When Charles collide: Darwin, Bradlaugh, and birth control for Darwin Day 2016


The town of Northampton celebrates a number of local heroes from sports, the arts, and even science.  These includ the footballer Walter Tull, the co-discover of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick, author Alan Moore, and former resident thespian Errol Flynn. I could go on, but in honour of Darwin Day 2016 I thought I’d focus on the great naturalist.

Darwin had several personal associations with Northampton and Northamptonshire. He was a corresponding member of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society, which is now one of the oldest surviving societies of its kind. Darwin also corresponded with Walter Drawbridge Crick a Northampton shoe manufacturer and amateur naturalist who was grandfather of Francis.

Further afield in Northamptonshire, Darwin had a number of friends and correspondents, including the Reverend John Downes, vicar of Horton & Piddington. By coincidence, the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, lived in Northamptonshire for much of his early life.

A Darwin link to Northampton that’s not widely known about is the brief correspondence he engaged in with Charles Bradlaugh the radical reformer and MP for the town during the 1880s.  Bradlaugh is a real local hero, with a very prominent statue in the town, and a pub, a local country park, and one of the university’s student residences named after the great man.

On 5th June 1877 Bradlaugh wrote to Darwin asking for his support in a court case by appearing as a witness for the defence: Bradlaugh and his colleague Annie Besant were charged with obscenity for writing that promoted contraception.  Darwin replied the very next day and politely declined.

As far as I’m aware the texts of both letters have never been published in full, only snippets are available.  An extract of Darwin’s letter is given in Charles Bradlaugh: a record of his Life and Work, written by his daughter:

“I have been for many years much out of health, and have been forced to give up all society or public meetings; and it would be great suffering to me to be a witness in Court. It is, indeed, not improbable that I may be unable to attend. Therefore, I hope that, if in your power, you will excuse my attendance…. If it is not asking too great a favour, I should be greatly obliged if you would inform me what you decide, as apprehension of the coming exertion would prevent the rest which I require doing me much good”.

At the Darwin Correspondence Project, Darwin’s response is summarised as follows and gives a very different flavour to his reaction:

“[Darwin] would prefer not to be a witness in court. In any case CD’s opinion is strongly opposed to that [of Bradlaugh and Besant].  [Darwin] believes artificial checks to the natural rate of human increase are very undesirable and that the use of artificial means to prevent conception would soon destroy chastity and, ultimately, the family.”

Bradlaugh’s letter has only a very brief summary and I’ve not seen any direct quotes (though perhaps I’ve missed them?)

The correspondence, its historical context, and the subsequent trial have been written about several times (see for example Peart and Levy 2005 and Peart and Levy 2008) and there’s some more recent commentary on Dan All0sso’s blog.

All of this gives a fascinating insight into Darwin as a socially conservative member of the English upper middle class, despite the radical implications of his ideas about evolution.  Bradlaugh and Besant (both true radicals in all senses of the word) were found guilty, fined and sentenced to six months in prison, though following an appeal the conviction was later overturned due to a legal technicality.

Happy Darwin Day to my readers!



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Tropical Zombies: Moles & Ollerton (2016) is now published

P1080615Back in March 2014 I reported about a guest blog that Angela Moles (University of New South Wales) and I had written for the Dynamic Ecology blog entitled “Are species interactions stronger and more specialized in the tropics?”  The post generated a lot of comments, not all of them supportive of what we were saying.  It also resulted in an invitation from the editor of the journal Biotropica to write up the post as a commentary.  This we did and duly submitted, it went through a couple of rounds of peer review, and has now finally been published.

The paper is currently open access on the Biotropica website as an early view item; here’s the reference hyperlinked to it:

Moles, A. & Ollerton, J. (2016) Is the notion that species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics a zombie idea? Biotropica DOI: 10.1111/btp.12281 


Filed under Biodiversity, Biogeography, Macroecology

Ecological intensification and pollinator diversity: a new study by Garibaldi et al. (2016)

2013-04-15 13.54.19-2Think of “farming” and those of us living in the more industrialised parts of the world usually envision large fields that are intensively worked using heavy machinery and regular inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. But for 2 billion of the world’s farmers, agriculture takes place on smallholdings of less than 2 ha in size, with little money available for vehicles and chemicals.  Maximising food outputs in such systems can be difficult.

Now a new study by Lucas Garibaldi, Luisa Carvalheiro and colleagues entitled “Mutually beneficial pollinator diversity and crop yield outcomes in small and large farms” has demonstrated that these small-scale farmers can increase the yields from insect pollinated crops on their farms by allowing native vegetation to grow alongside the crops, which supports a greater diversity and abundance of pollinators that then spill over into the adjacent fields.

It’s a great study that delivers a message that large agro-chemical firms probably will not wish to hear: that yields can be enhanced without throwing ever more fertiliser or pesticides onto the crops.

The paper is paywalled so you’ll have to ask the authors for a copy unless you (or your institution) has an e-subscription to Science.  But here’s the original abstract:

Ecological intensification, or the improvement of crop yield through enhancement of biodiversity, may be a sustainable pathway toward greater food supplies. Such sustainable increases may be especially important for the 2 billion people reliant on small farms, many of which are undernourished, yet we know little about the efficacy of this approach. Using a coordinated protocol across regions and crops, we quantify to what degree enhancing pollinator density and richness can improve yields on 344 fields from 33 pollinator-dependent crop systems in small and large farms from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For fields less than 2 hectares, we found that yield gaps could be closed by a median of 24% through higher flower-visitor density. For larger fields, such benefits only occurred at high flower-visitor richness. Worldwide, our study demonstrates that ecological intensification can create synchronous biodiversity and yield outcomes.


The challenge from this paper is two-fold.  First of all it’s how to operationalise this kind of research on the ground, to farmers and agronomists who are unlikely to be readers of the journal Science.  This is where organisations such as the UN’s FAO, country-level government agencies, and non-governmental organisations  have a crucial role to play, translating research into action.

The second challenge is likewise difficult – how do we bring “ecological intensification” into the industrialised agriculture of more developed nations?  I have no immediate answer to that, but research such as this shows what the potential benefits can be, for both agriculture and biodiversity.

The reference is:  Garibaldi, L.A. et al. (2016) Mutually beneficial pollinator diversity and crop yield outcomes in small and large farms.  Science 351: 388-391

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Book review: A Veritable Eden – The Manchester Botanic Garden, a History by Ann Brooks (2011)

This is a book review that’s been in press for many months in the Manchester Region History Review, and I finally found out that it had appeared and I’d missed it!  Anyway I thought this would be a good opportunity to present the review to a wider audience who might be interested, and to correct a couple of typos in the printed version.

A Veritable Eden – The Manchester Botanic Garden, a History. Ann Brooks (2011). Windgather Press, Oxford. RRP – £25.

The plant kingdom globally contains an estimated diversity of 350,000 species. In the UK we can boast only some 1500 native species, a legacy of both our status as a collection of modestly sized, temperate zone islands, and the effect of the last ice age which scoured much of the land surface of its previously established flora. A depauperate flora, combined with plant envy of the botanical riches of other countries, may be one reason why British botanic gardens have been important in cataloguing and describing the world’s plant diversity, and in augmenting that flora by cramming our gardens with exotic specimens from overseas.

This long history of plant study and horticulture can be traced back to at least the mid 17th century, with the founding of what was to become Oxford Botanic Garden. Since that time, Britain’s botanic gardens have played a significant role in the economic development of both the country and its former Empire, and continue to be important in science and education, and in the leisure and recreation of the British people.

Previous work on the history of botanic gardens in Europe has tended to concentrate on the large metropolitan botanic gardens, particularly Kew, with their star botanists and international networks of contacts and collectors (e.g. Brockway 1979, Endersby 2010, Ollerton et al. 2012). The smaller provincial botanic gardens, in contrast, have been rather neglected by historians, despite the fact that almost every large British city possessed one, and that they have been an important part of local leisure and education. This is a tradition that stretches from the early 19th century and continues through to the more recent founding of the Eden Project and the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

The history and current utility of such spaces is, as their study reveals, a story that extends far beyond the horticultural and botanical realms, into social, political and economic history. In A Veritable Eden Ann Brooks introduces us to the “chequered history including national fame and financial disaster” of Manchester Botanic Garden, which existed from 1831 to 1908. This meticulously researched book explores not only the role of the Garden in local social life, but also the local political intrigues, personality clashes and mismanagement that ultimately doomed the garden. This is exemplified in the way that an un-Victorian attitude to financial prudence (commissioning ambitious building works when finances were in poor shape) collided with a very Victorian snobbery: by refusing to allow the paying general public entry to the Garden more than one afternoon a week, a funding stream that may have saved the Garden was effectively curtailed. To paraphrase the author, exclusivity was more important than income.

This was not the only policy that appears inexplicable to the modern reader. Early in its history the subscribing, largely middle class membership of the Garden made it clear that pleasurable perambulations around the site were all that they were interested in, and any pretence to education went when “in 1848 science was eliminated and the horticultural garden…was dismantled”. In this regard it was undoubtedly the people of Manchester, rather than botanical science per se, who were the principle losers, as the large botanic gardens of European capital cities dominated plant exploration and plant science up to the present day. Nonetheless the policy jars with Victorian notions of self-improvement.

A Veritable Eden originated as Dr Brooks’ PhD thesis and in general it is engagingly written, demonstrating the author’s fascination for her subject, and well illustrated with material from her personal collection and elsewhere. But there are some places where a firmer editorial hand would have made for a better book. It is clear that a few small sections have been replicated from the thesis out of context, for example a paragraph about the role of a “putter-out” on pp. 60-61. On p. 91, to give another example, we read that a Garden report concluded that “the Curator should be charged with ‘gross ignorance and mismanagement’ and that he should be replaced”; this is repeated, only three lines later, as “a charge of ‘gross ignorance and mismanagement’ should be brought against [the Curator]”. Finally, to anyone with a botanical, as opposed to historical, training the misspelling and misrendering of scientific names for some plants will jar, such as “Dickensonia” for Dicksonia and “Victoria Regia” for Victoria regia (itself an old synonym, the plant is now called Victoria amazonica).

Such editorial oversights detract only a little from the telling of the story of Manchester Botanic Garden and could easily be rectified if the book goes to a second edition. Which I hope it does; it’s a great contribution both to the local history of the city and to our understanding of the history of provincial botanic gardens.



Brockway, L.H. (1979) Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Garden. Yale University Press.

Endersby, J. (2010) Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. University of Chicago Press.

Ollerton, J., Chancellor, G. & van Wyhe, J. (2012) John Tweedie and Charles Darwin in Buenos Aires. Notes and Records of the Royal Society 66: 115-124


Originally published as:  Ollerton, J. (2014) Book review of: “A Veritable Eden” by A. Brooks. Manchester Region History Review 25: 153-154



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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Book review, Gardens, History of science

Ecosystem services survey – share your thoughts

Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE) are carrying out a public survey on attitudes to the concept of ecosystem services, a subject that I’ve referred to many times on this blog, most recently last week.

The UWE researchers write:  “……give us your views on the term ‘ecosystem services’! Do you feel it is a valuable concept? How should it be used and communicated? Regardless of whether you work with the concept or not, we would like to hear your views. The survey closes 5th February 2016……survey takes 10 minutes or less!”

I’ve done is and they’re right, it’s very short, but well worth completing as it should generate some interesting data into how far the concept has penetrated into the public consciousness.  The link to the survey is:




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Tight But Loose – just what is “biodiversity”?

Fleet photo 1

Ever since I set up the Biodiversity Blog in 2012 I’ve had it in mind to write a post asking the question “Just what is “biodiversity”?”, but have never quite got round to it, there’s been too many other interesting and important things to write about on here!  This week over at the Dynamic Ecology blog Brian McGill has beaten me to it with a really interesting post entitled:  Biodiversity and pizza – an extended analogy leading to a call for a more multidimensional treatment of nature.

I’m not entirely sure that the pizza analogy works, it’s a little tortuous, but none the less the post is provocative and interesting, and has generated a lot of comments.  I strongly recommend it.

In the interests of recycling, and because the readership of my blog only overlaps partially with that of Dynamic Ecology, thought I’d restate a few things that I brought up in the comments to Brian’s post (but this certainly won’t substitute for going over and reading it yourself”.

One of the questions that Brian asks is:  “Is biodiversity a useful term or has it outlived its usefulness?”  It’ll come as no surprise to readers that I like the word “biodiversity”: I used it for the title of my blog and for my professorship, because it captures a lot about what I value in the natural world, and because it’s a term that I’ve (professionally speaking) grown up with. To my mind it is an umbrella term that can mean different things to different people; some see this as a disadvantage but I think that, as long as we qualify precisely what we are referring to, using “biodiversity” in a loose way is not a problem. Perhaps an appropriate analogy is with politics: if someone describes themselves as a “conservative” or a “socialist” or a “liberal”, those terms cover huge internal variation and political scope, but it’s not a problem because it broadly describes the beliefs of that individual.

As an instance of when “biodiversity” may not be a useful concept for nature conservation, Brian gives an example of salt marsh, often areas with rather low species diversity, as being of low priority for conservation because they are poor in “biodiversity”.  But this ignores the fact that all of the “official” definitions of biodiversity explicitly include diversity of habitats/communities/ecosystems/biomes in a defined geographical area.  For example the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines it as:

“the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.” [my emphasis]

Thus destroying an area of salt marsh may indeed result in few species being lost, but it would be a significant loss of biodiversity at that higher level of community/ecosystem, if a region has only salt marsh, woodland and grassland in it: in essence you’ve lost one third of your biodiversity because you’ve lost one third of your habitats.

Something that’s occurred to me over the last couple of days of reading comments and thinking about the questions that Brian posed is that “nature” and “biodiversity” are not actually synonymous at all. When people say they like “being in nature” or they “value contact with nature”, what they are usually saying is that they enjoy landscapes, seascapes, changes in the weather, being out of doors, etc., things which are not strictly part of what we understand as “biodiversity”.

Likewise, “protecting the environment” includes a whole set of non-biodiversity related questions and actions such as air and water quality, wastes management, sustainable use of resources, etc., much of which may not directly affect biodiversity at all.

“Biodiversity” has a specific meaning, as the definition above shows, even though that meaning can be broadly defined. Which sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not – and brought to mind the title of the Led Zeppelin fanzine: “Tight But Loose”*.  Biodiversity as a concept and as a field of research and action involves so many different types of stakeholder (ecologist, botanist, zoologist, artist, conservationist, activist) that (as I said) it provides a useful (loose) umbrella.  Problems only occur when people use different tight definitions and talk past one another.

The other aspect to Brian’s post is around the pros and cons of valuing ecosystem services, which is a much bigger argument in some ways, and I’m going to point readers to two blog posts, one recently from Steve Heard which I think is a very nice, concrete example that captures a lot of the uncertainties that Brian describes:


The second is one of mine from last July related to the value of valuing nature, which was prompted by the Costanza et al. update paper:


These are fascinating discussions that will run and run, I have no doubt.


*I’m found of bringing musical examples into these blog posts :-)



Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services

Nature Improvement Area final report published today by Defra

As regular readers of the blog will be aware, over the past three years my research group has been involved as a lead partner in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project, one of 12 NIA schemes across England.  I’ve posted regular updates on the the Nene Valley NIA, for example see my posts entitled Angry Birds! (and startled bees), To Dream a River, and Biodiversity conservation pays its way.

Although our group still has work to do on writing up the results for our ecosystem services assessment of the Nene Valley, the NIA scheme has formally ended, and today Defra has issued a final NIA Monitoring and Evaluation Report, plus an accompanying press release.  Defra (and the government) judges the NIA scheme to be a resounding success and I have to agree with them.  To quote from the press release and from the final report:

  • Nearly 20,000 hectares of natural habitat – the equivalent of almost 23,000 football pitches – has been created, restored or preserved across England.
  • The Nature Improvement Areas have also helped people reconnect with nature, with volunteers contributing over 47,000 days, school children earning their green fingers by planting trees, and communities getting involved in decision making.
  • The NIA partnerships mobilised resources with an equivalent value of £26.2 million (including the financial value of volunteer time and services in-kind) in addition to the initial government grant funding. Of this total, £15.3 million was from non-public sources (e.g. private sector and nongovernmental organisations).
  • Learnings from the Nature Improvement Areas will now help to inform Defra’s 25 year plan for action on the environment which will be published later in the year as part of a comprehensive, long-term vision to protect the country’s natural heritage.

This last point is a critical one; much was achieved with the government’s initial investment of £7.5 million over three years.  Continuation of this type of funding, for the original 12 NIAs and additional projects, would achieve so much more, especially if it was tied in with upland and river restoration projects that focused on natural flood defences (which we know will work).  The potential savings from such investment could run into 100s of millions of pounds.  Let’s hope Defra has the strategic vision to make this happen.


Filed under Climate change, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton

Advice for senior scientists and the importance of first-author publications

The internet is awash with bloggers and dedicated sites giving advice to early-career scientists and graduate research students (what I’ll collectively refer to as ECRs).  Much of it is very good (see for example The Thesis Whisperer, any number of posts over at Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science, and the University of Northampton’s own Research Support Hub), though sometimes it’s contradictory and comes down to matters of taste and opinion (see for example the differing comments on a post of mine about giving effective conference presentations).

There are also any number of books, including Peter Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist and James Watson’s Avoid Boring People (hopefully to be followed up with a sequel entitled Avoid Alienating People With Crass Statements)*.

But there is very little guidance and advice out there for more senior scientists who are mid- to late-career.  I did a quick search and found only one article that mentioned this topic, specifically about mid-career mentoring, and that was from 2012.

Why is this?  Is it because (as I suspect) more senior scientists are assumed to have their careers sorted out, they “know the ropes”, they are networked and publish, and have only a bright sunny future in academia to look forward to?  Clearly this is nonsense; as that article I linked to stated:

Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure** and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no

So I’d be interested in hearing any bits of advice or guidance, or links to useful resources, and would encourage new posts by other bloggers, related specifically to more senior scientists in academia.  To get the ball rolling, my contribution would be: make sure you keep publishing as a first-author (and preferably single-author) throughout your career.

In academia it’s easy to get lost as to what it actually is to be a scientist (idea generator/data collector/analyser/writer) in amongst all of the other requirements and pressures of the job at a senior level (grant writing/committee memberships/teaching/administration and paperwork/manuscript and grant reviewing/editorial duties/ECR supervision and line management/external meetings and advisory groups/etc.)

As a senior scientist it’s possible to publish good papers frequently as last author (indicating seniority as head of the research group and/or ECR supervisor), and as mid author in amongst tens or hundreds of other scientists with whom you are collaborating on some level.  In these papers other people are conducting the bulk of the “science”, and that’s fine, I publish in both of these ways myself.  But the question then arises, that if this is all that a senior scientist is currently doing, have they lost something of themselves as scientists?  Have they become something more akin to a science-manager than a “real” scientist (whatever that actually means)?

Personally, I try to publish at least one first-author output (not necessarily a peer-reviewed paper, could be a commentary or a popular article) each year, and have succeeded in most years.  I believe (though I may be fooling myself) that it keeps me in touch with what it is to be a scientist and why I became one in the first place.  For reasons I can’t fully articulate it feels important to me to be involved in research and writing in which I do the bulk of the data collection, analysis, and/or writing myself, and to see an output through the editorial process from manuscript preparation to submission, dealing with reviewers’ comments, and to final publication.

Is this a reasonable goal/expectation for a senior scientist?  It’s important for me but I can well understand that other scientists will have other priorities, different things that they focus on.

Coincidentally, as I was finishing off writing this post, Dr Kath Baldock drew my attention to this short piece by Kaushal et al. entitled Avoiding an Ecological Midlife Crisis that’s just been published in the January issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.  Although specifically focused on professional ecologists, their advice to “nurture the original connection to nature” will surely resonate with scientists from all fields if we substitute “nature” for other, discipline-specific words and phrases.


*This is all very positive and as it should be: ECRs need advice and guidance as to how to navigate their profession, and that needs to come from multiple sources because sometimes (often?) their own institution doesn’t give adequate guidance.  However I do have some misgivings about more senior scientists advising their more junior colleagues based on their own experiences: the world of academia is a fasting-moving place and what applied to a previous generation may not necessarily apply to the current one.

**It’s an American article: British universities don’t even know how to spell “tenure”.


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SCAPE 2016 – the 30th anniversary meeting

SCAPE logo
As regular readers of this blog are aware, the annual SCAPE conference is one of my favourite scientific meetings, and for the last few years I’ve published live blogs of the conference as it happens (for example, here, here, here).  SCAPE 2016 will be a very special one – it’s the 30th anniversary of the meeting – and is taking place in a very special place.  Initial details have recently been circulated by Professor Jon Ågren (Uppsala University) on behalf of the organising committee, as follows:
The meeting will take place at Abisko, northernmost Sweden 13-16 October. More information will be published in late spring, but mark these days in your calendar already now!
Information about the premises of the meeting:
Some info about Abisko National Park:
And about the nearby Abisko Scientific Research Station:
 Anyone wishing to receive the next SCAPE circular, send an email to Jon:   jon.agren@ebc.uu.se

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Biodiversity rocks: a spider named in honour David Bowie, and a worm for Lemmy

With the death of David Bowie yesterday the world of music and art and fashion lost a cultural icon.  As well as remembering his incredible music and ground-breaking visual and social statements, the great man is immortalised in the name of a huntsman spider: Heteropoda davidbowie.  

I’ve not seen the original paper that named it, but it was presumably because the bright orange hair that covers the spider’s body reminded the author of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in the early 70s, and the name of Ziggy’s band – The Spiders From Mars.

That other recently deceased rock icon, Lemmy Kilmister, also has a species named for him – an extinct polychaete worm called Kalloprion kilmisteri – apparently named “in honor of Lemmy of Motörhead, for musical inspiration during the course of [studying the fossil]”.

I’ll miss them both: biodiversity rocks!


With thanks to my friend and colleague Professor Stewart Thompson for bringing the spider to my attention. 


Filed under Biodiversity and culture, Uncategorized