Monday, 14 December 2009

Winter for the Tree of Life…

Sadly, the time has come to suspend the Tree of Life blog. As noted last week, the end of 2009 brings to an end a year of Darwin200 celebrations and our blog along with it.

We’ve had the pleasure of launching some wonderful projects in that time. It all kicked off in February with the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. This saw the airing of that wonderful BBC documentary (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) ‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life’ presented by Sir David Attenborough (if by any chance you have been living in a cave, click here to see the animation at the heart of it).

The documentary attracted some six and a half million viewers and the animation has been viewed over 150,000 times on YouTube. It has also been featured at museums and events around the world, including the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, the Boston Museum of Science, London Zoo, the Natural History Museum in London, the Darwin Evolution and the Movies festival in London, as well as educational establishments in India and South Africa.

‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life’ also won Best Science Documentary at the 2009 Gierson British Documentary Awards and the animation was nominated for Best Graphic Design - Programme Content Sequences at the 2009 Royal Television Society Craft and Design Awards.

But the end of Darwin year does not mean an end to our Darwin activities! 2010 will see some exciting new projects come to fruition.

The Wellcome Trust will be launching a competition to win a trip to the Galapagos islands, allowing a lucky winner to follow in the footsteps of Darwin himself. Further details on this are coming soon so keep an eye on the Trust’s website or follow @wellcometrust on Twitter.

And if you haven’t had enough of the Tree of Life by now (and who hasn’t?), you’ll soon be able to experience it from the inside. The animation is being adapted into an interactive ‘augmented reality’ attraction, the ‘iFilm’, coming soon to the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre from early 2010.

The Tree of Life animation/interactive itself is, of course, still available to download and remix from this very website. Do contact us at if you would like to use it in any other way.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the blog. As Darwin himself once said:

"doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue"

I hope we’ve achieved that at least a bit. Until the next Darwin anniversary…..

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Darwin/evolution round up

With the passing of the On the Origin of the Species anniversary last week, Darwin year is coming to a close.

Sadly, this means that the Tree of Life Blog itself will shortly be put into a cryogenic sleep, waiting to be awakened sometime in the future for the next big Darwin anniversary, when humans will have evolved into cyborgs and hoverboards are the kids' toy of choice.

The end is not quite here yet though, so for your delectation, here is a list of links that the Tree of Life Blog has collected over the last few months, but never got round to blogging about:

More on the International Conference on Evolution and Society that took place in Egypt a few weeks ago. Blogs from the World Federation of Science Journalists.

Belief versus acceptance: Why do people not believe in evolution? Open-access paper by James Williams at the University of Sussex School of Education.

“A unique experiment to answer the question "Does culture evolve by natural selection?". The DarwinTunes Experiment.

A US project to more precisely chart geological time scales is launching a new initiative to educate students on deep time in order to challenge religious groups who argue life was divinely made about 10,000 years ago. Nature Great Beyond Blog.

Charles Darwin really did have advanced ideas about the origin of life. Labspaces blog.

Dinosaurs and Darwin. An Interview with Peter Dodson, anatomist and fossil expert.

Professor Richard Dawkins on the New York Academy of Sciences podcast.

A zoo of video and audio from the Cambridge Darwin Festival.

David Haines, composer, performs Mr Darwin and Taxonomy from his “science oratorio” Lifetime. New Scientist.

Darwin: the geologist. Nature News.

Podcasts from the excellent Beagle Project blog.

Darwin images in the Charles Darwin Flickr group. Add your own!
And if beard Darwin, isn’t your thing, there’s a Young Darwin Flickr Group too.
(Hat-tip to the Dispersal of Darwin blog for these two)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

New Scientist interviews Darwin

Happy On Origin Day everyone!

If you haven't already seen it, New Scientist is celebrating with an interview with Charles Darwin.

Unfortunately, they have neither travelled through time or cloned Darwin from the blood of mosquitos trapped in amber. However, they have pieced together answers from the excellent Wellcome Trust-funded Darwin Correspondence Project.

Celebrating 150 years of On the Origin of Species

Today marks the 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species.

It brings to an end a year of celebrations of Charles Darwin and his work, which began in February with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

There's been a lot to celebrate and the Wellcome Trust has rolled out and supported a variety of different activities, many of which can be accessed online.

This includes, of course, this very website. If you hadn't already noticed, click on the links above to view the spectacular Tree of Life animation that formed the centrepiece of Sir David Attenborough’s BBC1 documentary. You can then experience it again as an interactive and explore our other educational and scientific resources.

Available elsewhere are the webisodes and minigames from the Routes series, developed in partnership with Channel 4 to engage young people in genetics and bioethics. This includes the ‘Sneeze’ minigame, which demonstrates how sneezing can spread colds and flu. It has been played over 14 million times.

The Trust’s free experiment kits for schools, the Great Plant Hunt and Survival Rivals, are also still available. This aims to provide a free Darwin-inspired experiment to every child in the country and has given out 23 000 Great Plant Hunt and 8700 Survival Rivals kits so far.

This year also saw the Trust provide £10 million to help build the Natural History Museum’s new Darwin Centre. Opened in September, the Centre houses millions of insect and plant specimens and offers members of the public a glimpse into the working lives of 200 scientists, demonstrating how discovering and collecting new species can help understand climate change and diseases like malaria.

For further details of the Wellcome Trust’s Darwin200 activities see

Friday, 20 November 2009

The forgotten Wallace, Darwin photography and other exhibitions

A few Wellcome Trust-supported exhibitions that may be of interest to Tree of Life blog readers.

The first, for a change, does not focus on Charles Darwin. A R Wallace – The Forgotten Evolutionist is part of a project to research and promote the contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace to the theories of Natural Selection and Evolution.

At the first public reading of the Wallace and Darwin papers on Natural Selection on 1 July 1858 the two men were given equal status and recognition. However, whilst Darwin is celebrated, Wallace has faded from the popular history of scientific thought.

Working with Dr George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum, Fred Langford Edwards has explored many university and public collections of natural history, and made two extended research visits to the Amazon Basin and the Maly Archipelago. The resulting work explores the life, ideas, and surviving collections of Wallace, and the physical hardships he endured during his travels.

The exhibition is on at the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology and open until 8 February 2010.

Second is the Darwin200 Photographic Exhibition at the fabulous Horniman Museum in south London. The exhibition showcases the winners of a photography competition launched earlier this year.

It's also worth keeping an eye out for more details of the Horniman's forthcoming Evolution 2010 project, which "will tell the story of life on earth - how it evolved from simple one-cell organisms 4,000 million years ago to the huge variety of life-forms we see today. It will look at the critical importance of biodiversity to us all and the effects mankind could have on its future".

And if you're in Dublin, check out the Evolvaphone "the one and only booth that generates a musical composition from your identity in accordance with the laws of natural selection". Evolvaphone goes live at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin from Friday 27th November. Check the website for related events celebrating the big 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species next week.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

In the Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Evolution

In a special guest post, artist Franziska Schenk explains the inspiration for her exhibition ‘In the Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Evolution’, which opened at the BIAD School of Art in Birmingham this week.

My solo exhibition ‘was specifically developed to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’.

It responds to a seminal quote from the book where Darwin acknowledges that “to suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances … could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree”. Subsequently, the eye has been a contentious focus in evolutionary theory.

Twenty years on Darwin applied the same line of reasoning to eyespot development – notably drawing comparisons between evolutionary and artistic processes. In the ‘The Descent of Man’ he states “that these ornaments should have formed through the selection of many successive variations, not one of which was originally intended, … seems as incredible, as that one of Raphael’s Madonnas should have been formed by the selection of chance daubs of paint …” Of course Darwin then continues to, once again, reinforce his argument for natural selection.

With this in mind, and after careful consideration, I eventually pinpointed a rare and enigmatic moth (Erebus obscura) as inspiration – the moths outstanding, distinguishing feature being its astonishingly realistic eyespots. Mirroring the process of evolution I have employed innovative reproduction techniques to create successively modified versions – simultaneously magnifying, yet focusing in on, the subject. In an attempt to mimic the ephemeral quality of the colour, I have adapted and adopted novel bio-inspired iridescent nanoparticles. Depending on the light and viewing angle, an apparently dull brown moth transforms into a glitteringly iridescent beauty – before our very eyes.

Franziska Schenk is artist in residence at the Schools of Bioscience and Physics, University of Birmingham.

She will be giving a presentation about the exhibition at a special event at the BIAD School of Art on 24 November to coincide with the 150th anniversary.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

From the International Conference on Evolution and Society

Academic speakers from over 30 countries gathered in Alexandria, Egypt, this week for an International Conference on Evolution and Society, debating cutting edge research in evolutionary science, and the social and cultural impact of Darwinism and evolution globally.

There's been a little coverage here and there on the web. The Guardian's Riazat Butt has written an excellent series of articles on the newspaper's Comment is Free website. Nadia El-Awady, Cairo-based science journalist and President of the World Federation of Science Journalists, has penned an insightful blog post. There was also a fair bit of coverage on Twitter.