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.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Darwin at the movies

No, not just Creation, but Jurassic Park, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, er, Alien.

A curious selection of films, but all part of Darwin, Evolution and the Movies, a film festival celebrating Darwin200 year. The films are on at the Lexi and the Rio and Shortwave cinemas in London between 20-28 November.

Several short films will precede the main features, including some funded by the Wellcome Trust: Darwin originals, Evolving Words and the Tree of Life among them.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Good news everyone! Evolution set for UK primary schools

Some positive news this week: the UK government is set to approve the teaching of evolution in the primary school curriculum for the first time.

According to the Guardian, UK Minister for Schools Diana Johnson confirmed in a letter to the British Humanist Association (BHA) that evolution would be included in the final draft of the new primary curriculum. Pupils will start with simple concepts of change, adaptation and natural selection illustrated by the evolution of fish to amphibians to mammals, for example.

It's certainly much needed following the depressing results of the British Council's survey a few weeks ago, which found that 60 per cent of adults in Great Britain thought creationism and intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution.

The BHA has been coordinating a campaign to get evolution on the curriculum. Its Head of Education, Andrew Copley, wrote an interesting piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site, applauding attempts to engage children with the concept at an earlier age.

"Evolution is arguably the most important concept underlying the life sciences, providing children with an understanding of it at the earliest possible age will surely help lay the foundations for a surer scientific understanding later on."

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Darwin's Inheritance at Wellcome Collection

Just a quick reminder that Wellcome Collection's Darwin Inheritance event is on tomorrow afternoon.

Event starts at 3pm. No need to book, but turn up a bit early to guarantee your place.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Communicating Darwin’s Ideas

Posted on behalf of Derek Bell

Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in the international symposium on Darwin's ideas and teaching. Communicating Darwin’s Ideas: Richness and Opportunity was held at the National Science Learning Centre (NSLC) in York. This unique event was jointly organised by the British Council, the Natural History Museum (NHM), NSLC and the Wellcome Trust (WT) as part of the Darwin celebrations programme.

Participants in the symposium came from over 20 countries as far apart as Brazil and China, South Africa and Canada, and Slovenia and Morocco. This geographical diversity was matched only by the range of professional and cultural backgrounds of those attending: scientists, teachers, science communicators university lecturers and policymakers.

The challenging programme of presentations and workshops put together by the symposium directors, Jeremy Airey (NSLC) and Honor Gay (NHM) with the support of Amy Sanders (WT), covered the science and history as well as the cultural and religious debates that surround the phenomena that are Darwin and evolution.

Driving to York for the symposium – where I was to deliver the final address – I was not sure whether the programme would work. Attempting to pull together such a wide range of perspectives was somewhat of a risk but then I guess I hadn’t allowed for the enormous pulling power of Darwin as a person and his theory of evolution by natural selection. By the time I was driving home I wondered why I had had any doubts in the first place.

In short, we had a week of stories, ideas, people and science.

The stories were of many types relating to the people, ideas and the science that surround the history, understanding and acceptance of evolution. The key point was that in trying to communicate Darwin’s ideas we need to provide an overall picture of the concepts involved. Darwin himself talked of On the Origin of Species as ‘one long argument’ emphasising the need to look at the whole picture rather than just picking off individual bits of evidence.

Ideas abounded during the week, from reclaiming science as culture to recreating Lake Malawi in a jam jar as a model of ecological niche development. Discussion, however, was never far from the central idea that in essence the concept of evolution is ‘simple’ but extremely subtle, providing great explanatory power or, as one participant put it, a “global approach to life sciences”.

People were important to Darwin. Delegates agreed that if Darwin had been alive today he would have been using email and Facebook to share and debate his ideas with his extensive social network drawn from all over the world. The debates, both scientific and cultural that began during Darwin’s time and have continued ever since, have involved a variety of fascinating characters of all faiths and none. All this underlined the feeling that Darwin and his ideas can be made accessible to everyone.

In the end, however, it is Darwin’s science that is at the heart of everything: the fascination, awe, wonder and controversy. During the week we were reminded of the importance of the traditional disciplines of biology such as taxonomy and systematics, as well as being entranced by the latest hi-tech analyses of genomics. More fundamentally, as one of the delegates said,

“Science does not have all the answers. It progresses by building on previous knowledge, is a process of gradually improving our understanding and scientists are human.”

The challenge is how do we now improve the ways in which we communicate Darwin’s ideas. The richness and opportunity are almost unlimited as are the means of communication. Whatever the context, informal or formal, in which we work this Symposium provided a us all with a wealth of material around which we can use the ideas, the people and the science of Darwin to develop powerful explanatory stories which can help us all to better understand this amazing world in which we live.

Derek Bell is Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust.

Friday, 30 October 2009

How the world saw Darwin's big idea

This week, Nature has launched what looks like a fascinating series of Opinion articles looking at how different people around the world reacted to Darwin's theory of evolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An accompanying editorial in this week's issue set's out some of the interesting ideas:

"In England... the Church reacted badly to Darwin's theory, going so far as to say that to believe it was to imperil your soul. But the notion that Darwin's ideas 'killed' God and were a threat to religion was by no means the universal response in the nineteenth century.

Darwin's theory reached the world at a time when many people were looking for explanations for social, political and racial inequalities, and in many parts of the world were wondering how to improve their lot in the face of Europe's global imperialism.

So from Egypt to India, China and Japan, many religious scholars embraced Darwin's ideas, often showing how their own schools of thought had anticipated the notion of evolution. Against the threat of Western imperialism and Western charges of 'backwardness', it was to their advantage to highlight the rationality of their creed."

The first article by Marwa Elshakryis discusses how people from Egypt to Japan used Darwin's ideas to reinvent and reignite their core philosophies and religions.

You can find all of Nature's Darwin200 coverage here.

(Not sure if all the articles are free -- I can't tell from where I'm typing this. Apologies if they are behind a paywall)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Darwin: the comedy

No, this isn't another post about intelligent design.

Comedy group The Missing Inc. brings you the nicely titled The Beagle Has Landed, "a raucous – and wildly inaccurate – account of Charles Darwin’s voyage upon HMS Beagle, some stuff about natural selection and his marriage to his cousin Emma."

From the website:

"After receiving a letter from a mysterious hooded figure, Darwin takes to the sea on HMS Beagle, commanded by the bizarre Captain Fitzroy. Following an unsuccessful attempt at entertaining his fellow seamen, Darwin encounters the ferocious and warlike Maoris of New Zealand . With time rapidly running out, the show culminates in a grossly exaggerated retelling of Darwin’s voyage as a 1950’s radio serial, aided by screams and sound effects from the audience."

If that sounds like your cup of tea, there's a show on at the Manchester Museum this Friday (30th October) as part of the Manchester Science Festival. There's another on at the Natural History Museum in London on Friday 20th November.

For further details and tickets visit the website.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Teaching creationism: Just say no

A rather depressing news item reached the Tree of Life blog this week: According to a survey, 60 per cent of adults in Great Britain think creationism and intelligent design should be taught in science lessons alongside evolution.

Overall, of 11,000 people in 10 countries surveyed, 53 per cent of respondents felt that other perspectives on evolution should also be taught. In China and South Africa, one in five thought that other perspectives – and not evolutionary theories – should be taught.

The results appear to be the latest released from the IPSOS–MORI poll commissioned by the British Council, the initial results of which I wrote about a few months ago.

Obviously the results of any survey have to be taken with a pinch of salt. But it still makes for depressing reading, coming just a few days after similarly depressing news from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's Education Bureau came under fire in February when it issued new science curriculum guidelines that appeared to allow for the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in secondary schools.

While previous guidance suggested that teachers "guide students to review the differences between scientific theories and other nonscientific modes of explanation," the new wording read: "In addition to Darwin's theory, students are encouraged to explore other explanations for evolution and the origins of life, to help illustrate the dynamic nature of scientific knowledge."

Following protests, the Bureau agreed last month to change the ambiguous language. However, Science report that they have not in fact revised the guidelines, choosing instead to issue its pro-evolution statement as an annex.

"It appears that the bureau is unwilling to confront the Christian schools openly, and the schools will probably continue to teach creationism as part of the science classes," Sun Kwok, science dean at Hong Kong University, told Science.

Worrying, worrying, worrying. But better to know about it – and address it – than sleepwalk into ignorance.

This week (25–30 October), the Wellcome Trust, along with the British Council, the National Science Learning Centre and the Natural History Museum are holding an international symposium on teaching evolution in York.

Communicating Darwin’s Ideas: Richness and Opportunity Symposium will see policymakers, curriculum bodies, public engagement and education specialists and teachers examine policy issues relating to public engagement with evolution and Darwinism in four major themes; the teaching of evolution and Darwinism in formal education; the challenges of working in differing social and cultural contexts; wider implications of teaching about the use of scientific evidence; and new experimental work for teaching evolution.

Look out for a guest post on the Symposium by Derek Bell, Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust, on this blog next week.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Lecture in Birmingham: Is Human Evolution Over?

If you're at a loose end in Birmingham this Thursday, the following event might be of interest:

The British Science Association (West Midlands) Prestige Lecture: Is Human Evolution Over?
Speaker: Professor Steve Jones, Professor of genetics and head of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London.

"Many people are convinced that somehow the human race is in decline - an idea which can be traced to the Ancient Greeks. In its modern form the notion is seen in evolutionary terms as bad genes taking over. Professor Steve Jones will argue that everything we know about human evolution (which is a lot) argues for the opposite: that at least in developed countries, and at least for the time being, human evolution has slowed down or stopped."

Date: Thursday 22 October
Time: Lecture - 7pm preceded by light refreshments and the AGM to which all are welcome
Cost: FREE but booking advisable - then scroll down to find us
Location: THINKTANK Millennium Point, Curzon Street, Birmingham, B4 7XG
Theatre - Level 2

Friday, 16 October 2009

New Scientist Origin Day competition

Tree of Life blog readers might be interested in entering this New Scientist competition, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of On Origin of the Species on 24th November.

The prize is entry for two persons to the Origin Day events (a morning debate at the Royal Institution and evening party at 50 Albemarle Street), including travel expenses to and from London, two nights stay (23rd and 24th November) at Rocco Forte's five-star Brown's Hotel and subsistence costs.

Closing date for entries is 19 October.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Darwin events at Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection is running a free event that is sure to be of interest to Tree of Life blog readers.

Darwin's Inheritance draws on Wellcome Collection's extensive range of objects, archives and illustrative materials to "contextualise the life and work of Charles Darwin and investigate the legacy of his discoveries in the 20th century."

Each session gives you a tour of Wellcome Collection's permanent galleries followed by an illustrated talk in the Wellcome Library.

There are two sessions in November, one on Thursday 5 November and another on Thursday 19 November, running for around 90 minutes from 3pm. Booking is not necessary (just turn up at the reception in good time for the start) and both events are free. For further details and more events, please see the Wellcome Collection website.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Life, with David Attenborough

The BBC's new nature documentary series debuted last night.

Life, narrated by Tree of Life favourite Sir David Attenborough, looks at "the extraordinary ends to which animals and plants go in order to survive.... featuring epic spectacles, amazing TV firsts and examples of new wildlife behaviour."

Like Planet Earth and Blue Planet before it, the programme features some stunning natural events and beautiful photography. I particularly enjoyed the clever 'fishing' tactics used by bottle-nosed dolphins and the rather brutal feeding of the leopard seal on vulnerable penguin chicks.

You can find out more about Life and watch clips (and indeed the full programme if you are in the UK) on the BBC Life website.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Beagle-inspired play at the RI and logbooks used for climate studies

Tree of Life blog readers who live or can get to London on the evening of Thursday 29 October might be interested in a one-off performance of Juliet Aykroyd's play The Ostrich and the Dolphin and the subsequent discussion at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Blurb from the RI website:

The Dolphin is Robert FitzRoy, pioneer of weather forecasting and captain of HMS Beagle. Charles Darwin, his seasick passenger, is the Ostrich. The outcome of their adventurous sea voyage between 1831-6 was Darwin's momentous account of the Origin of Species: a Theory which subverted FitzRoy's beliefs and threatened his very being.

In a 4-way dialogue between their younger and older selves, the play dramatises the FizRoy and Darwin's doomed friendship, and reveals one tragic aftermath of the great Beagle voyage.

After the play there will be a discussion of the play's themes and Darwin's ideas featuring Juliet Aykroyd, Lord Julian Hunt, former Chief Executive of the Met Office, and Professor Armand Leroi, an evolutionary developmental biologist. The discussion is chaired by Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Tickets cost £8 (£6 concessions, £4 for members of the RI) and can be booked here.

In related Beagle news, earlier this week the BBC reported that the logbooks of the HMS Beagle are to be used in retrospective climate studies, which may give researchers clues as to past climate. Hat-tip to the Beagle Project blog for this.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Darwin exhibition and talk in Manchester

A couple of events of interest coming up at the Manchester Museum.

Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist is on now until 30 August 2010. The exhibit allows you to "Discover who Charles Darwin was and the impact of his work... showcasing fantastic objects - some collected by Darwin himself - and illustrated in a graphic novel style."

It's all part of their Darwin extravaganza 'The Evolutionist'. Visit the website for more details.

The Manchester Museum is also the venue for a British Society for the History of Science public lecture by Thomas Dixon. 'Darwinism vs creationism: a very American conflict' will explain how the culture, law, and politics of the USA helped to create a confrontation between evolution and Christian creationism in the second half of the twentieth century.

The lecture is on Monday 12 October 5.30-7pm and is free to attend, no booking required.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Classic David Attenborough available online

The BBC has a new site collecting some of the best moments from its nature documentaries, showcasing some of the world's most amazing animals.

The Wildlife Finder includes a collection of clips picked out by the Tree of Life's very own Sir David Attenborough. Sir David and the gorillas, Sir David and the tortoise, Sir David and the frogs. It's enough to make one swoon....

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Creation: interactive map better than the film?

The much-anticipated Darwin film Creation, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly, opens in the UK this Friday (25 September).

The film’s official website features a nice interactive map with pins linking to a variety of Darwin facts and web resources related to Darwin’s life and work. You can also submit your own facts and links for inclusion on the map.

As for the film itself, reviews and opinions have been mixed. I went to a preview screening at the Science Museum last week and while I wasn’t bored, I didn’t think it particularly good either.

Creation seems to have problems marrying ‘Darwin the father/husband/human being’ with ‘Darwin the father of evolution’ (or, as the film put it, “the man who killed God”). The film tried very hard to be both and appeal to both the scientific audience who will flock to see this, and the more general audience that might be drawn to its more melodramatic elements.

I’ve no problems with a bit of cheese in a period drama, but if that’s what they were going for, it was somewhat distracting to have the ‘grandeur of science’ intruding every few scenes. To me, the Science versus Religion aspect felt rather heavy-handed, particularly every time Hooker/Huxley arrived for a pep talk or someone felt like they had to explain yet again how controversial Darwin’s theory was and “how it can change the world”.

The references to evolution and its ramifications would have been better voiced more subtly. In the course of the film, Darwin tells several of his classic case studies to his daughter Annie and more of this would perhaps have allowed the audience to absorb the evidence and reach their own conclusions. Instead, there’s rather a lot of spelling out and exposition that distracts from some of the more human elements of the film.

Still, it’s decently shot, with some good moments and intriguing story elements. I was interested to learn of Darwin’s belief in hydrotherapy, particularly with a doctor pointing out how “illogical” the theory behind it was (although this was at a time when mercury was still a commonly prescribed treatment…). And while not everyone will agree with the portrayal of Darwin as a man driven mad by grief, it did allow for some of the more entertaining and stylish parts of the film. It was good to see Darwin depicted pre-beard for once too.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re enough of a Darwin/evolution nerd to want to see the film anyway. Am I being harsh? Did you actually really enjoy it? Did Annie Darwin irritate you as much as she did me? Please share your opinions in the comments.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Darwin: the ballet

For something completely different you might like to attend what sounds like a very ambitious, but intriguing, dance interpretation of Darwin's theories.

The Rambert Dance Company will soon begin a UK tour of its ballet, Comedy of Change, "combining the fascinating and exuberant worlds of evolution and dance". The Guardian has an in-depth feature article on the ballet.

Themes of the performance include avian intelligence (featuring an "avian tango") and an interpretation of the Darwinian concept of time ("In nature, very different time cycles interact. A rock appears to be static, when, in fact, it's changing over a long period of time. The blades of grass growing between the rocks have a much faster life cycle, while the bird pecking at the grass displays a frantic degree of energy, activity and change," says the ballet's music composer Julian Anderson).

Other underlying themes include "the concept that beauty, intelligence, art and the religious impulse are fundamental in the battle for survival; and that the process of evolution has, for better or worse, elevated the human race to the highest species on the planet," says Marc Baldwin, who choreographed Comedy of Change.

Baldwin came up with the ballet after an approach from his friend Stephen Keynes, great-grandson of Charles Darwin and founder of the Darwin Trust. I wonder if his grandfather was a ballet fan?

Comedy for Change starts in Plymouth on 16 September and will tour throughout the UK. Visit the Rambert website for more details.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Darwin Centre opens at the Natural History Museum

The Attenborough Studio at the Darwin Centre

Today sees the grand opening of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London.

The Wellcome Trust provided the first funding to the £78 million, state-of-the-art research facility, which invites visitors to come and watch scientists working, as well as find out more about the latest insights into the natural world.

Amongst the highlights are the 65 metre long, eight storey concrete 'Cocoon', housing millions of insect and plant specimens, as well as 200 of the museum's scientists.

Other features include the Attenborough Studio, a state-of-the-art communication centre housing innovative technology, Museum specimens, live animals, natural history film footage and scientists. Named after the Tree of Life’s very own Sir David Attenborough, the Studio promises an inspiring programme of free daily films and live events.

For more information about the Darwin Centre, please visit the website.

A taster of photos from the press pack (all images © 2009 Natural History Museum, London):

Visitors in the Looking Closer space in Cocoon

Visitors at the Decoding DNA space in Cocoon

The Attenborough Studio

Visitors in Cocoon

The Climate Change Wall in the Darwin Centre

Visitors in Cocoon

The entrance hall and Cocoon

Exterior of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History
Museum, London

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The evolution of On the Origin of Species

Take a look at this lovely annotated (at least on the website itself) graphic showing how On the Origin of Species changed over the course of several editions.

As the website points out, the book we think of did not arrive with the first edition but changed with subsequent revisions and ideas added in later versions, including the addition of the phrase "survival of the fittest".

Using the six editions as a guide, we can see the unfolding and clarification of Darwin's ideas as he sought to further develop his theory during his lifetime.

The graphic itself plays through to show which bits were added in which edition, with the final piece bearing an uncanny resemblance to DNA sequencing lanes.

The project is the brainchild of Ben Fry, director of Seed Visualization and its Phyllotaxis Lab, a design laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts focused on understanding complex data.

Many thanks to @mocost for tipping us off to the link.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Journalists: win a trip to an evolution conference in Egypt

The British Council's Darwin Now initiative, in association with the World Federation of Science Journalists, is funding a travel award for journalists to attend an international conference on Evolution and Society (14-16 November) in Alexandria, Egypt.

The competition is open to journalists from all world regions working in print, TV, radio or online. Deadline is next Friday, 18th September 2009.

For further details, please see the website.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The evolution of cooperation

There's an excellent feature article by Elizabeth Pennisi in this week's issue of Science on the evolution of cooperation.

The essay, the ninth in Science's series of essays commemorating Darwin200 year (see their Origins blog for more), is a fascinating account of the many theories behind this part of evolutionary science. It’s an incredibly multi-disciplinary topic, encompassing Darwin’s original theories, evolutionary psychology, economics and microbiology.

I realise the article is probably behind a paywall for many of you, so here are a few highlights that I found interesting:

- Cooperation has creates an evolutionary conundrum: if natural selection favours survival of the fittest, why would one individual help another at a cost to itself?

- There are many examples of cooperation and sacrifice in nature, from nitrogen-fixing bacteria in plants to worker ants who feed their queen’s offspring.

- Martin Nowak of Harvard University calls cooperation the “third pillar of evolution” after mutation and natural selection. “Cooperation leads to integration, and integration to the complexity we see in modern life.”

- Darwin suggested that that natural selection might favour families, and today’s researchers agree that an inclination to help relatives progeny, who carry some of the same genes, could be part of the explanation, but not all. Humans help out non-relatives, for example.

- Robert Trivers of Rutgers University suggests that reciprocal altruism – tit for tat – is likely to play a part. But in large groups the chances of re-encountering someone are small, and thus so are the chances of receiving reward.

- Mathematical models by Nowak and Karl Sigmund of the University of Vienna in 1998 suggest that reputations are also important. A person with a reputation for helping gets help, even from someone who has not benefited directly from that person in the past.

- Cheaters are likely to evolve because they will have an edge over individuals who spend energy helping others. This threatens the stability of any cooperative venture.

- Economist Ernst Fehr, of the University of Zurich, theorises that punishment plays a key role in cooperation, with the mere threat of it enough to inhibit cheaters. Others have downplayed the idea, pointing out long-term negative effects, such as escalating interpersonal conflict.

- Scientists are getting further understanding of cooperation from studying microorganisms. For example, Pseudomonas bacteria secrete helpful biochemicals such as virulence factors and nutrient-scavenging molecules, when they sense other Pseudomonas nearby.

- When Pseudomonas colonies are threatened by mutated ‘cheater’ bacteria, they cause far less harm to the mice they infect because the cheaters disrupt the cooperative network. This may offer a new way to treat bacterial infections.

- Evolutionary forces may act on several levels. Competition between groups can help foster cooperation within them. Darwin noticed this in tribal groups and there is further evidence from modern military history – groups that are more likely to cooperate are more likely to be successful.

Do check out the full article if you can. There's also an interview on the subject with the author on Science's free-to-download podcast.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Dawkins in person

Further to last week's post on Richard Dawkins' new evolution book, The Greatest Show on Earth, the man himself will be putting in a few appearances over the next few months to promote it.

In conversation with James Harding, Editor of The Times
Wednesday 16 September
The Logan Hall, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London.

In conversation with Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times
Wednesday 23 September
Royal Northern College of Music, 124 Oxford Road, Manchester

Friday Evening Talk at the V&A
Tuesday 24 November
V&A, South Kensington, London

More events on Dawkins' official website.

Thanks to the Londonist for the initial tip.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Free education materials from the British Council

The British Council have posted a range of downloadable educational materials for schools to "help students to look at the world around them and to see how Darwin's legacy lives on today."

The resources are part of the Council's Darwin Now programme. They detail a range of activities, with worksheets and instructions free to access and download. Amongst them is an adapted version of the 'I'm a worm, get me out of here!' exercise from the Wellcome Trust's Survival Rivals initiative for schools.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Extracts from Richard Dawkins' new book in The Times

Celebrated science writer and Darwin-supporter Richard Dawkins has a new book, due out in September, on that favourite topic of his, evolution.

The Greatest Show on Earth presents as much evidence for evolutionary theory as he can lay his hands on. Here's a blurb from his website:
Richard Dawkins takes on creationists, including followers of 'Intelligent Design' and all those who question the fact of evolution through natural selection.

Like a detective arriving on the scene of a crime, he sifts through fascinating layers of scientific facts and disciplines to build a cast-iron case: from the living examples of natural selection in birds and insects; the 'time clocks' of trees and radioactive dating that calibrate a timescale for evolution; the fossil record and the traces of our earliest ancestors; to confirmation from molecular biology and genetics.

All of this, and much more, bears witness to the truth of evolution. "The Greatest Show on Earth" comes at a critical time: systematic opposition to the fact of evolution is now flourishing as never before, especially in America. In Britain and elsewhere in the world, teachers witness insidious attempts to undermine the status of science in their classrooms. Richard Dawkins provides unequivocal evidence that boldly and comprehensively rebuts such nonsense.

Anyway, my main reason for posting is that The Times newspaper is serialising extracts from the book every day this week. Here are links to extracts from the first and second chapters. You can also find links to these on Check either that or the Times website for further extracts throughout the week.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

"Darwin was wrong": Darwin in the headlines

“Charles Darwin was wrong,” proclaimed a handful of news stories last week.

It all stemmed from a rather misleading sentence in this press release from Duke University about a paper looking at the evolution of the appendix. According to the release, Darwin was wrong because he 'claimed' that the appendix was a useless organ.

I came across this via a blog post by PZ Myers over on the Pharyngula blog. Myers rightly points out the flaws of the press release (not least that Darwin didn't actually say the appendix was useless, and only mentioned it in passing once in any of his works). In a separate post he does an excellent analysis of the paper itself, which, as he points out is actually quite interesting.

But back to that press release.

“Writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Duke scientists and collaborators from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University conclude that Charles Darwin was wrong: The appendix is a whole lot more than an evolutionary remnant. Not only does it appear in nature much more frequently than previously acknowledged, but it has been around much longer than anyone had suspected.”

I can imagine this was enough to get creationists excited. Unfortunately, it’s not really what the scientists are saying. Read a bit further along and you’ll find Dr William Parker, one of the scientists on the study, quoted as saying:

"Darwin simply didn't have access to the information we have… If Darwin had been aware of the species that have an appendix attached to a large cecum, and if he had known about the widespread nature of the appendix, he probably would not have thought of the appendix as a vestige of evolution."

Dr Parker also points out that some of the recent conclusions about the appendix follow cultural changes that took place long after Darwin wrote his books.

"We didn't really have a good understanding of that principle until the mid 1980's," Parker said. "Even more importantly, Darwin had no way of knowing that the function of the appendix could be rendered obsolete by cultural changes that included widespread use of sewer systems and clean drinking water."

All in all, as PZ Myers says, it’s an awful press release from the Duke University media office, with the sensationalist statement up top totally contradicting with what is in the rest of the text.

It reminded me of a New Scientist cover earlier this year, which proclaimed that Darwin’s Tree of Life was wrong (what the actual article said was that it was more of a ‘bush’ or ‘thicket’ than a well-pruned tree). That similarly grabbed a few headlines and prompted some angry outcries from scientists (read, again, PZ Myers, pointing out Roger Highfield’s editorial that seems to be at odds with his cover headline).

The whole ‘misleading headlines and sensationalist media’ debate is of course much larger than just Charles Darwin. In Darwin200 year, and with science vs religion still a majorly controversial topic in the United States and increasingly elsewhere as well, it’s all too easy to sell papers off the back of “Darwin was wrong” headlines. I guess it was inevitable that such headlines would appear, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Incidentally, if you want to see the appendix paper covered right, have a look at Steve Mirsky's bit for the Scientific American podcast.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

New content added to the Tree of Life website

The Tree of Life blog has a new home! It is now integrated within the new look Tree of Life website.

In fact, the whole Tree of Life website is growing, with exciting new resources to help you get more out of the video animation and the accompanying interactive.

- The updated interactive now incorporates more living things and , now includes many plants, such the orchid, fly agaric and oak tree.

- For teachers and students, we have commissioned a series of curriculum matched lesson plans and worksheets for three key age groups: 11-14, 14-16 and 16-19.

- For scientists interested in evolution and phylogeny, there are links to the latest research on the topics.

- If you're interested in creating your own tree by editing the XML files, find out more by visiting the scientific resources section of the site.

- In addition to the XML files, we’ve made all the files from which the tree is built – including image, video and files – freely and easily available to edit and use under the terms of our Creative Commons licence.

And of course, the Tree of Life blog will continue to keep you up-to-date with the latest news and comment on Darwin and evolution.

You can access all this and more at the Tree of Life website.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Darwin the musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

If you're lucky enough to be attending the Edinburgh Festival this month, you may wish to check out this Fringe offering: 'The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection or the Survival of (R)evolutionary Theories in the Face of Scientific and Ecclesiastical Objections: Being a Musical Comedy About Charles Darwin (1809-1882)'.

As well as having an incredibly long title, this production from the Tangram Theatre Company is notable for being one of the only musicals about Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species.

I'm told that it contains possibly the only musical song about barnacles, as well as some history of science and a condensed voyage of the Beagle.

The show lasts 58 minutes and is on at the Pleasance Courtyard. Times and tickets available from the Fringe website, as well as some audience reviews.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Tree of Life wins video award

The Tree of Life has won an award!

The Wellcome Trust-funded animation for the Tree of Life, as featured in the BBC documentary fo the same name, won the Judges' Choice award in the Institutional Category of The Scientist Video Awards.

Judge David Kirby said, "By far this was the best video of all the submissions. The visuals were beautiful, the narrator served as a storyteller not as a lecturer, and the music complimented the piece."

Judge Kristen Sanford said, "Beautiful graphics! Well-written script conveyed info in a clear, concise, engaging manner."

Many thanks to judges and The Scientist for the award and congratulations to the Wellcome Trust Tree of Life team.

And finally, the winning video again (if you hadn't already seen it).

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Darwin and his women

Tuesday's broadcast of the BBC Radio 4 programme Woman's Hour had a short section on how Darwin's relationships with women may have affected his great works.

The programme is still available to listen again until the end of the week. Skip to the 12m25s mark.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Hip Hop and Singing Darwin

Evolution like you've never heard it before. This is a promo for the Rap Guide to Evolution, a show by Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman that mashes up popular rap tunes with lyrics about the history and understanding of evolutionary theory.

The show has earned rave reviews and is currently touring the UK. More information is available from Baba's website.

If rap isn't your thing, you may prefer Richard Milner, a historian of science who has for over ten years been writing and performing songs about Darwin and evolution. His one-man musical Charles Darwin: Live & In Concert has been performed all over the world, including at the Edinburgh Festival and the Natural History Museum in London. Richard Dawkins is said to be a fan.

You can watch a video of his work (and order a CD) over on Milner's website.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Darwin Underground: a story in 12 poems

One of the more bizarre, but eloquent, additions to the Darwin celebrations this year is Darwin Underground: 12 canto poems written by Robert Whittle.

The poems imagine Darwin reappearing in London in 2009. As the story progresses, he learns how science has developed, its portrayal in the media and how it is viewed by members of the public and government. Along the way he becomes embroiled in a public debate over the creation of synthetic cells and is subject to an investigation by the police.

If you’re not used to canto poems (which I’m certainly not) it’s a tough read at first, but the story is very imaginative and encompasses so many of the issues affecting science today: from government legislation to science communication (TV in particular), the biotech industry and public perceptions. It also highlights just how much modern science can be linked to Darwin’s theories.

Update 29/7/09 Added a direct link to the Darwin Underground website

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Darwin: the graphic novel

Ever wondered what Darwin would look like in comic form? Wonder no longer.

Darwin: a Graphic Biography is a free 100-page comic by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne published as part of the Lost World Read 2009 project. It covers, as the name suggests, all the major events in Darwin’s life – from his youth, to the Beagle voyage and writing On the Origin of Species – in beautifully illustrated form.

Some of the pages are available to view on Flickr.

For more information, read Karen James post over at the excellent Beagle Project blog (where I first heard of this).

Not sure if there are still copies available (I am coming to this news rather late… ^^;) but if so, they are only available via downloadable coupon in a few regions (see Simon Gurr’s website for details)

Image credit: Flickr/Simon_Gurr

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Live-tweeting from the Cambridge Darwin Festival

Anyone interested in, but can't get to, the Cambridge Darwin Festival (or indeed, anyone already there) should check out the live-tweets on Twitter.

Karen James, from the Natural History Museum and the Darwin Beagle Project, and others are sharing snippets and thoughts from all of the conference sessions.

Just follow the hashtag #DarwinFest

Survey shows broad acceptance of evolution, with some worries

Last week, the British Council released the results of a survey it had commissioned, showing broad international acceptance for the theory of evolution.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI and part of the Council’s Darwin Now project, questioned over ten thousand adults from ten countries about their knowledge and opinions on Darwin and his theory.

The results showed that 70 per cent of participants had heard of Darwin and most knew at least a little about the theory of evolution.

The highest level of knowledge was in Great Britain and the US (71 per cent in both), followed by Mexico (68 per cent), Argentina (65 per cent), China (54 per cent) and Russia (53 per cent).

However, in Egypt, 62 per cent of adults said they had never heard of Darwin or evolution – a statistic that reached a staggering 73 per cent in South Africa.

Other results:

- Most people (56 per cent, all countries) who had heard of Charles Darwin and evolution agreed that “enough scientific evidence exists to support Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution”.

- However, less than half of those surveyed in Russia (48 per cent), South Africa (42 per cent), the US (41 per cent), and Egypt (25 per cent) agreed with the statement.

- Asked if “it is possible to believe in a God and still hold the view that life on Earth, including human life, evolved over time as a result of natural selection”, people in India agreed most (85 per cent). This was followed by Mexico (65 per cent), Argentina (62 per cent), South Africa (54 per cent), Great Britain (54 per cent), Russia (54 per cent), US (53 per cent), Spain (46 per cent), Egypt (45 per cent) and China (39 per cent).

More specific results for Great Britain:

- 54 per cent of British participants believe it is possible to believe in a God and evolution.

- Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of those surveyed in London believe in creationism. Twenty per cent of London participants said they had never heard of Charles Darwin or evolution (though thankfully 48 per cent agreed that there was enough scientific evidence to support evolutionary theory).

- Up North, 23 per cent said they have no understanding of evolutionary theory.

- However, in each region of Great Britain, the vast majority of people (74-87 per cent) were aware of evolution and Darwin, even though, generally, only half of the participants in each region thought they had a “good” or “fairly good” understanding of how evolution works.

I don’t have the complete data in front of me, so I can’t tell how many people were surveyed in each region (which could skew the stats). However, I do find the results generally encouraging (even if the London results are a little bit worrying).

I am wondering though, whether the ‘understanding of evolutionary theory’ result is a worrying statistic or not. Is ~50 per cent good or bad? Because really, if only half the people feel they have a "fairly good" understand the concept, it’s no wonder there are still many who dismiss it out of hand. Indeed, the press release from the British Council points out that "one-in-five British adults surveyed had not spent any time thinking about the origins of species and life on earth" (again though, I don’t have the data to work out how they came to that statistic).

The British Council is running another, larger survey, for the general public to volunteer their opinions, which they hope will create the largest data set ever gathered on the public’s understanding of evolution. To take part visit the website.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Darwin Film Festival in Cambridge

Readers in, or who can get to, Cambridge in July may be interested in the Darwin-related film season taking place at the Cambridge Picturehouse cinema.

Coinciding with the Darwin 2009 Festival at the University of Cambridge (and, of course, to celebrate the Darwin200 anniversary), the film season groups together a seemingly random mix of documentaries, blockbusters and art films, with a loose relation to evolution.

Film's on show include the documentary Darwin's Nightmare, about the disastrous introduction of Nile Perch fish to Lake Victoria in Africa, which completely unbalanced the ecosystem. Elsewhere there's the like's of Danny Boyle's Sci-Fi epic Sunshine and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (the latter's ape-bone scene perhaps one of the most iconic evolution montages in cinema history). And, curiously, The Golden Compass, the adaptation of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Darwin Endless forms - exhibition and podcast

The Darwin Endless Forms exhibition explores Darwin's interest in the visual arts, alongside some of the artistic responses to his ideas in the later 19th century.

The exhibition, supported by the Wellcome Trust as part of its Darwin200 activities, opens this week at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and runs until October. Featuring works by Turner, Degas, Monet and C├ęzanne it looks at the impact of the theory of evolution upon artists of the late nineteenth century, offering "an intriguing new perspective on the cultural resonance of Darwin’s theories."

The exhibition is accompanied by a series of podcasts exploring Darwin's life, work and legacy. The first two looked at Darwin's fascination with Geology and his student days at Christ College Cambridge. You can download and watch the audio and video files here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Darwin: the movie: the trailer

Last week the Telegraph unveiled the trailer for the upcoming film Creation, about Darwin's struggle with his scientific findings and religious background. According to the Telegraph, "It explores the relationship between Darwin and his daughter Annie whose early death deeply affected him and his views on religion."

Based on the book Annie’s Box: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, the film stars Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin and his real-life wife Jennifer Connolly as Emma Darwin. It is scheduled for a September release in cinemas.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin, like all men of science at the time, wrote a lot of letters, formulating numerous ideas through correspondence with his scientific peers. The good news for Darwin fans is that all those letters are being made available on the web through an ambitious project.

The Darwin Correspondence Project, run by the Cambridge University Library and part-funded by the Wellcome Trust, aims to annotate and transcribe Darwin’s letters, making them freely available online. Its scope and aims are examined by Penny Bailey in a feature article for the Wellcome Trust website.

The Project features letters during his writing of 'On the Origin of Species', as well as correspondence from his time on the HMS Beagle. As well as Darwin's own writings, the Project team have also taken the time to locate, scan and annotate letters written to Darwin by other scientists and academics.

As Professor Jim Second, who leads the project from the Cambridge University Library, says, "Darwin depended on a much wider network of correspondence - including professional scientists, schoolteachers, colonial settlers, plant and animal breeders, missionaries and even clerics - to formulate his ideas. Science is a dialogue, and the letters show it in action."

The letters give insight into the history of evolutionary theory, and indeed science, at the time, as well as demonstrating just how good Darwin was at cajoling interest and support from others.

So far, the Project has located around 15,000 letters exchanged by Darwin and his correspondents. Visitors to the Project website can currently read the full texts of over 5000 letters and find information on the remainder using a searchable calendar and database. There are also extensive supporting materials for teachers and researchers, notably on ecological science and the relations between science and religious belief.

Image: Letter from Charles Darwin to Dr.George E.Shuttleworth, Medical Superintendent, Royal Albert Ayslum, Lancaster concerning the children of first cousins. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Darwin: the cake

Yes, you read that right. Darwin fans can have their cake, but would you want to eat such a beautiful, and well thought out piece?

This cake was part of a the Bake a Cake for Darwin contest in the Vancouver Evolution Festival, which took place in February. Darwin would have been 200 this year, and rightly deserves a selection of the most thoughtful birthday cakes!

The cake pictured goes far beyond mere aesthetics – it has symbolic value too. The layers represent “the five Kingdoms according to Whittaker” with Monera a probiotic yogurt cake, Protista a green kelp diatom cake, Fungi a polish yeast cake, Plantae a zucchini cake and Animalia a honey cake.

The cake is “shaped as a pyramid embodying the dynamic and complex trophic interactions within ecosystems and also symbolizing to the volcanic Galapagos Islands where Darwin travelled and developed his evolutionary and ecological theories”. Fissures in the layers signify plate tectonics and Darwin’s interest in geography.

The bakers have topped this off with a nest, white chocolate egg and finch (“representing Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection”), a mini SS Beagle and a model of Gus the Giant Tortoise.

More details (and references) can be found at the Science Creative Quarterly.

Image credit: © Vancouver Evolution Festival

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

User testers needed for new Tree of Life website

We are currently in the process of updating the Wellcome Tree of Life website with a new architecture, integrating our previous content.

We now need a few people to help test the new site. This would require an hour or so of your time at a central London location on Thursday or Friday of next week (28 and 29 May 2009). A range of time-slots is available with all currently open.

If you are interested please send an email to publishing [at]

Darwinius: the MISSING LINK!!!(?)

The big story breaking today is a newly discovered fossil, Darwinius masillae (they had to really, given that it is Darwin year), that headlines have proclaimed the ‘missing link’ in evolution that scientists have been searching for.

Darwinius, or 'Ida' as she has affectionately been named by researchers, is a 47 million year old fossil of a creature resembling a lemur. Beautifully preserved, it is possible to make out detail as far as the outline of its fur and even the contents of its last meal, digesting in its stomach! The full details are published in the open access journal PLoS ONE (and a round of applause all round to the researchers for making such an important paper freely available).

The researchers are confident this is a major discovery in evolution research, but there is much debate as to how important it is, and how right it is to publicise this on the back of hyped ‘missing link’ headlines. Nevertheless, it may well provide key insights into a previously blank part of the tree of life and, as Sir David Attenborough excitedly says (with BBC documentary coming soon):

“To anybody who's interested in evolution, and the ultimate demonstration of the truth of evolution – the fact of evolution – this is a key discovery.”

"It is really delightful and exciting and appropriate that 150 years after Darwin first tentatively put forward the proposition that human beings were part of the rest of animal life, that here at last we have the link which connects us directly ... Darwin would have been thrilled."

Image: Darwinius masillae © 2009 Franzen et al

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Darwin 2009 Anniversary Festival

If you’re around, or fancy a visit to, Cambridge in July, the University of Cambridge will be running an entire festival dedicated to Darwin and evolution.

The Darwin 2009 Anniversary Festival
Sunday 5 – Friday 10 July 2009

Celebrating the Darwin bicentenary, the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge, the festival is a mix of "science, society, literature, history, philosophy, theology, art and music arising from the writings, life and times of Charles Darwin presented through talks, discussions, performances, workshops, exhibitions and tours".

There are some wonderful events and stellar guests. Highlights include:
  • Tuesday July 7th 2009 19:30 Sir Terry Pratchett and Professor Jack Cohen discuss their recent book The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch
  • Wednesday July 8th 2009 19:30 Dame AS Byatt, Gillian Beer, Ian McEwan and David Amigoni discuss Darwin in Fiction
  • Friday July 10th 2009 20:00 Recital: Life Laughs Onward - Darwin Poetry and Music with Susan Gritton (soprano), Ian Burnside (piano) and Ruth Padel (poet).
For further details, prices and booking instructions, please visit the website.