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.

1 comment:

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