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.