31 December 2008

Darwin on the BBC

The BBC are marking Darwin's bicentenary and the Origin's one-and-a-half centenary with a Darwin Season 2009:
To mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of 'On the Origin of Species', the BBC is airing a season of landmark TV and radio programmes.

Simple yet profound, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most influential scientific ideas ever conceived. Even today, its conclusions and implications impact religion, politics, economics and art as well as our understanding of the natural world.

David Attenborough, Andrew Marr, Armand Leroi and Melyvn Bragg are among the key names who will explore Darwin's extraordinary life and work.
Radio 4 kicks the season off with In Our Time presented by Melvin Bragg:
9.00am Monday 5 January - Thursday 9 January 2009

Melvyn Bragg looks back over Charles Darwin’s life and asks why Darwin’s writing remains such a profound influence on our understanding of the natural world. The series describes Darwin's education at Edinburgh and Cambridge. It discusses how the voyage on the Beagle influenced the longer-term development of Darwin’s ideas about evolution and goes on to grapple with what Darwin meant by 'evolution by natural selection'. The series concludes with Darwin's later years. Melvyn reviews his final publications and stresses the importance of his enormous scientific and personal correspondence.

As Melvyn develops his own ideas about Darwin, he talks to academics and scientists, all of whom have specialist knowledge of Darwin’s life and work. These include biographer James Moore, biologist Steve Jones, paleobiologist David Norman, librarians Judith Magee and Colin Higgins, garden curator Nick Biddle, zoologist Jenny Clack and botanists Johannes Vogel and Sandy Knapp. Melvyn also talks to Jim Secord and Alison Pearn, both from the Darwin Correspondence Project.

29 December 2008

And they're off!

A great deal will be written about Darwin over the next year, and The Guardian pitches in today telling us that he must not be hijacked by New Atheists. Much wil be written over the next year, but here at the Beagle Project we intend to provide a legacy to the 2009 year of activities. A new Beagle sailing the world will keep the talk, the writing, the ideas and enthusiasm alive long after the words have been forgotten, so hot the donate buttons, or contact us to discuss sponsoring.

Anyone listening to BBC Radio 4 over Christmas would have done well to listen to "With Great Pleasure at Christmas" in which bestselling author and creator of Discworld Terry Pratchett introduced to a live audience some of his favourite books and poetry. The quote with which he closed the show? The final paragraph of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

27 December 2008

177 Years Ago Today

After having been twice driven back by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty's ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831.

As opening lines to great adventure stories go, it's one of the best. One-hundred and seventy-seven years ago today, Charles Darwin set sail on a journey which would forever change the way in which we see our world.

The world needs more HMS Beagles.

18 December 2008

A very important holiday annoucement from Chas Darwin

We've been neglecting for far too long our felt friend Mr. Chas Darwin, handmade by Miss Prism of the capacious handbag and auctioned by same in support of The Beagle Project. We aim to rectify this ghastly omission beginning today, starting with this very important holiday announcement from Mr. Darwin from his new home in Canada:

Shop here or even better yet donate to the project in honour of a friend or loved one who is a fan Darwin and/or the Beagle. Here is just a smattering of our wares with original artwork very kindly provided by John Chancellor (courtesy Gordon Chancellor), Diana Sudyka and Claudia Myatt:

16 December 2008

Captain Fitzroy....

Alfred Russel Wallace hath a Rottweiler. Darwin obviously had a Beagle but the Beagle had a captain, Robert Fitzroy.

Fitzroy was 26 when he was given orders to take Beagle around the world and the fact that Darwin arrived in Falmouth in once piece with notebooks full of Good Things is in no small part due to Fitzroy's powers of command and seamanship. Some of the conditions he sailed through would make most modern sailors wet their oilskins from the inside.
2009 is Darwin's year, but as a sailor I don't want this great sailor forgotten in the welter of Darwiniana. Sailors have him to thank for pioneering weather forecasting using barometric pressure and he became the founding head of what has become the Meteorological Office. I suspect he saved a lot of seafarer's lives.

A Fitzroy page was on the to-do list, but an email from science author John Gribben has prompted me to get on with it. It will be posted soon.

Darwin's Sacred Cause...

Jim Moore is a friend of the Beagle Project and his much-read biography of Darwin (written with Adrian Desmond) is always within arm's reach here at the Beagle Project's Yorkshire outpost. (Beside-the-desk bookshelf, right, Darwin's biog in good company). The Darwin duo are back with another book and this one looks a corker. From Penguin's blurb:
"This book, by Darwin's most celebrated modern biographers, gives a completely new explanation of why he came to his shattering theories about human origins. Until now, Desmond and Moore argue, the source of the moral fire which gives such intensity and urgency to Darwin's ideas has gone unnoticed. By examining minutely Darwin's manuscripts and correspondence (published and unpublished) and covert notebooks, where many of the clues lie, they show that the key to unlocking the mystery of how such an ostensibly conservative man could hold views which his contemporaries considered both radical and bestial, lay in his utter detestation of slavery. Darwin's Sacred Cause will be one of the major contributions to the worldwide Darwin anniversary celebrations in 2009."
Going on previous Moore and Desmond reading it'll be good. The link has an interview with the authors and the book is out on 29th January.

13 December 2008

World Wide Wallace

Wallace's Rottweiler aka George Beccalloni tells me that The Wallace Fund is producing ~20 of these lovely 55 cm diameter plaques commemorating Alfred Russel Wallace's discovery (independent of Darwin) of evolution by natural selection.

The plaques are replicas of an original at the Natural History Museum in London featuring a profile of Wallace made while he was still alive.

The Wallace Fund plans is to donate the plaques to "a wide variety of organisations worldwide which have an interest in Wallace" (see list below).

Most exciting of all, The Wallace Fund will be giving one plaque away "to a public organisation somewhere in the world which has an especial interest in Wallace's life and work".

For more information about the plaque, how to apply for the free plaque and about Alfred Russel Wallace in general, please visit The Alfred Russel Wallace Website.

Organisations to receive Wallace plaques:



Subsidised plaques will be presented to:

Way more detail at The Alfred Russel Wallace Website.

7 December 2008

Emma Darwin's recipe book "revived and illustrated"

I'm a big fan of celebrating the humanity of our science heroes, as it helps to dampen the unfortunate tendency towards hero worship exhibited by people who otherwise count themselves rationalists.

Don't get me wrong; trumpeting the contributions of great scientists to our civilasation* civilisation from the rooftops is absolutely appropriate. What I don't like is when this crosses into the absurd and we do things like go into paroxysms of religious veneration over their artefacts ('Oooo, Newton's fingernail clippings! Squeeee!!!') that would make their owners blush if not grab us by the shoulders and tell us to knock it off already with our genuflecting.

Don't get me wrong (part 2); these artefacts can be really good for bringing their owners' humanity home to us in a visceral way (as I recently experienced in the NHM'S Darwin exhibition which is chock full of Darwin's personal belongings), and they also serve a very important purpose in historical scholarship. Let's just not get silly about it, 'kay?

In the case of Darwin, this is especially important because when people treat his name or image as somehow sacred for its own sake, it's not only inappropriate (see Thomas Henry Huxley's views on the matter here), but it underscores one of the creationists' favourite lines, 'Darwinism is a religion'. Sure, the Onion recently used Darwinism to parody the absurdity of worshipping religious relics but I am pretty sure I also detected a hint of self-parody there.

Putting our science heroes on too high a pedestal also reinforces the harmful idea that 'we' (mere mortals) can't hope to attain such intellectual greatness as someone like Darwin. It would be terrible to put the Darwins of tomorrow off their science by making them think they have absolutely no hope of ever measuring up.

As such, accounts of Darwin's youth, his faults and foibles, his personal relationships, his illnesses and especially the routines of daily life are most welcome. And so, as a prime example of the latter, I give you Mrs. Charles Darwin's Recipe Book: Revived and Illustrated with a preface by acclaimed Darwin biographer Janet Browne ~

...which seems to me like it might make a pretty good stocking stuffer for those culinary-minded Darwin worshippers fans out there.

*how embarrassing (thanks, Richard)

3 December 2008

Darwin's first night on the Beagle

One-hundred and seventy-seven years ago tonight, Charles Darwin spent his first night aboard HMS Beagle as she lay at anchor in Barnet Pool, Plymouth. The following morning, he recorded the experience in his new diary:

I am writing this for the first time on board, it is now about one oclock & I intend sleeping in my hammock. — I did so last night & experienced a most ludicrous difficulty in getting into it; my great fault of jockeyship was in trying to put my legs in first. The hammock being suspended, I thus only succeded in pushing [it] away without making any progress in inserting my own body. — The correct method is to sit accurately in centre of bed, then give yourself a dexterous twist & your head & feet come into their respective places.— After a little time I daresay I shall, like others, find it very comfortable. — I have spent the day partly on board & partly with my brother: in the evening, Cap King & son, Stokes, my brother & myself dined with Cap FitzRoy. —

In the morning the ship rolled a good deal, but I did not feel uncomfortable; this gives me great hopes of escaping sea sickness. — I find others trust in the same weak support. — May we not be confounded. — It is very pleasant talking with officer on Watch at night — every thing is so quiet & still, nothing interrupts the silence but the half hour bells. — I will now go & wish Stuart (officer on duty) good night & then for practising my skill in vaulting into my hammock. —

His concerns about sea sickness turned out very well founded.

Russians imagine Darwin

Tip of the bowler hat to Adrian Thysse at Evolving Complexity for bringing our attention to a new exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery called "Dreams of Science: The Life of Charles Darwin in the Russian Imagination".

It's only on through 16 Jan 2009 and it seems worth a visit not least for the chance to view, up close, what appear to be some disturbingly brooding depictions of scenes from Darwin's life (there are low res thumbnails in a pdf you can download from the website, a selection of which I've copied and pasted at the bottom of this post) as well as various other 18th and 19th century sceintists who influenced Darwin.

The paintings are on loan from the collection of the State Darwin Museum in Moscow; who knew that existed? I sure didn't, and neither did Adrian. The exerpt that Adrian gives us from the museum's website includes this interesting tidbit: 'One can literally say that Russia became a second fatherland for the Darwinism.'
*cue creationist quote-mining*
...as well as this one: 'In 1907 the State Darwin Museum (SDM) was established in Moscow on the initiative of a young Russian scientist, A.F. Kots. In that time this museum became the first museum of natural history in the world.' Uh, what? Well, I don't know exactly which natural history museum was the first in the world, but I do know the one I work at in London opened its doors in 1881 (1753 if you don't require it to be housed in its own distinct building to be called a natural history museum).

Despite this little gaffe on their website, their paintings are most certainly worth seeing while they're in the UK. For more coverage of the exhibition, please visit Evolving Complexity and the Birmingham Post.

Darwin and his sister riding on North Wales (1948)
V Yevstafiev
Pastel on paper 30x39cm

Darwin discovering a prehistoric fossil skull (1920)
M Yezuchevskii (1880-1928)
Pastel on cardboard 42x53cm

Darwin on the Beagle (1926)
M Yezuchevskii (1880-1928)
Pastel on paper 85x60cm

Darwin collecting sea creatures (1948)
V Yevstafiev
Pastel on paper 40x26cm

2 December 2008

Young naturalist discovers new species on epic voyage of discovery

You'd be forgiven for thinking the title of this post refers to Charles Darwin, this being a blog about HMS Beagle and all, but the 'young naturalist' is in this case Peter Etnoyer, a doctoral fellow at Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and one of three bloggers at Deep Sea News.

And 'the voyage of discovery' began not on the ocean's surface aboard HMS Beagle in 1831 but 1200 metres (3/4 of a mile) under the ocean's surface in the Alvin submersible in 2002.

And the 'new species discovered' is not a rhea, an extinct giant ground sloth or a mockingbird, but the huge, hauntingly elegant deep sea coral pictured at right, featured on msnbc and in an evocative YouTube video.

But the best coverage of all comes straight from the 'young naturalist' himself, who describes his discovery in detail on Deep Sea News.

And just in case you didn't catch my use of the adjective 'huge' above, listen up: this thing is 132 cm tall. If you were to stand on the seabed next to it (not that you could without your chest imploding, it being so deep) it'd come up to about your shoulder.

How can something so big have escaped our notice, you might wonder? Well the truth is that we have identified probably only 1-10% of all the multicellular species out there, and a large number of those species yet to be discovered are in the deep sea. As Peter says, 'the fact that this bamboo coral is relatively common, but new to science, tells you how little we know about the deep sea.'

The era of discovery isn't over, it's only just begun ...that is, if we can stop the bottom trawlers from indiscriminately mowing them down before we get there.

Earl's Court boatshow roundup and thanks...

first of all to James Brook for offering us show space for free and to Simon Keynes for his loan of the model HMS Beagle which attracted so much interest to our stand (to the Natural History Museum, too for being such good sports about letting it go mid-exhibition). As luck would have it we were across the aisle from the model's manufacturer Premier Ship Models who were an entetaining and informative bunch to be around. Kos of Kos Pictures was great neighbour too, showing the kind of marine photography that makes you want to smash your own camera, buying us tea at critical moments and for a couple of great contacts. To those of you who love the Patrick O'Brian books, Geoff Hunt the artist responsible for their superb covers was a joy to meet while he was selling and signing at the Art Marine stand. Thanks too to Anna for early show fort-holding. Science director Karen was due at the weekend but was laid low by London winter lurgi.

Perry and I pressed a lot of material into the hands of passersby and talked ourselves hoarse to those who stopped. Everyone who listened to what we plan to do was interested, and were excited either by the science (that got more interest that I'd expected at a non-science event) or by the shameful neglect of our naval heritage that we hope the Beagle will be a small part in putting right. Thanks to the boatshow media interviewed us (right, SailTV asking the questions).

A lot of parents and kids aged 8 and above went very boogly eyed at the idea of a new Beagle sailing the world and asked how they might get their kids aboard either in science or sail training berths. Are you listening Mr Balls and Lord Drayson? This stuff inspired and excited people. Then drop in the NASA space/sailing/science connection and people walked away with minds blown.

Thanks too to those who dropped a few pounds into the collection jar and took away a card with the website on and promised to keep an interested eye on our activities. When the new Beagle sails into Plymouth, up the Thames to her birthplace at Woolwich and into the Galapagos you'll be able to think that a bit her is there because of your donation.

1 December 2008

To the person who left the comment about Radio NZ

I accidentally clicked 'Reject' when I meant to click 'Publish'! So sorry... I blame coffee on an empty stomach for a twitchy trackpad finger. Please re-post and I'll do the right thing this time, promise.

30 November 2008

Best boat show line so far...

Me: "Do you know any millionaires?"
Passing victim: "Well, two or three."

He went away with a load of information and pro-Beagle talk ringing in his lugs (ears).

To all interested Darwin/HMS Beagle fans

Darwin-related trojan email warning. Beagle blogger Richard has just sent this through:

A word of warning. Early this morning I received an email saying the following

hello. I'd like to offer my Darwin Souvenir pillows or photo on the site.. can you tell me where the place would be to best show this art to a needing public?

thank you,
arribella pellicano

It contained a frankly bizarre attachment "origin of the species.bmp" showing a pillow with an image on it of a woman's naked torso and what appears to be a child wearing a chimp mask. Who is this joker? I thought."

So anyone who's blogging or has Darwin content on their website, watch out for this one.

Richard adds: I did some more research and ended up at a site which attempted a trojan attack on me: http://www.l-a-m-b-s-t-a-r.com (I have inserted dashes for safety purposes).

Beagle barks and poops

After having been twice driven back by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty's ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831.
As dramatic opening sentences go, it's one of the best: Charles Darwin's account of the Beagle leaving England on her second and most famous voyage of adventure and discovery.

But Darwin isn't quite accurate when he describes Beagle as a ten-gun brig. Although that was indeed the generic name for such ships, and Beagle had been constructed as such, she was adapted for surveying work before her first voyage, and was, by the time Darwin set sail on her, strictly speaking, a bark. Keith S. Thompson explains the difference nice and succinctly in his book HMS Beagle: the ship that changed the course of history [ISBN: 0-75381-733-0]:

a brig has two masts and a bark three. On a brig both masts are square-rigged, and the mainmast also has a large fore-and-aft sail. On a bark the fore and mainmasts are square-rigged only; neither has a for-and-aft sail. The mizzenmast, by contrast only carries a fore-and-aft sail and no square sails.

Beagle only sailed once as a brig. Two months after she was launched at Woolwich Dockyard on 11th May, 1820, she sailed up the River Thames to take part in a naval precession in celebration of the coronation of King George IV. In so doing, she became the first man-of-war to pass fully rigged under the old London Bridge. After the celebrations, however, she was held in reserve—or in ordinary, as naval parlance has it—for the next five years.

In preparation for her first commission in 1825, Beagle returned to Woolwich to be re-rigged as a bark. The addition of a mizzenmast would make her more manoeuvrable, and enable her to sail closer to the wind—vital modifications for a ship which would soon be surveying the intricate and dangerous islands and channels of Tierra del Fuego. At the same time, a poop cabin was added to provide much-needed additional storage space, and to house a large charting table. It was this cabin that would house Charles Darwin and his cabin-mate John Lort Stokes during the second Beagle voyage several years later.

Beagle off the Galapagos by John Chancellor (note mizzenmast).
© Dr Gordon Chancellor and reproduced with his kind permission.

The addition of a poop cabin had a secondary benefit which was, in many ways, more important than its primary one: it added height to the stern of the ship, giving greater protection against heavy seas, and enabling the decks to drain more quickly. Unmodified ten-gun brigs had a reputation for foundering in heavy seas, earning them the alarming nickname of coffin brigs.

Sunday at the boatshow...

and we are promised a Big Day by the organizer. A veritable Niagra of people flooding through, one of whom will surely press a cheque for a million pounds into our hands, and add £250,000 in change for immediate expenses.

Like to buy a cup of coffee at the show: £2.85, which if you ask me should be a criminal offence.

Last chance to nominate best science blog posts 2008

The Open Laboratory is an annual collection of the 'best science writing on blogs' that has been running since 2006. Learn all about it and more over at Bora's place. I suggest starting here:
The deadline for submission of entries to Open Lab 2008 is this Monday, 1 December, folks, so get crackin' and submit what you think are the best science blog posts of the year here, whether they be ours, yours or anyone else's, the point is to give some formal props to the best the science blogging community has to offer.

29 November 2008

Another boatshow Beagle interview

by TV Yachts. As soon as the interview is available, we'll embed it here.

We have just received a donation...

from a creationist. She took one of our jelly babies (we are resorting to shameless bribery to entice people to our stand), and quick as a flash Perry said, 'we'll need a donation for that'. She deposited 20 pence and told us she was a creationist, and that yes, the world and all herein was made in 6 days. So 1/20 millionth of the new Beagle wil be built with creationist money.

A bit of Darwin and TV history

walked up to the stand at the Sail Power and Watersports Show yesterday. A gentleman came and cast a knowing eye over our model (well it's Simon Keynes' model, but he has lent it to us) of HMS Beagle.

I sidled up to him and began the spiel. But I couldn't tell him anything about the voyage of the Beagle - he was director of photography on the Voyage of Charles Darwin, the 7 part series shot by the BBC in 1979 at a cost of £3 million (which was big money - it was the most expensive TV project ever). He had spent 18 months on and around the Marquesa directing the photography (as directors of photography will). A charming and modest man, I persuaded him to pose for a pic which I will post as soon as I can find my USB cable...

The BBC will (inexplicably) not be repeating the series for Darwin's bicentenary in 2009. So if you want to see it, you have to watch it postage-stamp size on youtube.

OK, ailses here at Earl's Court are filling up, time to stop slacking drinking coffee and blogging, and go and find that millionaire who is out there and just wants to see a Beagle a-building in 2009.

Fourteen new sweatshirts in Beagle Project shop

A mysterious Beagle Project shop patron known only as "BGC", who has recently spent over $300 in the Beagle Project shop...
*wild applause issues forth from the direction of Britain*
...suggested that we should sell some sweatshirts. Anything for you, BGC:

28 November 2008

It's a multimedia Beagle morning...

here at the Boatshow. Just done a live interview with the famous Radio Caroline (to those not students of Brit counterculture, they broadcast the first pop music station into the UK from a vessel anchored in international waters, to the chagrin of the British establishment), and have recorded a piece for SailTV. The piece - recorded in front of the model Beagle - isn't up yet, but as soon as it is we'll post a link.

The Beagle Project is in London

at the Sail, Power and Watersports Show in Earls Court exhibition centre on Warwick Road. There are all things boaty here, so if you're in, pop over and say hi. Our next-stand neighbours are Premier Ship Models who built the model of HMS Beagle for Darwin descendent Simon Keynes. The original is on our stand at the boat show (pictured right) so come and have a look, and stick a Darwin in our collection jar. And if you want a ship model - and no home is complete without at least one - talk to Premier and be sure to mention the Beagle Project sent you there.

27 November 2008

To the person who just spent $150 in the Beagle Project Shop

Thank you!

Friday updates:
  1. "BGC" reveals him/herself in comments.
  2. Another $150 purchase just came through!
  3. ...which turns out to be another BGC purchase.
  4. BGC recommends sweatshirts.... *rushes to CafePress website to create sweatshirts*

25 November 2008

Metagenome annotation using a distributed grid of undergraduate students

ResearchBlogging.orgI really tried to come up with my own pithy title for this post. First I flirted with "Pascal's Wager: Undergrads can do big science", then I tried "Public participation in science: you're doin' it right" on for size, and I quite liked "Annotathon!" and "Please note: this metagenome has been annotated by undergrads", but in the end I decided I just couldn't beat the actual title of the paper, published in today's PLoS Biology, which describes something called the Annotathon, a clever bioinformatics teaching tool that doubles as a clever bioinformatics research tool.

Bioinformatics, the particular area of study/research in question, involves using computers to make sense of the mountains of biological data being ever more rapidly churned out by Sanger pyro- nanopore sequencing of the DNA of both single specimens (genomics) and multi-species samples (metagenomics).

The story began when researchers from Marseilles University, led by Pascal Hingamp, noticed that even as their lecture halls were heaving with undergraduates, so their data stockpiles were heaving with un-annotated DNA sequences extracted from mixed environmental samples. And that's when it happened--voila!--out of their piqued brains trundled the Annotathon!

The Annotathon involves training up undergrads to characterise DNA sequences and then setting them loose on a bunch of real stockpiled metagenomic sequences. The students have to use the internet to try and identify the organism the DNA comes from, for example, and what its biological function might be (if any).

Figure 3 from Hingamp et. al., The Annotathon Sequence Cart. The five DNA fragments, assigned to a student, illustrate each possible annotation stage: ongoing initial “Annotations 1,” awaiting initial “Evaluation 1,” ongoing final “Annotations 2,” awaiting final “Evaluation 2,” and sequence annotations “Finished.”

In return for their much-needed help sorting out oodles of DNA data, the undergrads gain a practical knowledge of the work involved in doing bioinformatics and metagenomics, and, most importantly of all, they get to experience what it's like to do real research. That's the attraction of science after all, not the heavy tomes of factoids and boooring canned (and therefore inherently condescending) experiments, but rather the being at the edge of the envelope of human knowledge, and when you get some new data, however small it might be, for a little while you are the only person on Earth who knows what you know.

And it's not just me who thinks this. Last year in the American Society for Cell Biology's publication CBE-Life Sciences Education, Anne Jurowski et. al. wrote in "Metagenomics: A Call for Bringing a New Science into the Classroom (While It's Still New)":
"The pace of research and the development of new areas of focus in biology are increasing at breathtaking speed. Unfortunately, exciting new areas of science typically do not appear in science classrooms and textbooks until many years after their inception. This pattern leaves undergraduate, and especially high school, biology education lagging behind scientific advances. The result is that too many students are never afforded opportunities to learn about the cutting-edge discoveries that make biology so exciting to professional scientists.


"The birth of this exciting new field (described more fully below) provides the life sciences research and education communities with a powerful and rare opportunity. Metagenomics is so young, and the microbial world it seeks to characterize is so vast, that there is a real possibility that scientists, teachers, and students in many areas of science can work together to advance this field. By acting now to incorporate metagenomics into biology education and to utilize biology education to inform questions and future research paths for metagenomics, the life sciences community can begin to shift from the current situation, in which scientific advances take decades to reach the classroom, toward a system in which education and research are deliberately and strategically integrated with each other from the very beginning..."
Well, if that's not a strategy for re-invigorating science edcuation, I don't know what is. And for any die hard researchers out there who are still not convinced that undergrads should be allowed to contribute to research, consider this: the fact that this paper is in PLoS Biology shows that the students are producing high quality data; indeed their work ends up immortalised in the big public databases used daily by professional researchers (that'd be you).

Laboratory equipment wish list for the new Beagle:
  • DNA extraction robot
  • Nanopore sequencer
  • Annotathon
And with that, I think I might finally be triangulating towards a good title for this post ...nah.

Update 26th November: Many thanks to Dennis in comments who writes "I'm part of an undergraduate genomics project that has students involved in both finishing and annotation. It is run by Sally Elgin at Washington University which involves over 20 other colleges. We just published an article describing it in Science (Oct 31 issue). The conclusion, of course, is that it works." I would be delighted to write another blog post on that study, but sadly, despite working at a major scientific institution, I do not have online access to Science (ahem). So, perhaps Dennis (or someone else with access) would be so kind as to send me a pdf (karen at thebeagleproject dot com) of the Science article? Thanks, Ron!

Hingamp P, Brochier C, Talla E, Gautheret D, Thieffry D and Herrmann C. (2008). Metagenome annotation using a distributed grid of undergraduate
students. PLoS Biol, 6(11): e296 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060296

A. Jurkowski, A. H. Reid, J. B. Labov (2007). Metagenomics: A Call for Bringing a New Science into the Classroom (While It's Still New) Cell Biology Education, 6 (4), 260-265 DOI: 10.1187/cbe.07-09-0075

23 November 2008

And then there were four

Dear readers,

Please join us in making a very loud hullabaloo to welcome our new Beagle Project bloggers, Elke Watts and Richard Carter, both enthusiastic supporters of The HMS Beagle Project, who have kindly consented to lend their very considerable writing skillz to our humble weblog.

Yours truly and Beagle Project Blog founder Peter McGrath, gratefully receiving blogging tips from Chas. Darwin on the 14th of November. The quintessential collaborator, Chas made a not so subtle suggestion that we bring in a bit of fresh blood. Photo by Richard Carter.

Not only can Elke and Richard write circles around pretty much every anglophone around, except for maybe Peter, but they also have specific qualifications and working knowledge that complement our own very nicely indeed. Consider their abridged bios:

Elke Watts was raised in a sailing family, crewed aboard The St. Lawrence 2, a square rigged brigantine, has an Honours Bachelor of Science in Biology and Environmental Sciences from the University of Toronto, and just in case that wasn't impressive enough, her degree carried an emphasis on conservation biology.

Elke's also worked in the non-profit environmental sector, on various projects including environmental education, watershed restoration and taking school children on nature appreciation and tree planting expeditions. She's done PR and media relations, and written and published newsletters for environmental NGO's as well as seven major Canadian health care newsletters.

Richard Carter is a self-styled 'Darwin groupie' (I'd rather call him an amateur* Darwin scholar) who led a campaign to get Charles Darwin on the Bank of Enland £10 note.

And in case you hadn't noticed, Charles Darwin is now, in fact, on the Bank of England £10 note.

*pauses for effect*

As if that wasn't qualification enough for becoming a Beagle blogger, which of course it is, he works in IT (yessss!!), lives not terribly far away from Peter McGrath in Yorkshire and has a Natural Sciences degree from Durham University.

And so from Peter and myself, a warm 10-gun salute to welcome Elke and Richard aboard Her Majesty's Blog Beagle Project. We saves u a seat:

*regarding the choice of the word 'amateur' please see comments

22 November 2008

Download it while you still can

Good news: the Royal Society has opened its online archives to all visitors until 1st February, 2009. You can search them here. An excellent start, chaps - but how about opening them permanently?

One particular paper which caught my attention: Darwin in the Galápagos: his footsteps through the archipelago [PDF, 299.4kB] by Gregory Estes, K. Thalia Grant & Peter R. Grant [2000], which attempts to identify the exact locations in the Galápagos visited by Charles Darwin.

21 November 2008

18 November 2008

Jennifer Rohn walks the walk

Dr Jennifer Rohn, scientist, blogger and editor (to whom we are grateful for the lovely interview at LabLit) is now also a published novelist!

Her new book, Experimental Heart, is, according to Jennifer, "a light-hearted romantic thriller about post-docs under duress in a London research lab", which makes it exotic... not James Bond exotic, but exotic in the sense that real scientists, practicing real science, are strangely, and sadly, absent from pop culture.

Jennifer has a pea under her mattress about this omission, and so it's great to see her putting her passion into practice by making her characters real scientists.

Check out the rapturous blurbs:
"It is terrific...I was gripped from the first page to the last, which is unusual for me...[ the author has done] a brilliant job of weaving in so many aspects of science – experimental, social, and political – without making them intrusive."
- Martin Raff, Molecular Biology of the Cell

"Science as it is practiced today can be conceptualized as a mystery story, or a love story, or a thriller. In EXPERIMENTAL HEART Rohn has made a brilliant synthesis of these three modes, resulting in a page-turner with depths, exploring the hope and danger of both bio-medicine and lab romance. In short, a true novel. Scientists who gave up reading fiction about science because it's never right – check this out. Non-scientists wondering what goes on it in that weird culture – find out here. By the end you'll be reading as fast as you can."
- Kim Stanley Robinson, Hugo- and Nebula-award winning author of Red Mars, Antarctica and Forty Signs of Rain

The Beagle Project needs a PR video - can you help?

We promised we'd be asking for your help, and here's our first request:

The Beagle Project needs a sharp, moving, great looking PR video to swell the hearts and burst the wallets of potential donors. We want tears running down cheeks and dropping on the cheque book, people.

We've already had some brilliant people like Anna Faherty donate their time and energy to helping the Project with sharp grassroots fundraising videos like the one shown below (and here).

Now we need one that captures the Project's essence: 'Bringing the adventure of science to life'.

We're imagining the bow of the Beagle crashing through the waves, gleeful science students swinging in the rigging, sodden biologists being hauled aboard clutching newly discovered species, poignant Darwin quotes, historical flashbacks....you know...just a simple little video....

Some inspiration! Here's an example of a Tall Ship Sail Training video, the picture quality could be better, but it's well shot and effective.

Another interesting, slicker example is this promo from The Natural History Museum.

Interested? Need more information or want a tidy overview of the Beagle Project to guide you on your creative film making journey? Email me at elke@thebeagleproject.com, and thank you to everyone who's made Youtube promos for the BP over the years, your efforts are greatly appreciated.

Build your own HMS Beagle

Many thanks to Anna Faherty for creating this fundraising video for the Beagle Project. Do you have an idea for a PR video for the Project? Stay tuned...

17 November 2008

Darwin's botanists

an interesting post over at Mark Pallen's Rough Guide to Evolution blog about the two botanists who featured strongly in Charles Darwin's life: John Stevens Henslow and Joseph Hooker.

Henslow was responsible for Darwin being offered the unpaid naturalist berth on HMS Beagle, and the rest became history. Hooker's life story is absolutely extraordinary - how many people, far less botanists, can say they were imprisoned by a Rajah and realeased only because the British government threatened an invasion to secure one's freedom? Click over and acquaint yourself with both these remarkable scientists.

Conrad Martens' sketchbooks

Cambridge University Library's website has some wonderful scans of artist Conrad Martens' sketchbooks, including numerous images from the second voyage of HMS Beagle (i.e. the Darwin voyage).

Martens joined Beagle in Montevideo in 1833, after the previous ship's artist, Augustus Earle, was taken ill. In many ways, these rough sketches are far more evocative than Martens' subsequent formal paintings.

Shown here is Slinging the monkey, Port Desire, which was painted on Christmas Day, 1833. It depicts Beagle (L) and Adventure (R) at anchor. In the foreground, six sailors play the naval game Swinging the Monkey, which involved hanging one of their number upside down until he was able to beat one of his taunting colleagues with a stick, after which, the two men swapped places.

Apparently, Martens didn't depict Beagle entirely correctly: a pencilled annotation by Captain FitzRoy reads: "Note Mainmast of the Beagle a little farther aft. Miz[zen] Mast to rake more".

16 November 2008

Fitzroy's mockingbird

WHAT? In scientific and literary salons all over the world cups of tea shatter on the floor in reckless confusion. At the entrance to the Darwin's Big Idea exhibition in the Natural History Museum the first thing you see is a pair of dead birds reverentially displayed on a purple cushion.

In terms of evolutionary theory, stuff your finches (and there are 12 stuffed finches later in the exhibition), the Mockingbirds are what made Darwin intellectually jump out of the bath. In 1835, heading back to Britain, Darwin wrote that differences between mockingbirds on neighbouring Galapagos islands might 'undermine the stability of species'. If there is a recognizable eureka moment of evolutionary thought, this is it.

Of course, the the story is slightly more complicated. One of the birds was collected by Captain Robert Fitzroy, who to a sailor is the Banquo's ghost at this exhibition. To Darwin the academic plaudits, but Fitzroy did the heavy lifting, fitting Beagle out to the highest standards and skippering her safely round the world. And, as we have seen, playing more than a bit part in procuring the specimens that set Darwin on his path to the Linnean Society in 1858 and The Origin in 1859.

2009 is all about Darwin and the Origin, but Fitzroy was no mean observer and scientist himself, as anyone who has read his neglected account of the voyage will see. His attempt to reconcile what he saw with Genesis and the Flood, his vitriolic opposition to Darwin's theory of natural selection and melancholy suicide should not detract from that.

And of course there is still more: the story of the Floreana mocking birds is not over yet. Now kindly biff off and donate some money to stop 'em going extinct.

15 November 2008

Thanks to Mike Haubrich

for his never-flagging enthusiasm and support of the Beagle Project.

Mike, who writes Tangled Up In Blue Guy (I've always been afraid to ask....) is one of our much appreciated blog peeps, and he's written a very kind pro-Beagle post here in response to Karen's Become A Beagle Projecteer post. He announces he will be adding a PayPal donation button to his blog to help collect funds for the Beagle Project, for which we are eternally grateful.

Inspired by Mike's gesture, we are working on a grab-and-go button to make it easy for anyone to help out in this way.

Thanks Mike!

(PS. Oh, and Peter and Karen do the heavy lifting over here, I am merely a crazed cheerleader, but shall be trying to shoulder a bit more of the load shortly.)

Endeavour lifts off..

our big brothers in science NASA have successfully launched the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Endeavour's on her way to the International Space Station from which the rebuilt Beagle's progress around the world will be photographed. All the best for your time up there chaps, and as the Yorkshire outpost of the Beagle Project, I get an extra little thrill of pride that NASA named one of their Shuttles after Captain James Cook's Whitby built Endeavour. The Autralian built replica seen here entering Whitby Harbour.

Podcast of the NHM Darwin trip coming up soon.

14 November 2008

Live blog with the Beagle Project TODAY

Live blog with us using the window below as we visit the Natural History Museum's Darwin exhibition today, which just so happens to be opening day. Technology sponsored by that clever chap Richard Carter.

Postscript: The live-blogging session is now over. A full transcript can be read here.

13 November 2008

Darwin at the NHM

The Northern chapter of the Beagle Project (Richard Carter, Founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin and I) will be raising the tone in London tomorrow as we go to the opening day of the Natural History Museum's Darwin Big Idea Big Exhibition. (Left the Natural History Museum London, by night.)

We Are Very Excited.

And we hope to bring you the opening day of this great exhibition in as much detail as possible. Beagle Project Director of Science Karen James and Richard are going to liveblog the event. Not having a 270 mile ethernet cable, I shall fall back on my journalistic past and will be gathering visitors' impressions of the exhibition for a Beagle Project Podcast.

Readers are referred to artist Glendon Mellow's excellent review of the exhibition when it made landfall in Canada.

12 November 2008

Become a Beagle Projecteer!

Here at Beagle Project headquarters, we are weekly - if not daily - inspired and moved by acts of enthusiasm and support coming our way from those kindred hearts and minds from around the world who share our vision.

We're talking about you, the Alejandro Balbianos, Anna Fahertys, Bora Zivkovics, Claudia Myatts, Dan Garrisons, David Kohns, Diana Sudykas, Elke Wattses, George Beccalonis, Glendon Mellows, Gordon Chancellors, Greg Ladens, Hilda Suárezes, Humble Woodcutters, Jason Robertshaws, Jennifer Rohns, Joan Pirraglias, Kevin Zelnios, Matt Browns, Michael Barratts, Michael Bartons, Mike Donoghues, Mike Haubrichs, Miriam Goldsteins, Miss Prismses, Niles Eldredges, Norman Jameses, Peg Steffens, PZ Myerses, Randal Keyneses, Richard Carters, Rick MacPhersons, Rocio Suarezes, Sarah Darwins, Simon Keyneses, Stacey Klamans, Sue Runcos, Sujeevan Ratnasinghams, Sylvia Earles and Tomas Hudsons of this world who are trying, by your actions and collective strength of will, to make the new Beagle appear, plank by plank, on the dry dock in Milford Haven.

Elke Watts and Richard Carter:
two honorary Beagle Projecteers in their Beagle Project gear.
More BPeers in gear here.

Many of you have already hit on creative ways to help us out - artists Diana Sudykas and Glendon Mellow have donated portions of their proceeds, bloggers have linked to us in their posts and sidebars, writers have made impassioned appeals online and in print, scientists have sent us their project ideas, movers and shakers have lent us their networks, classrooms have staged Beagle Project fund-raisers, and all kinds of people have donated to us through PayPal and bought Beagle Project gear in our shops. We have yet to be the recipients of proceeds from a bake sale or lemonade stand, but I'm sure it's not far off.

These unasked-for gifts of time and money are a great help to both our coffers and our spirits, and we will consider ourselves lucky if the trend continues. But, as Elke Watts recently asked me in an email that was so right-on it hurt, shouldn't we do something more organised to channel the goodwill of our enthusiastic supporters into real Beagle Project progress? And it was then that we came up with the idea of promoting and facilitating some coordinated action from this self-assembled group of supporters we've dubbed "The Beagle Projecteers".

The Beagle Projecteers are fans of the project who would be ready and willing to give us the £5 million we need to build the Beagle if only they had it, but in lieu of cash are keen to give of themselves. They are the ones who email us and ask, "how can I help"? And up until now we've only been able to ask that they spread the word and maybe donate via PayPal or buy something in our shop. No more. From now on we shall be able to provide an ever-growing, ever-changing list of tasks and requests for real volunteer action.

Stay tuned for our Cry to Action, and get ready to grab the serious Beagle Blog Bling we are creating for you, our friends and allies, to sport on your blogs and websites.

Without you, we wouldn't even be here. Thank you.

Coming this Friday: the Beagle Project live-blogging the Darwin exhibition in London

The Darwin exhibition is opening at the Natural History Museum in London this Friday, the 14th of November and your Beagle Project bloggers have a plan.

Peter and Beagle Project peep Richard Carter of ye olde Red Notebook and Friends of Charles Darwin fame will be making the long journey down to London from Yorkshire on Friday and we are going to have a Big, Old-fashioned Good Time viewing the Darwin exhibition together, drinking beer and...

...live-blogging! Yes, Richard the tech wizard has figured out how we can post to FriendFeed and stream that as a live blog over at Red Notebook on Friday.

9 November 2008

Beagle Trust to BBC: for the last time, we have not yet raised £5m

Update: I complained to BBC using their NewsWatch online feedback form and they corrected the online piece pronto, and on a Sunday too! Thanks, auntie!

Though we are, of course, delighted to see that our big Beagle Project-NASA press release has been covered by the BBC both on radio (fast forward to 1:20:00) and online, we are were just a leeeetle bit miffed that--despite our best efforts to correct them after the radio piece aired--they seemed to keep propagating the fairly serious misconception that we have already raised the money to rebuild HMS Beagle. We are in full on fundraising mode. We have not got anywhere close to the £5m we need yet, and it doesn't help our efforts when major news networks suggest that we have.

7 November 2008

Darwin exhibition in London unveiled on Today Programme

...with a bit part by yours truly. Listen again.

Update 1: Also don't miss the official Natural History Museum video piece with wonderful footage of these endangered mockers:

Update 2:
BBC News and the Independent have picked up the story too.

5 November 2008

The Science and Evolution foundation in Chile

HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin spent between June 1834 and July 1835 in Chile, or Chili as Darwin called it in his notebooks and diary of the time. His first impressions are very favourable: "The woods are incomparably more beautiful than those of Tierra del Fuego...excepting in Brazil I have never seen such an abundance of elegant forms."

Darwin made two of his great overland expeditions in Chile, first crossing the Andes then making a long trek north from Valparaiso to Copiapo. And on 3 March 1835 Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary records: "We felt, on board, a very smart shock of an earthquake: some compared the motion to that of a cable running out, & others to the ship touching on a Mud bank. — Capt. FitzRoy heard when on Mocha that the Sealers had experienced a succession of shocks during the last fortnight." His account of the earthquake and its aftermath is superb.

Chile made a huge impression on Darwin, so it is good to welcome the Fundacion Ciencia y Evolucion. Their website explains far better than we could Why Darwin and Why in Chile, so pop over and have a look. We look forward to welcoming them aboard.

Darwin and the Beagle in Portugal...

MARQUEM NAS VOSSA AGENDAS: AMANHÃ, 5 NOV, 18h, Patricia Beldade "Evolução e Desenvolvimento: variações a dois tempos e muitas côres"

transmissão simultânea/ live broadcast:


resumo em http://a-evolucao-de-darwin.weblog.com.pt/

sede da Fund Gulbenkian, Av Berna

O EVENTO TERÁ BORBOLETAS AO VIVO E MUITA ANIMAÇÃO! Estão também assegurados o dobro dos lugares da primeira conf (anfs 2+3 + hall), tragam os amigos.

Para todos os que não conseguiram entrar nas salas superlotadas da 1ª conferência, ou não conseguiram ir, eis os links para a primeira conf da série.
Está um pouco incompleta, cortada e nem sempre bem montada, mas dá para
apreciar o excelente trabalho de comunicação do Carlos.

Also in from Thiago Carvalho, whose Gulbenkian Museum is building a rather splendid model of HMS Beagle for 2009. Pic of work in progress below:

4 November 2008

Charles Darwin endorses Barack Obama

The HMS Beagle Trust is an organisation with a healthy amount of political diversity amongst its directors and patrons. As such, your Beagle bloggers, however strong our personal preferences may be, have resisted the temptation to formally endorse a candidate for the US presidency on this blog.

We do note with vigorous interest and a certain amount of thinly veiled delight, however, that our great hero, Charles Darwin, has endorsed Mr. Obama.

31 October 2008

Help save Darwin's mockingbirds

Dear readers and fellow bloggers,

Update: note new link for widgets h/t Richard Carter.

The Floreana mockingbird - the bird that inspired Darwin to doubt the 'stability of species' and therefore set him on the intellectual path towards evolution by natural selection - is under very serious threat of extinction.

This morning on the Today Programme, the Galapagos Conservation Trust launched a fundraising campaign to help save the mocker by studying, selecting and reintroducing birds from the surviving satellite populations back onto the main island of Floreana.

They only need £60,000 (as Andrew Marr, well-known BBC presenter and chairman of the GCT, said, "not everything important costs a lot of money")! Please consider helping by:
  1. making a donation at the GCT website
  2. posting one my homemade widgets (at right and below) on your blog sidebar
Together we can save Darwin's muse in the Galapagos for ourselves and future generations to enjoy and appreciate.

Thank you,

30 October 2008

RRS James Clark Ross crosses the equator

Jeremy and Martine cross the equator on their Atlantic cruise for coccolithophores. Neptune is summoned; hilarity ensues:

Darwin's mockingbirds on the Today Programme tomorrow

Update: Listen again here!

A little mockingbirdie tells me that Randal Keynes and Andrew Marr will be on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme tomorrow morning (the 31st) talking about Darwin, the Galapagos and the conservation effort to save the Floreana mockingbird, which I covered in a previous post, Saving Darwin's Muse.

29 October 2008

The Discovery Institute send big guns to Ireland but only manage to fire blanks (guest post by Dr Bob Bloomfield)

We are pleased and proud to host this incisive guest post by Dr Bob Bloomfield* who defended clear-thinking rationalism at a creationism debate two weeks ago in Dublin. His report mentions the Causeway Creation Committee, whose oxen I've previously gored here and here. -KJ

When the Trinity College Dublin Student Philosophical Society debated the merit of creationism at its weekly debate on Thursday 16th October 2008, there was a remarkably eager response by the Discovery Institute who provided their ‘big-guns’ to this student affair.

Following a formula of debate established over its seasoned years of philosophising, the proceedings began with an essay that I was invited to present. This in essence laid out the case that there was nothing new within the ideas of creationism to contribute to science, but also offered the proposition that evolutionary biology need not lead inexorably to materialism. Instead I argued that within the paradigm of an evolved diversity there was the potential for an ethical framework where, as part of the economy of nature, people might recognise their intimate interaction with the world around them. This way of thinking offers hope to the perils of anthropogenic change and the concerns over, for example, biodiversity loss.

The debate proponents were then invited, in an alternating sequence to respond in support, or in opposition to this proposition.

Three local speakers argued in support of the essay, each taking a different line. The gentlemanly Christopher Stillman, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Trinity, argued the case that science and religion are 'nonoverlapping majisteria' (see Stephen J. Gould), each exploring different needs for human knowledge (as in the reference to Islam, ‘Science teaches how the heavens go, the Quran teaches how to go to heaven’). Trinity’s young Anglican pastor, Darren McCallig, took the view that mainstream Christian theology rejected any notion of a ‘God of the Gaps’ (Intelligent Design), insisting that a Christian understanding of the Almighty was of an all encompassing nature that set in motion the laws of the universe, within which the mechanism of evolution by means of natural selection was completely in accord. Finally, a charmingly irascible Dr David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology from Imperial University College London [who tells me in a follow-up email to this post that he will soon be posting his own take on the debate on his blog Improbable Science -KJ], rose to take an atheistic position that at it simplest asked people to ‘consider a mother gorilla cuddling her offspring to ask whether we are related?’, and which at its most scathing aligned creationism to pink fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Among the student’s contributions one ebullient young woman defended the right to have creationist views while making it clear she didn’t entertain them herself, while a second ‘hack’ of the society rejoined with a blistering response that majored on the pink fairies, Santa Clause and a host of other fantasies that could be equally regarded as ‘legitimate world views’. Among this hilarity a third student stood up to give witness to his personal, recently realised faith, explaining that he now proclaimed it on the streets of Dublin. He burned with passion professing an absolute and fundamental view, explaining how dinosaurs where easily explained as part of the divine creation alongside man, referring to the Congo monster the Mokele-mbembe (right) as his proof (see how this is also taken seriously by oxymoronic creation-science). In his fervour the young man denounced all scientific dating methods as false using the apparent evidence of lava from recent eruptions in New Zealand being dated as several millions of years old as evidence.

Listening to his contribution I could not help reflect on the young man’s fervour. Perhaps the chamber should be grateful that this was the particular position he chose to ‘witness’, in the UK, in the same week the trail was concluding of another young man who had been inducted into a fundamental faith position. He had witnessed his conviction by trying to set off a home-made bomb of caustic-soda, petrol and nails in a family restaurant in the cause of his Jihad – there but the grace of God you might say, and one of the issues of creationism being exported into the European context.

The final student contribution came from a young woman geologist. She first reminded the audience that magma beneath New Zealand, as elsewhere, moves slowly, deep in the earth’s mantle for millions of years and that its K-Ar radioactive signals are locked into mineral xenoliths such as olivine as they differentially crystallise out of the magma - long before they are exuded as volcanic lava. In any event these isotopes are used to measure the ages of igneous rocks over the vast time-period of geological time where this is a minor discrepancy, methods such as radiometric carbon and oxygen-isotope dating are used to measure more recent timescales of a few tens-of thousands or a few millions of years. She poignantly pointed to the knowledge of science that would need to be rejected if extreme creationist perspectives were upheld, not just biological evolution; but geological plate-tectonics; planetary-science; modern medicine and epidemiology were on her list. Her hilarious conclusion was simply that, in any event, if she were wrong the worst that could happen was that she would go to hell – and that would be great because it would be full of geologists!

So amongst this student light-heartedness we can only speculate why The Discovery Institute of America chose to send in a delegation of not one, but two of its big-guns. Could it be that they were taking the opportunity to support the efforts of their colleagues in the Causeway Creation Committee? This little group in Northern Ireland is lobbying to have a ‘creationist explanation’ of the basalt columns, which resulted from an ancient volcanic eruption, included alongside that of more charming story of how the mythical hunter Fionn mac Cumhaill built the causeway to keep his feet dry as he headed for Scotland. Not so amusing when the same group is lobbying to ban the teaching of evolution in the schools of Northern Ireland.

The pro-creationists presented a rather amusing parody of the Great Debate of the British Association in Oxford of 1860. Instead of an imposing Sir Richard Owen in the background, there was instead the diminutive Paul Nelson in the foreground (hiding his Discovery Centre allegiance by presenting himself as representing of the 'Access Research Network'!). His role was to make the case that an ‘intelligent agent’ having a part in science, arguing that this was increasingly apparent as the process of science in answering questions only resulted in more questions emerging that were unanswered! (The Owen analogy is not insignificant, Nelson would look a the tree of life in a similar way to how Owen hypothesised it consisting of groups around archetypes, in which animals were all variations on an Ideal Type – originated by a designer)!

Then in place of Bishop Wilberforce, the Discovery Institute presented its own Soapy Sam. The role of David Berlinski was to throw doubt on all - but insight into nothing. He presented straw-men with a superciliousness which had none of the humor of Samual Wilberforce’s, ‘was your grandfather an ape on your mother’s or your father’s side?’ but was equally deserving of T H Huxley’s famous response that he ‘was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great intellectual gifts to obscure the truth’. To make up the trio Peter Korevaar of the Studiengemeinschaft Wort und Wissen (Word and Knowledge Study Community) had been flown in from Germany. His bland assertion that while microevolution was demonstrable, macroevolution was not possible was no more convincing than it was memorable.

The proceedings drew towards a conclusion by me being asked to respond to the positions that the debate proponents had offered. I kept this short, first commenting that the actual responses had concentrated on the issues of creationism – which is actually marginal within the discourse in science. I pointed out that prior to coming I had considered carefully whether to attend a debate that offered a platform where the creationist movement could play out their mantra of ‘talk the controversy’. However, there is debate within society which is intergenerational - as young people such as the students in the society draw on their own perspectives and experience, and they deserve to hear both sides of the argument.

I pointed out to the society members that, despite appearances, the creationist camp included two speakers this evening that were directly associated with the Discovery Institute and commended that the audience took time to read for themselves the leaked internal political document that set out the true aims of this organisation. That is, to use the undermining of evolution as the ‘thin end of the wedge’ to topple western science. Their belief being that in doing this they will reverse materialism and replace it with a science consonant with Christian values (see "Wedge strategy"). I demonstrated the point by referring to one resent post on the Access Research Network website under the title of ID and Human Cloning which I had come across whilst researching the speakers:
‘…If however, our lives are the product of intentionality and design, then purpose and meaning as well as right and wrong may not be just arbitrary human constructs. In fact, the reverse might be true. Far from needing us to carve them out, purpose and meaning could form part of the very template from which we ourselves were stamped! With this starting point, cloning looks quite different...’
Turning back to the debate I suggest the Society should consider what were truths and half-truths. Was there a significant debate within mainstream science? Was the creationism position evidence-based or a political device to intercede in science?

I asked about the intentions of attempting to create a distinction between natural agent and intelligent agent, pointing out that the only intelligent agents accessible to being explored being the minds of organisms which are the product of evolution, not apart from it. Was this attempted distinction a subterfuge to avoid the more obvious distinction between natural and supernatural?

I concluded by saying that though I had being given the privilege of the last word in the discussion, it seemed appropriate to give it to my opponent as the focus had been primarily of the case for creations and Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute, AKA Access Research Network, had made written his own assessment of its status in the creationist Touchstone Magazine …
'Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.' - Paul Nelson 2004
I asked if this, the sum of creationist thinking, along with half-truths and straw men was more reasoned and supported by evidence than the huge advances in evolutionary biology achieved over the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection?

The Society chairman called for the response of the Society, first for those in support of the essay, and secondly for those rejecting creationism, in both cases the hue of voices and hands were an overwhelming 90+%, a tribute to Trinity’s Students acceptance of reason over ignorance.

*The views expressed in this post are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any of the organisations with whom the author is affiliated.