Category Archives: Charles Darwin

Spiral Sunday #21 – Happy Birthday Mr Darwin!

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On 12th February 1809 Mr Charles Robert Darwin was born, so I couldn’t let this week’s Spiral Sunday pass without wishing the great man Happy Birthday!  I used Festisite to make the spiral text and then played around with an image of Darwin using PowerPoint; nothing too fancy, but I think it’s effective.

Have a great #DarwinDay everyone!

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Filed under Biodiversity and culture, Charles Darwin, spirals

Scientists and gardens

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This morning I tied in some tomato plants to their canes and removed a few side shoots and lower leaves,  the scent of the foliage transporting me back to my father’s allotment in Sunderland.  There, in a greenhouse constructed from old window panes, he grew luscious, sweet tomatoes, fed and watered by “filtered beer”.  It was some years before we realised that he was filtering the beer through his kidneys, which didn’t impress my mother.  Stephen King captured it beautifully when he said that we don’t buy beer, we only rent it*, and feeding tomato plants rather than flushing it down the toilet is certainly the environmentally savvy solution.  Clearly my dad was an environmentalist before his time.

These childhood allotment memories represent my first exposure to horticulture, an interest and a practise that has remained with me ever since.  I’ve always gardened and, even when I didn’t own or rent a garden, I grew house plants.  This link between scientists and their gardens is a persistent one.  For example I’ve recently finished reading The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s great biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and gardens feature several times as places of calm and inspiration for both Humboldt and his mentor Goethe.

There are many other historical scientists who have used and been inspired by the gardens they have cultivated.  Humboldt’s friend and colleague Aimé Bonpland maintained a garden during his time in South America. Darwin’s garden at Down House certainly inspired the great man, and he carried out numerous experiments on plants and earthworms there.  The University of Uppsala maintains the garden in which Linnaeus cultivated plants that he used in his teaching and research (I’ve visited this a couple of times, well worth the trip if you are in that part of Sweden).

More recently I can think of several prominent scientists in my own area of pollination ecology and plant reproduction who are also keen gardeners.  These include: John Richards (formerly of Newcastle University); Spencer Barrett (whose garden photo gallery shows the location where he did some of the work on the mating costs of large floral displays, subsequently published in Nature!); Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex; and Simon Potts (University of Reading) who (if my memory of a talk he gave a couple of years ago is correct) has experimental plots set up on his lawn.

There must be many others and I’d be grateful for other examples – please comment below.  All of the individuals noted above are “biologists” in the broadest sense so I’d be particularly interested for suggestions of scientists in other fields who are also gardeners, or inspired by gardens.

The garden that Karin and I are developing in Northampton (pictured above) serves many functions: as a centre of quiet relaxation, a place to write, to be inspired by the pollinators and their behaviour, to enjoy physical labour, grow food, and (occasionally) to collect data.  I cannot imagine being a scientist without a garden; as Francis Bacon said, “it is the purest of human pleasures”.  However he was writing in the 16th century before the advent of pesticides, herbicides, inorganic fertilisers, electric mowers, and other gardening modernities that, one way or another, can have a profound environmental impact.  Good gardening must be tempered with a sense of how we go about those activities in a way that minimises that impact.

 

*I first read it in King’s novel From a Buick 8, but a quick google suggests that it was originally an Archie Bunker line.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Urban biodiversity

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

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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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Filed under Charles Darwin, History of science, University of Northampton

Are tropical plants and animals more colourful? Not according to a new study!

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The notion that tropical ecosystems are somehow “different” to those at higher latitudes is a pervasive one in ecology and biogeography, that has its roots in the explorations of 18th and 19th century Europeans such as von Humboldt, Darwin, Wallace, and Belt.  All of these authors expressed their amazement at the biological riches they observed in their tropical explorations, and how different these habitats were to those they knew from home.

In many ways the tropics are special, of course and we know that they contain many more species than most other parts of the world; indeed my own work has shown that the tropics have significantly more types of functionally specialised pollination systems, and that the proportion of wind pollinated species is lower in tropical communities.  However tropical plants are not, on average, more ecologically specialised (that is, they do not use few species of pollinator) and, as the recent guest blog on Dynamic Ecology argued, there is a growing body of evidence to say that overall tropical interactions between species are not stronger and more specialised than those in the temperate zone (though there are others who dispute this and it’s an ongoing debate).

One of the central tenets of the “tropics are special” idea is that the tropics are more colourful; or rather that the biodiversity of the tropics tends to be more garish, gorgeous, and spectrally exuberant, than that of other parts of the globe.   Now a new study by Rhiannon Dalrymple, Angela Moles and colleagues, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, has challenged this idea for flowering plants, birds, and butterflies in Australia, using sophisticated colour analysis rather than relying on human impressions. Following that link will take you to the abstract and you can read it yourself; however I wanted to summarise their findings by quoting from the first section of the discussion in the paper:

Contrary to predictions…[our]…results have shown that tropical species of birds, butterflies and flowers are not more colourful than their temperate counterparts. In fact…species further away from the equator on average possess a greater diversity of colours, and their colours are more contrasting and more saturated than those seen in tropical species.”

It’s a really, really interesting study that, as the authors say, runs counter to all of our expectations.  Gradually ecologists and evolutionary biologists are testing some long-standing assumptions about the tropics and the results are proving to be a challenge to preconceived ideas about patterns in the Earth’s biodiversity.

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Full disclosure: senior author on the paper Angela Moles was my co-author on that Dynamic Ecology blog, based on which we’ve written a short review article that (hopefully) will be published soon.  Other than that I have no vested interest in the study.

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Filed under Alfred Russel Wallace, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Charles Darwin, Evolution, History of science

Garden pollinators for PAW no. 6 – Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

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It would be impossible to write a series of blog posts about garden pollinators for Pollinator Awareness Week without considering the bumblebees (genus Bombus) and I intend to devote the last two posts to that group of bees.  The bumblebees are arguably the UK’s most important pollinators of both wild and crop plants, certainly later in the season when colony numbers have increased. Earlier in the season it’s the solitary bees such as the Orange-tailed mining bee that are predominant.

Although common and widespread in gardens, the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) belongs to a group of bees in which the workers are rather variable in appearance and can be very difficult to distinguish from those in the Bombus lucorum group, which includes two other species (B. cryptarum and B. magnus).

This is a truly social species with an annual nest comprising workers and a queen.  Nests are founded by queens that have mated the previous year and hibernated.  They usually choose old rodent nests in which to begin their colonies, which is why they are sometimes found in garden compost bins.  An interesting question that I’ve not seen answered is whether the queens actively displace mice or voles from such nests: does anyone know?  This association between bumblebees and mice led Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley into some speculation as to the role of spinsters in the British Empire.

In my garden the Buff-tailed bumblebee pollinates a range of crops including strawberries, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, runner beans, french beans, tomatoes, and raspberries.  As the photo above shows they also visit the flowers of passion fruit, where they seem to be more effective than the smaller honey bees and solitary bees.

Buff atil on Lambs ear cropped July 2015 P1120289 copy

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Honey bees, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Worm sex

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This morning I woke early and slipped quietly outside to enjoy the bird song and to let the chickens out of their coop.  The air was cool and the garden fresh and damp.  Slugs were scattered across the lawn heading back to their dark crevices after a night of scoffing our plants, so I decided to round up as many as I could find as a snack for the chickens.

I’d collected about 30 when I spotted something glistening with mucus that was clearly not a slug: two common European earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) were engaged in some hermaphrodite sex, male/female to male/female.  It was a personal, intimate moment that I felt I should not be witnessing, but I had to watch.  It’s an event that usually takes place under the cover of darkness and one sees it so infrequently; these lovers were clearly caught up in the moment and oblivious to the daylight.  Like a paparazzo who can’t believe what he’s stumbled across, I rushed inside to grab the camera.

Worm sex is quite a complex process involving the mutual transfer of sperm between individuals, which I think may be within that white, milky fluid you can see in the close-up below.

Suddenly the worms sensed I was there and they rapidly separated and slipped back into their respective holes, perhaps to replay the passion tonight?  I hope so: the garden needs as many worms as possible to aerate and turn the soil, and take leaves and other organic matter down into the depths.  They are incredibly important in traditional agricultural systems: Darwin famously wrote a two-volume treatise on earthworms and concluded that: “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures”.

There you have it, worm sex for the weekend.  Amazing things happen in our gardens.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Gardens

FUNCAMP – Brazil Diary 1

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“Nobody but a person fond of natural history can imagine the pleasure of strolling under cocoa-nuts, in a thicket of bananas and coffee plants, and an endless number of wild flowers”

Charles Darwin – letter to his father; Brazil, February 1832

When Darwin wrote this letter he was 23 years old and was experiencing the tropics for the first time in his life.  It’s a typically understated, 19th Century view of the sheer unfamiliarity and exuberance that tropical environments impress upon the traveller from north temperate climes.  In actuality Darwin was probably initially overwhelmed by the whole experience: I’m 48 and have made many such trips, and the first few days in the tropics never fail to overwhelm and excite me. Last Friday I arrived in Brazil for a month of teaching, lecturing and research funded by a grant from FAPESP awarded ​to my Brazilian collaborators, Professor Marlies Sazima and André Rodrigo Rech.  This week, with André’s help, I am running a course for graduate students entitled: “Pollination: ecology, evolution and conservation” at the University of Campinas, which everyone refers to as Unicamp, one of the most prestigious  and research active universities in Latin America.  The following week we head to Belo Hori​​zonte where I’m giving a talk at the National Botanical Congress, and a lecture at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. 

​Following all these teaching and lecturing engagements,  I head out into the field with André and some of the other Unicamp postgrads for two weeks of data collection on the ecology of Brazilian plants and their pollinators. The field work starts in the Serra do Cipó National Park, then mov​​​​es on to the Serra do Mar State Park, one of the largest remaining areas of Atlantic Rainforest.

We’re half way through the pollination course and the students have been just great; there are 28 of them, including some postdocs and professors from other universities, which is very flattering.  Each day is structured around a lecture, plus papers to read and the students bring questions to pitch to the group for discussion.  We’re also doing a little field work around the campus though the weather has been rather wet the last couple of days, which has limited what we can do.  

As well as interacting with the students, a real highlight of the trip so far has been the diversity of bird species on the campus.  After checking into my hotel on 1st November I took a stroll around the grounds and immediately spotted bird after bird that I’d never seen before, but which are common in this area.  No sooner had I started to identify one species (initially using Ber van Perlo’s Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil, which I soon augmented by a locally produced guide to the birds on campus ) than another hove into view and I’d have to remember its features in order to identify it next; and then another; and then another.  Information overload and, as I said, overwhelming!  

Bird of the Week has been the Southern Crested Caracara which I first saw sitting at the top of a tree from my bedroom window.  By the 2nd November I had counted 21 bird species; this went up to 36 the next day which included a walk around a small lake on campus.  Current total is about 40, but there are others which I’ve yet to identify and have been too busy with the course to spend much time birding.  But I’ve also added two new plant families to my life list of those I’ve eaten: Aquifoliaceae, the holly family, which provides the popular South American drink maté.  And Dilleniaceae, via the introduced species Dillenia indica the fruit of which is edible and popular in South East Asia, though is hopefully better cooked than raw: to me it tastes of lemon infused with car tyres.

Note to my family, students and colleagues back in Northampton:  whilst it’s true that my hotel is called FUNCAMP, this actually stands for Fundação de Desenvolvimento da Unicamp.  It in no way implies that I’m not working hard!

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Charles Darwin, Pollination

Garlicky archipelago

Sunrise from train September 2013

“Garlicky” is a great word, redolent of hot, pungent flavour and nose-filling odour: a Pavlovian word that ignites the senses as it’s uttered.  Perhaps I love the word because garlic is one of my favourite vegetables, a pleasure to both eat and grow.  A Garlic Festival is therefore not to be missed, and my family and I had the opportunity to attend one on the Isle of Wight during a short holiday a couple of weeks ago.  We were joined by university friends I’ve referred to previously, as the first one of us to reach a half century celebrated his 50th birthday.  There was more to the festival than just garlic, but for me its highlight was seeing the sheer variety of different garlic types that can be grown, testament to how this vegetable has been modified from its ancient wild origins in central Asia.  Karin and I bought seed bulbs of four different varieties as additions to the horticultural biodiversity of our vegetable plot, to be planted later in September.   These included the notable Elephant Garlic with its massive individual cloves, which, I’ve just learned while researching that link, is not a true garlic at all but rather a variety of leek.  We live and learn!

Archipelago is another great word and the time we spent on the Isle of Wight, travelling over by ferry from Southampton, served to remind me that the British Isles, with over six thousand islands of various sizes, is by any standards a significant archipelago.  Since at least the explorations of Alexander von Humbloldt, island groups have  been known to host unique species, isolated taxonomically and physically from their closest continental relatives.  Darwin’s later researches showed that archipelagos such as the Galapagos Islands are important as natural evolutionary laboratories, and in previous posts I’ve briefly discussed his unrequited desire to visit to the Canary Islands.  The Isle of Wight is too close to the continent of Europe to have evolved any unique biodiversity but I did pick up the hint of a subtle Island Biogeographic Effect whilst compiling a list of all the bird species I saw over the course of the week.  The list topped out at about 30 species, which I thought was rather low.  Some of the omissions surprised me (not a single blackbird, for instance) and I saw very few individuals of some other common British species.  Now, it could be due to my lousy birding skills I suppose, but it could also be due to the fact that we were on an island, even though it’s less than 1500m across The Solent to the mainland at its closest point.  This is close enough for bumblebees to fly to the island: I’ve seen them shadowing the ferry.  But nonetheless it might be far enough to affect both the diversity and population sizes of the bird life.  Enough wild speculation; I’d be interested to know what serious ornithologists who actually know something about the subject make of this.   

As I finish writing this post I’m on the other great island of my home archipelago, sitting in a bar in Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport.  I’ve been working at University College Dublin as external examiner for their MSc Applied Environmental Science course.  It’s been a fun couple of days reading theses and interviewing chatty, engaged students, which began with a dawn alarm yesterday in order to get to the train station and then Birmingham International in time for a 0850 flight.  Whilst waiting for my taxi I popped into the garden and paused to enjoy the early morning stillness before opening up the chicken coop.  A large flock of black-headed gulls passed low above me, backlit by a thin sliver of moon and silent except for the shuffle of feathers.  From the direction they were travelling I think they were heading from a roost on Pitsford Water and on to destinations unknown.  The garden was also busy with early risen blackbirds and a couple of flitting bats, whilst a little later my taxi passed a rangy fox idly trotting through low mist on the Racecourse park.   It was urban biodiversity at its most sublime.  

All this talk of Northampton is making me feel homesick to be back with the family (Karin, kids, cats and chickens) and start planting garlic.  But there’s just time for another Guinness before my gate opens.  Sláinte!

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Birds, Charles Darwin, Evolution, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Tenerife, Urban biodiversity

When is a yucca not a Yucca?

Notice the difference?  The italicisation and capital initial of the second Yucca.  That’s how the genus name of a species should be formally presented in a scientific paper, or in a newspaper article, or wherever.  Like Homo – the genus in which our own species (Homo sapiens) sits.

It might seem like a narrow and pedantic point, but it’s important.  Accurate and descriptive naming of species, genera, families and other taxonomic ranks is crucial to those of us who study biodiversity and is at the core of our science: without names for species, for example, we cannot make informed conservation judgements or comparisons between habitats in relation to which species are present or absent.  Names matter.

But it’s not just the names themselves, it’s also how they are presented which is important:  when I see the words yucca and Yucca in print, they signify two different things to me.  The word “yucca” is an informal name for a group of plants that is widely applied by gardeners and has no formal scientific status.  Yucca on the other hand refers to a very specific group of plants and has a clear meaning to a biologist.

To give you an example of this I’ll first have to introduce you to the Northamptonshire Natural History Society (NNHS) which was founded in 1876 and must be one of the oldest surviving local natural history societies in the country.  Some important 19th Century scientists were honorary members, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker.  This perhaps reflects Northampton’s proximity to London though there may be other factors: one could compile quite a long list of scientists with links to Northamptonshire.

The Journal of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society was first published in 1880 and continues to the present day.  Which brings us back to yuccas.  Last year a short article by a NNHS  member summarised the local weather conditions in Northampton for each month of 2010 (J. Northants Nat. Hist. Soc. vol. 45, no. 1).  December of that year was a particularly cold month and the author notes that “the species of Yucca trees planted in Northampton, which although thriving in recent years, were killed by the cold period”.

Strictly speaking Yucca refers to plants of a particular group which are endemic (i.e. only naturally occurring) to the New World.  The genus Yucca is a member of the asparagus family (Asparagaceae), subfamily Agavoideae.  The plants which suffered so much in the cold winter of 2010 are in fact New Zealand Cabbage Trees (Cordyline australis) which, as the name suggests, are endemic to New Zealand.  The genus Cordyline is also a member of the family Asparagaceae but belongs to the subfamily Lomandroideae and is therefore only distantly related to Yucca.

The leaves and stems of Cordyline and Yucca do look very similar, hence gardeners tend to use yucca as an informal name for both.  However when these plants flower it is clear that they are very different.  Flowers of the various species of Yucca are typically quite large and are adapted to pollination by a very specialised group of moths which lay their eggs within the flowers.  The reward for these moth pollinators is a brood site for their caterpillars, which feed on a proportion of the developing seeds of the Yucca plant.  In contrast the flowers of Cordyline australis are small and produced in very large numbers in dense inflorescences.  They are also highly fragrant, to which anyone who has grown one of these plants to maturity in their garden can testify.  The fragrance attracts a range of insects which feed on the nectar produced by the flowers and so pollinate them in the process.  It is these differences in flower structure, more than characters of stems and leaves, which taxonomists use to classify such plants.

Until recently large New Zealand Cabbage Trees were a feature of many front gardens across Northampton.  Some particularly fine examples were to be found along the Kingsthorpe Road between Osborne Road and Balmoral Road.  I suspect that the largest Northampton specimens were planted in the 1970s, perhaps because people wished to recreate something of the exotic feel of package holidays to Spain and Portugal.  Following the freezing weather of December 2010, the growing tips of most of Northampton’s New Zealand Cabbage Trees were killed and the top growth gradually withered and died.  I was sad to see this happen to my own plant, a medium-sized specimen that I had rescued from a skip at the University several years ago, and which had become well established in my garden.  However later in 2011 my plant, and those in neighbouring gardens, re-sprouted from its deep tap root and started to produce multiple rosettes of leaves around the base of its dead trunk.  Give it a few years and Northampton gardens will once again be crowned by these exotic imports from the Southern Hemisphere.  I moved house in early 2012 and wasn’t able to take my rescued plant with me, but I have a feeling it will survive many more cold winters to come.

Names matter to biologists, indeed to scientists of all types.  They signify and tell us things beyond just the words themselves.  To give a very personal example, a few people have asked me why I chose the title “Professor of Biodiversity” rather than “Ecology” (my main area of training, though confused in some peoples’ minds with New Age philosophies); or “Biology” (a much broader designation than I feel comfortable with); or even “Pollination Ecology” (narrow, to the point, but too restrictive).  After a LOT of thought I chose “Biodiversity” because it very broadly reflects my interests in the whole of Earth’s life forms, the interactions between these species, and how they come together as assemblages, communities and ecosystems.   But I’m also interested in the history of our understanding of biological diversity and this title gives me scope to pursue those interests too.

It’s all in the name.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Gardens, History of science, Pollination, University of Northampton

Wrestling the oiled serpent

Understanding the Earth’s biodiversity is not just about knowing where organisms are currently found, their interactions and community structure, and the threats to them and how they can be conserved.  It is also about understanding the evolutionary origins of that biological diversity.  With this in mind I was interested to read a number of news reports over the last few weeks about the relationship between science and religion, including a piece on a debate between scientists and theologians on the origin of the universe, and the removal of a young Earth creationist perspective in an exhibition about the formation of the Giant’s Causeway.

Whilst religious and scientific views of the universe are not necessarily incompatible, literal interpretations of the origin of the world and its biodiversity are clearly at odds with our understanding of the diversification of life through evolutionary processes.  Reading these reports brought back memories (not all of them positive) of an event I was involved in a few years ago.

Back in 2006, Northamptonshire Creation Group (motto: “Let true science speak” [sic]) approached our former Vice-Chancellor with the suggestion that the University of Northampton might care to put forward a speaker to debate creationist versus the evolutionary world views with a prominent Australian creationist who was undertaking a fairly high profile lecture tour of the UK that year.  I was asked if I was interested in taking part and agreed because I have a long-standing interest in creationist arguments.  One of my main research areas, the ecology and evolution of plant-pollinator interactions, is claimed by some to be one of those (supposedly) wonderful examples of how God has created precise interactions between species which could not possibly have evolved.

Richard Dawkins and others have argued that scientists should not be engaging in such debates  as this because it gives creationists publicity and a credence that they do not deserve.  However my perspective has always been that creationists are not going to go away and their influence on school curricula, for example, needs to be tackled head on.

This debate, in front of an audience of about 200 members of the public, colleagues and students, was undoubtedly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do professionally:  we were each given 15 minutes to present our case and that is a very short space of time in which to summarise 200 years of scientific research supporting the validity of the evolutionary world view.  But I gave it my best shot and pointed out at the end of the quarter hour that, had I more time, there was so much more evidence I could have presented, evidence which supports the evolutionary hypothesis.

Hopefully, I went on,  I’d convinced some of the audience of the validity of that way of viewing the world and the life it sustains, though I didn’t imagine that I’d changed my opponent’s worldview.  He was clearly a man of great energy and commitment to his cause to have sustained his point of view for 30 years.  But I wished for his sake that he’d not wasted that energy on a debate which was over long ago. which in fact Charles Darwin thought was finished when he died in 1882.

Rather than squabble over the source of biological diversity, I continued, I would rather that these creationists spent their time and energy on trying to save biodiversity.  Human activity has put enormous pressure on the species with which we share this planet and whole ecosystems are being dramatically altered even as we argued that night.  If creationists really care about God’s creation of life, why are they not furious at the way humanity treats it?  Why are they not directing their passion towards saving it?

I thanked the audience for their time and attention and passed the floor to my opponent.  What followed was not the evidence based “creation science” [sic] I was expecting (having researched his previous claims on the subject of the Earth’s age, etc.) but a rapid-fire delivery of theological arguments.  Over those 15 minutes I counted 50 PowerPoint slides, a Biblical smoke and mirrors approach to arguing evolution.  Interestingly, it was clear when he was loading up his presentation that he had about 8 different “Northampton lecture” that he could choose from, depending upon the tack that I took.  Had I gone for a theological approach to the debate, he would have argued “science” I am sure.

After our presentations we had an opportunity to ask one another one question before it was opened up to the audience.  The question that was addressed of me is one that to this day I don’t really understand.  To paraphrase he asked:

“Can you provide a single example of a species which has evolved into another species, without reference to the assumption that evolution has already occurred”

The second half of the question really made no sense to me and perhaps was designed to throw me off.  It worked: I asked my opponent to explain the question and received some heckling from nearby creationists who accused me of being evasive.  But he clarified his question: what he was really asking was, could I provide examples of species evolving recently.  I talked about antibiotic resistance in bacteria, insects which are now immune to pesticides, and also mentioned peppered moth evolution.  Then the debate was opened up to questions from the floor and the first thing I was asked (by a smirking creationist) was what the peppered moths had changed into: other moths or something different?  I explained the difference, in timescales and outcome, of microevolution and macroevolution.  But that was lost on him.

There was also a question about why peacocks and other species were so beautiful, if not for human enjoyment?  I spoke about sexual selection but my opponent countered that sweet peas in his garden were never visited by bees because they self fertilise, so why are they still attractive?  I suggested he grow some different Lathyrus species, ones which had not been selectively bred by people.

So it went on, trading example for example, neither side giving any ground, until we ran out of time .

The woman who asked me the question about beauty happened to be of Afro-Caribbean descent, and came up to me afterwards when the formal debate had ended.  She forcefully asked how I could support a theory which, according to her, stated that “black people are closer to apes and therefore lower on the evolutionary ladder than white people”.  I firmly explained that evolution says nothing about racism and “Darwinian” arguments about racial superiority were a later bastardisation of Darwin’s original ideas.  But to no avail:  the woman “knew” Darwin was a racist; everyone in her church knew that.

Another post-debate exchange with a creationist went something like:

Him:  Darwin states in Origin of Species that the fossil record was insufficient to support his ideas.

Me:  That was 150 years ago.

Him: Yes, but Darwin said it.

Me: But that was 150 years ago; as I showed, we have acquired an enormous amount of new fossil data since then.

Him:  But Darwin said it and he’s the father of evolution.

Me: But he was only one scientist and that was 150 years ago.

Him: But Darwin said it.

Etc. etc. etc.  Darwin seems to have an almost mythic, bogey-man status amongst creationists, as if everything he wrote HAS to be true and if it’s false then evolution is not true.  A weird interpretation of how science works.

At the end of the evening I went home exhausted and not a little depressed.  Wine was drunk and the evening dissected and I wrote up some notes about the event, including the title of this blog.  That phrase struck me as a suitably Biblical description of trying to have rational arguments with creationists: well greased serpents will always have a way of squirming out of the grip of logic and evidence, whilst throwing distracting coils around your limbs.  I don’t regret taking part in the debate but I’m not in a hurry to do another.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Creationism, Evolution, University of Northampton