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!

For any Americans undecided how to vote...

Darwin's Boulders

A geologist colleague has just brought to my attention this interesting article in Geoscientist that describes Darwin's field trip to Wales in 1842 and his correct description of several boulders as glacial erratics:

BUT I will leave it to you the reader to find the howler in the very first line of the otherwise excellent article!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Book is Here!

A couple of days ago I returned from a short holiday in Sicily to discover five advance copies of The Rough Guide to Evolution in the post! It is thrilling to see something which started off as just an idea culminating as a finished product! Although I wrote it and had seen all bar the index and final few pages as proofs, it is another thing entirely to hold the book in my own hands.

Now, with the passage of time since I wrote it, I can almost start to read it as if it were written by someone else. I hope I won't appear smug if I say that I thoroughly pleased with the whole product. OK, there are a few typos that slipped past myself, the editor and the proofreader--I expect Dawkins will tolerate being called "arguably the world [sic] best science writer", although he might quibble about the "arguably"!

But in compensation for the typos, there are a few last minute changes and additions that improve upon what I have seen in proof. The image of Heston's inter-species kiss, which, as I pointed put in an earlier posting, we weren't allowed to use on the cover, now appears in the section on Evolution in science fiction

The two cover images, which epitomise contemporary biology (a chimp on the front) and the history of evolution (Darwin on the back) have now been joined by an iconic image from palaeobiology for the inside front cover (an Archaeopteryx). And fittingly, the last image in the book is of the label for Wasatch Evolution Amber Ale, in the section on Darwinian retail!

Thumbing through the index is also a delight, bringing home the reality of just how much I have been able to cover in this small but densely packed volume and emphasising the uniquely eclectic reach of the work. Where else would you find indexed together in the same volume under the same letter:
  • Behe, Michael
  • Biblical manuscripts, evolution of
  • breasts, evolution of
  • Malthus, Thomas
  • Marley, Bob
  • Megalonyx jeffersonii
  • Moby Dick
  • Muslim responses to evolution
In fact, I have to smile at the way in which I have managed to include multiple references to the city in which I work (Birmingham, England 9, 21, 80, 158, 188, 237) and to another enduring interest of mine (reggae music 74-75, 92, 262, 267), as well as  a reference to one of John Maynard Smith's rude neologisms (sneaky fucker mating strategy 127).

I should emphasise at this point that what I have are five advance copies of the book, that have been airfreighted to the Rough Guides office. It is not yet on sale. The book has been printed in Hong Kong and is now on its way to Europe and the US, quite literally, on a slow boat from China! The staff at Rough Guides assure me that we are on target for having it on sale before Christmas, but quite when it will appear in which shop or online outlet will depend also on the efficiency of the retailer's ordering and supply chains. Amazon. com are advertising a December 15th release date, so US readers should get it in time for Christmas. 

Go on: pre-order it now! You won't be disappointed!!