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Tuesday, November 3, 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.

Posted by Mun-Keat Looi at 12:27 PM 1 Comments Make a comment
Friday, October 30, 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)

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Wednesday, October 28, 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.

Posted by Mun-Keat Looi at 3:39 PM 1 Comments Make a comment
Tuesday, October 27, 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.

Posted by Mun-Keat Looi at 11:33 AM 0 Comments Make a comment
Tuesday, October 20, 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 - www.thinktank.ac/adult then scroll down to find us
Location: THINKTANK Millennium Point, Curzon Street, Birmingham, B4 7XG
Theatre - Level 2


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Friday, October 16, 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.

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Thursday, October 15, 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.

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Tuesday, October 13, 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.

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Thursday, October 8, 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.

Posted by Mun-Keat Looi at 2:03 PM 3 Comments Make a comment
Thursday, October 1, 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.

Posted by Mun-Keat Looi at 1:42 PM 0 Comments Make a comment

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