“I am inclined to believe that in nearly the same way as two men have sometimes independently hit on the very same invention, so natural selection, working for the good of each being and taking advantage of analogous variations, has sometimes modified in very nearly the same manner two parts in two organic beings, which owe but little of their structure in common to inheritance from the same ancestor.”
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
To put Darwin’s statement in other words, it looks very much as if the processes of evolution have hit upon the same solution multiple times. Continue reading →
“To suppose that the eye…could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet…”
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
The ‘yet’, in Darwin’s introduction to ‘Organs of Extreme perfection and complication’ is very telling. The ideas that follow this oft-quoted sentence remind me a little of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians Continue reading →
I met a man at a conference this year who said he has spent his whole life studying. I have no idea how he funds his insatiable appetite for new knowledge, but it seems he has spent his days going from one topic to the other, modelling himself as a renaissance man. He told me stories of people in 1970’s Germany who spent ten to fifteen years on a single undergraduate degree, often taking just one class at a time. For him, learning was of such value that it was worth approach it steadily and patiently, as a means in itself. I find this attitude a bit extreme, but it’s an interesting way of looking at life!
I recognised this perspective when I heard Richard Bellon, Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, speak recently on values in the scientific community. Bellon has been studying Victorian scientists, or – as he says on his website – ‘obsessing about men with muttonchops who obsessed over the sex lives of plants’. Continue reading →
One of the people who set Charles Darwin along the road to evolutionary theory was not a scientist, but the Governor of the Galapagos Islands, Nicholas Lawson. When Darwin and the Beagle crew landed on Charles Island, Lawson invited him to dinner. As they talked, Lawson mentioned that the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos chain was named varied noticeably between islands. In fact, said Lawson, if any tortoise was brought to him, he could identify which island it came from.
It turns out that the tortoise-naming party trick was not exclusively Lawson’s. Whether he was just repeating what the locals said, or had actually studied the tortoises personally, the fact remains that the person who set Darwin on the course of studying variation among species on the Galapagos islands was not a scientist.
John Bryant, the author of last week’s guest post, told this story during his lecture at this year’s Faraday Summer course, and I enjoyed it because Continue reading →
Last Friday the play Mr Darwin’s Tree was performed in Cambridge (one of two performances sponsored by the Faraday Institute as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas). It’s a one-man show written by Murray Watts and performed by Andrew Harrison, and was commissioned by the think-tank Theos, as part of their ‘Rescuing Darwin’ Project in 2009. It lasts 70 minutes, and I was a bit worried that – it being Friday night – I would be likely to fall asleep. But Andrew Harrison was superb as Darwin (at various ages), Darwin’s father, Darwin’s wife Emma, his Daughter Alice, the captain of the Beagle, and a number of other characters. The young Darwin’s list of pro’s and cons of getting married is hilarious! Continue reading →