exchanges are good ways to do innovative, productive science.

But why should young scientists like you today bother with science in history? Why do I and others go on about Darwin and the other historical figures?

I can suggest many answers. I’ll give you one of them quickly now because for me it’s one of the strongest, it starts here in Birmingham, and numbers of you may perhaps recognize the point one day in some scientific investigation you carry out or hear about.

So, there’s one meaning of science - its conclusions, the body of latest knowledge. There’s another meaning – the process, how the explanations are developed, tested and agreed.

On the process, Joseph Priestley was living here in the 1770s and in his experiments on electricity and gases he always used equipment that was cheap and easy to obtain, and described his experiments clearly and simply so that anyone could repeat them or vary them as they wanted. He was hoping to find clear and simple explanations that anyone else could test so that they could carry on from there. And he felt that the more experiments could be done by more people, the better the conclusions would be. Also, the best explanations would often be the simplest ones because with simplicity often came greater explanatory power. The value and power of his classic experiments on both electricity and gases were linked with these features of his method.

Now Charles Darwin, in his experimental work on plants and insects at his home in Kent some eighty years later, followed Priestley’s method exactly in all these respects, including simplicity for explanatory power.

When we look at the two men’s achievements together now, we can see a valuable approach that was used with great effect in two outstanding contributions to science. Yes of course, science has come a long way since then, but I’d suggest that key elements of that approach may still have great value in many areas of science today.

Deputy Pro-Chancellor, I’m deeply grateful for the honour you have conferred on me today, and for the special link it gives me now with Birmingham and its heritage of science.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Visit of Randal Keynes to University of Birmingham

On July 4th 2012, it was my pleasure to host a visit by honorary graduand Randal Keynes, with his wife Zelfa and mother Anne, to the University of Birmingham. Their day here included lunch with the Vice-Chancellor and others, a trip to the Special Colletions and Archives, along with Alice Roberts to see a first edition Origin of Species (thanks to Sue Worrall), and a visit to the Lapworth Museum of Geology (thanks to Ivan Sansom).

Randal received an honorary doctorate at the School of Biosciences graduation ceremony and the day concluded with a photo shoot of Darwin-descendent Randal alongside Huxley-descendent Adam Tickell, plus strawberries and champagne in the VC's office.

Here is a video record of selected snippets from the day:


Unfortunately I was not allowed to film the graduation ceremony, nor does the University seem to realise that "information wants to be free", so the only way to get footage of the ceremony is to fork out for a DVD!

At the graduation ceremony, Randal gave a speech in which he highlighted the links between the Lunar Society of Birmingham, his ancestors (Erasmus and Charles Darwin), Joseph Priestley and the birth of the scientific method. Randal was introduced with a speech from University orator Professor John Raine, which John wrote with help from Randal and myself. A hypertext-linked version of the speech follows.

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Graduates, Graduands and Guests, 
The concept of conservation is one that associates equally with the natural environment of plants and animals and with the human-created world of architecture and buildings. Most conservationists usually work in one arena or the other, but today before us stands an individual whose contribution spans both and who can therefore properly be described as a conservationist in the most comprehensive and generic of senses. 
Randal is from a renowned lineage of English families – notably the Keyneses, the Adrians, the Darwins and the Wedgwoods. Born on July 29th 1948, he is a great nephew of the eminent economist, John Maynard Keynes; and he is also the great-great-grandson of naturalist Charles Darwin. In 1839 Charles Darwin had married Emma Wedgwood, descendant of Josiah Wedgwood the 18th century founder of industrialised pottery manufacture, and who, along with his friend Erasmus Darwin and other prominent Midlands figures, were founding members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham which played such an important role in science for the Industrial Revolution. 
Randal’s father was the eminent Cambridge physiologist Professor Richard Darwin Keynes and his father, Sir Geoffrey Langdon Keynes, was a distinguished surgeon and scholar whose work in developing blood transfusion saved thousands of lives in the First World War. On the other side of his family, Randal’s mother, Mrs Anne Pinsent Keynes, whom we are delighted to welcome here in the Great Hall with us today, is also of very distinguished lineage. Her mother, Hester, was Lady Adrian, a renowned penal reformer, and her father, Lord Adrian, was a Nobel Prize-winner in 1932 for his discoveries about the workings of the nerve cell. 
And Anne’s grandmother was Birmingham’s own Dame Ellen Pinsent – who is 1911 was the first woman to be elected to the City of Birmingham Council, and a pioneer in the education of children with special needs. She, for one, would have been delighted that last year Ofsted found the special school named after her in South Birmingham – The Dame Ellen Pinsent School – to be ‘outstanding’. Dame Ellen was awarded an honorary MA by this University in 1919, while her husband – Anne’s grandfather - Hume Chancellor Pinsent – a solicitor in this city, was Treasurer of this University until his retirement in 1913. 
It is also a great pleasure today to welcome Randal’s wife Zelfa Hourani. Unfortunately their two offspring – Soumaya and Skandar – are otherwise engaged today. Soumaya works as an economist and Skandar is at university (and is widely known, having played the character of Edmund Pevensie in the three Nania films – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian; and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 
But back to Randal. As a boy, he spent many of his summer holidays with his Darwin-side grandmother at her home in the Suffolk countryside, and it was there that he gained some of his earliest insights on his family ancestry as she talked of the holidays she had spent as a child with her grandmother at the Darwins’ home of Down House, just south of London. But it was some years later before Randal’s imagination was stirred to discover more about his Darwinian heritage. Indeed, for most of his adolescent years, Randal had found the pressures of his ancestry somewhat oppressive. When it came to university, for example, he broke away from the family tradition of reading science at Cambridge to study philology and anthropology at Oxford. 
On graduating he decided upon a DPhil, to explore the anthropological connections between some ideas in Anglo-Saxon and Ancient Icelandic writings. But when an attractive job came up in the Ministry of Defence he decided instead to join the civil service where he went on to pursue the significant part of his career. As well as working at the MoD in London, he had secondments to Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’ and so, last week he will no doubt have particularly appreciated the reconciliation of former foes epitomised in that historic handshake
He also served for a spell with the Parliamentary Ombudsman and in 1992 he was awarded an OBE for his work at the MoD during the Gulf War. It was while a civil servant that he began to devote more and more of his spare time to aspects of conservation. He became active in the Victorian Society, campaigning for the protection and restoration of our outstanding Victorian and Edwardian architectural heritage. And his campaigning took on a personal dimension in the 1980s, when the neighbourhood in which he lived, just east of Kings Cross station, became the subject of clearance proposals to make way for the new channel tunnel rail link into central London. Randal was at the forefront of a well-organised campaign – and which also involved debate in Parliament – that led to the line being re-routed into the adjacent St Pancras station, now the marvellous ‘St Pancras International’ with its fabulously restored Gilbert Scott-designed hotel on the front. Meanwhile, Randal’s previously condemned neighbourhood was sympathetically regenerated – and the full story of its rescue and conservation can be read in a soon-to-be-published book, King’s Cross: A Sense of Place, which includes a chapter by Randal. 
Since then, his attentions have turned to another piece of architectural heritage – again one in which Randal could claim a personal interest – Charles’ Darwin’s Down House in North Kent – where the great naturalist had spent the last forty years of his life, undertaken many of his studies of natural life and written his ‘Origin of Species’. Here, the conservation challenge has been to withstand the pressures for property development over the very landscape where Charles Darwin had conducted so many of his investigations of animals, insects and birds and where he had built his evidence base for his Theory of Evolution. To this end, Randal has provided the case which the Government has now put to UNESCO to make Down House and its surroundings a World Heritage Site for the history of science. More than this, Randal has played a leading role in gathering together and researching all the surviving material about Darwin’s life and work at Down House. 
His own family home had itself been something of a treasure-house of Darwinian material and, in his adult years, he took on the task of sifting systematically through his father’s inherited pieces. In doing so, in a chest of drawers, he happened upon a writing case that had belonged to Charles Darwin’s daughter, Annie, containing her pale yellow ribbon stitched with small glass beads, her goose-feather quills with which she wrote, her sealing wax, a thick lock of her fine brown hair, a fold of paper on which was written ‘April 23rd 1851’ - the date of Annie’s death at the age of just ten - and a leaf from a pocket book with a map of the churchyard in Malvern where she is buried. The story of that personal tragedy and the experience that influenced Darwin’s revolutionary understanding of humankind’s place in nature, has been painstakingly researched by Randal and crafted into his biography ‘Annie’s Box’, first published in 2001, and described by one literary critic as ‘ the best non-fiction book I have read all year’. 
And of course Randal’s research on Darwin and his commitment to conservation has had to encompass the Galapagos Islands – which unlike Down House, already enjoys the status of being a World Heritage Site. Even so, the archipelago is still facing extreme dangers as a result of rapid growth in eco-tourism and immigration from the Ecuadorean mainland. Randal is a member of the Board of Directors of The Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands – an international scientific organization that leads the science for the conservation of their uniquely valuable wildlife. He travels there frequently and is focusing particularly on communicating the Island’s story and its inestimable importance to the world. 
He is also a Board member of the Charles Darwin Trust which promotes the use of Darwin’s inspiration in science education. He works hard helping young people around the world to grasp the legacy of Darwin through his life in science and, in the Darwin bicentenary year, he took part in the national Evolving Words initiative, which here in Birmingham culminated in poetry recitals by children from inner city neighbourhoods. He has also provided invaluable support to the Rap Guide to Evolution, a Wellcome Trust-sponsored celebration of Darwin’s life and legacy through the unlikely medium of Hip Hop
Chancellor, there are, as indicated, significant connections between Randal’s family and this great University and City of Birmingham. Indeed, his ancestors in the Lunar Society were part of a select group of individuals that could perhaps be said to have provided the genesis for the modern world here in the heart of England. Charles Darwin’s statue is, of course, to be found in the line of distinguished individuals that form the frieze over the entrance to this Aston Webb building, and our special archive collections here include a first-edition copy of his ‘Origin of Species’. But irrespective of such historical connections, the contribution of Randal Keynes to conservation, to education and to outreach, locally, nationally and internationally, itself deserves to be recognized and marked by this University – an institution that shares with him a commitment to diligent research and to respecting, protecting and making best use of important heritage. 
So to you, and to the University, I present Randal Hume Keynes, deemed worthy to be awarded the degree of Doctor of the University, Honoris Causa.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Interesting video and paper from Nature

From the Nature video feed:
A few million years ago, our ancestors stopped climbing trees and started walking upright, on two feet. To work out how and when this happened, researchers look for fossils -- and recently they found a surprising set of foot bones in Ethiopia. The foot is about 3.4 million years old, making it roughly the same age as 'Lucy' and her species, Australopithecus afarensis. But while Lucy's species had feet much like modern humans, the new foot has an opposable big toe, like a chimp. So do the foot bones represent a new species of hominin? Watch the video and decide.

Read the original research paper:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The ‘Annie Hypothesis’: Did the Death of His Daughter Cause Darwin to ‘Give up Christianity’?

The paper that I wrote with John van Wyhe on what we call "the Annie Hypothesis" is now out here:

Here is the abstract:
This article examines one of the most widely believed episodes in the life of Charles Darwin, that the death of his daughter Annie in 1851 caused the end of Darwin's belief in Christianity, and according to some versions, ended his attendance of church on Sundays. This hypothesis, it is argued, is commonly treated as a straightforward true account of Darwin's life, yet there is little or no supporting evidence. Furthermore, we argue, there is sufficient evidence that Darwin's loss of faith occurred before Annie's death.

During peer review, the paper was criticised for mixing history with historiography and for being overly positivist, but what can you expect of a scientist! We are all positivists!

Sadly, the paper is not open access: if anyone wants a copy but cannot access it, please email me (

Allow me to thank John van Wyhe for beating the paper into shape and nursing it through to publication!

Other previous posts on this topic:

Friday, February 17, 2012

Rap Guide to Evolution: new "I'm a African" video

Back in the run-up to the Darwin bicentenary year, I persuaded Canadian Lit-Hop artist Baba Brinkman (creator of the Rap Canterbury Tales) to "do for for Darwin what he had done for Chaucer". He rose to the challenge majestically to create the Rap Guide to Evolution and I was thrilled to experience his premier performances at small poetry workshop in Hinxton near Cambridge in early 2009. The video below provides a glimpse of this earliest version of the show. In the week that followed I arranged for Baba to tour England, with shows in Cambridge, London, Birmingham and Shrewsbury.

Since then the various songs have undergone "descent with modification", with two versions of the album now out there (original and revised) and a sell-out live show which ran off Broadway for many months. Also, thanks to an encounter during the very first performance, Baba won financial support from the Wellcome Trust (and did a bit of his own crowd-funding) to create educational and entertaining videos to accompany each track. This has been a slow process, as he has to wait for the animators and actors to find time in their busy schedules to contribute, but the videos have been steadily appearing on YouTube and a dedicated website.

When I first suggested that Baba create the Rap Guide to Evolution, I asked if he could do something to communicate and even celebrate the Out-of-Africa theory, i.e. the idea first proposed by Chris Stringer and others that all modern non-African humans are descended from a small band of humans who left Africa 60-70 thousand years ago (pace John Hawks and Svante Paabo who now emphasise that a few percent of the non-African human genomes originated from archaic hominins from outside Africa). To me this theory gelled nicely with the pan-Africanism that permeates both reggae (check out this Black Uhuru track) and some rap music. Baba did a great job on this, with his track "I'm a African".

A few months back Baba visited Birmingham to perform the Rap Guide to Evolution for our students. During his visit he solicited my help in finding a multi-racial cast of volunteers to appear in the video for "I'm a African". From amongst students and colleagues, we managed to find two Indians, two Greeks, an Afghan, a Chinese, a number of Europeans (including me!), plus some people with African ancestry more recent than 70Kya, all willing to lip-sync along to the track against a green background, hastily assembled Blue-Peter-fashion from some card and sticky tape. Filming all this within our Centre for Systems Biology was a truly surreal experience!

Well, yesterday, just as Nick Loman was stoking our other blog up to blistering heat with the news of Oxford Nanopore, I received a note from Baba saying that the video for "I'm a African" was now finished and available online. So, here it is! Enjoy! Mine is the ugly mug a few seconds in!

A few notes on the video:
1. It's "I'm a African" rather than "I'm an African" for good reason, as Baba explains here.
2. The track is modelled on a track from Pan-Africanist Hip-Hop group Dead Prez. Listen to that track here if you want to compare and contrast.
3. Be sure to wait right until the end of Baba's video to see the architect of the out-of-Africa theory, Chris Stringer, make a cameo appearance, thanks to some footage I captured when he visited the University of Birmingham!
4. I suspect that the Dead Prez track was influenced by a speech "I'm an African" by Thabo Mbeki. Although later deeply flawed as a president, in 1996 Mbeki gives a great speech.
5. A few years back, in similar vein, with a Jamaican colleague, I created "Light be Thrown", a celebration in reggae format of our recent African origins and Darwin's predictions about how light will be thrown on human origins.