31 July 2008

How to help the Beagle Project: post your pics!

Thanks to everyone who has been supporting us by donating via our PayPal buttons (keep it comin'!) and by buying Beagle Project gear in our shops (keep it comin'!).  A special shout out to Bloggers-for-Beagle who have posted pics of themselves in Beagle Project tees:

    
Left to right: Michael Barton of The Dispersal of Darwin, Kevin Zelnio of The Other 95% and Deep Sea News and Miriam Goldstein (and Cthulhu) of The Oyster's Garter.

We'd like to invite all of our readers to now post their own photographs to our new HMS Beagle Project Flickr group (set up by Anna Faherty, for which many thanks).  The purpose of this Flickr group is not only to build up a pool of fun pics from friends of the BP but also to supply us with a steady stream of Creative Commons licensed photos that we can use free of charge in our fundraising materials, websites, etc.  Specifically, we're looking for photos:
  • of you in/with your Beagle Project gear
  • from your travels to Beagle ports of call (not sure where the Beagle went? check here)
  • of you scientists doing your field work
  • of tall ships' rigging and other maritime close-ups
  • of students and children doing sciencey "field work" or "lab work"
Thanks to all who've already been contributing (keep it comin'!).

30 July 2008

Saving Darwin's muse

31 July 2008: Taxonomy updates! See footnotes 3 and 4.

Today at work I sat for several minutes gazing in gobsmacked awe at a newly arrived, bubble-wrapped package containing small, dried-out footpads taken1 from two specimens of Nesomimus Mimus2 trifasciatus (Galápagos mockingbirds from the island of Floreana, formerly Charles Island). Interesting, yeah? Well don't click away just yet, because it gets way better...

These two specimens were collected from the island before the species went extinct there (it's still hanging on by a thread in the form of approximately 100 individuals inhabiting two nearby lumps of rock in the sea -- Gardner-by-Floreana and Champion islands -- and is thus one of the rarest birds in the world), so we3 hope these two footpads contain enough intact DNA to tell us more about the diversity of the original population on Floreana -- information that can help us determine the best strategy for selecting individual birds from the remaining populations (rapidly diverging already, Darwin would be pleased to learn) to reintroduce back to Floreana in the hopes of saving the species from extinction.

N. M.2 trifasciatus went extinct on Floreana before the end of the 19th Century, so it's not particularly easy to find specimens that were collected there before then. In fact, you can probably count on one hand the number of specimens of N. M.2 trifasciatus collected from Floreana proper (we may never know for sure how many there are out there). In other words, these specimens are really rare ...and we've got two of them here at the Natural History Museum. Have I got your attention yet? I hope so, because I've saved the best part for last...

Now let's think really hard about who might have collected such specimens from the Galápagos islands before 1900. If you don't see where I'm going with this now then you've quite literally got blinders on because it's splashed all over this blog ...yes, there was a little ship called HMS Beagle that called into Floreana in 1835, and both her captain Robert FitzRoy and her naturalist Charles Darwin disembarked, and each one of them collected a specimen of the mockingbird they found there. When Darwin saw the bird, he noticed right away what he did not notice about the finches until much later when Professor Gould set him straight: that each island in the Galápagos appeared to have its own unique species of mockingbird. In the words of ornithologist Frank Steinheimer (references removed for clarity, see full text here):
Sulloway has already shown that the mockingbirds from the Galápagos Islands rather than the finches were used in Darwin's On the Origin of Species, though some later authors have still succumbed to confusion on this matter.
In a chapter entitled "Geographical distribution", Darwin noted: "But we often take, I think, an erroneous view of the probability of closely-allied species invading each other's territory, when put into free intercommunication. Undoubtedly, if one species has any advantage over another, it will in a very brief time wholly or in part supplant it; but if both are equally well fitted for their own places, both will probably hold their separate places for almost any length of time."
In short, Darwin recognized the importance of building different ecological niches ("own places") or the establishment of two very similar species in the same geographical region. As an example he used the Galápagos mockingbird Nesomimus parvulus, the Charles mockingbird Nesomimus trifasciatus, and the San Cristòbal mockingbird Nesomimus melanotis, of which he collected one and, respectively, two specimens of each (Darwin's numbers 2206, 3307, 3349, 3350)4. In his Transmutation Notebooks (Notebook B from 1837–1838) he goes on to say that: "It may be argued representative species [such as the South American and Galápagos mockingbirds] [are] chiefly found where barriers […] interrupt[ed…] communication," stressing the importance of geographical isolation for speciation processes.
The birds of the Galápagos Islands are also cited, albeit in general terms, as an example of how vague the distinction is between what one sees as a species and what scientists refer to as subspecies. The mockingbirds of the Galápagos Islands collected by Darwin have been classified both as subspecies of a single species (Mayr and Greenway 1960, pp. 447–448), and as three different (allo-)species (Dickinson 2003, p. 649).
Darwin turned again to the Galápagos birds when explaining endemism. Darwin showed that of the 26 land birds known at the time, 21, or perhaps even 23, were believed to be endemic to the Galápagos Islands, whereas of 11 marine birds only 2 were considered endemic (Darwin 1872, pp. 405–406).
In other words, these very birds -- the ones collected by Fitzroy and Darwin during the voyage of the HMS Beagle 1831-1836 -- the ones which now reside in a quiet specimen drawer at the Natural History Museum's bird collection in Tring -- the ones whose footpads are newly gracing my desktop today in two rather anticlimactic Eppendorf tubes -- were a seed if not the seed of Darwin's later questioning of the immutability of species, and ultimately led to the publication On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which, arguably, has changed the world (for the better in my humble opinion).

I am honoured to be given a chance to work with these rare specimens (Darwin's is the invaluable holotype - the founding specimen of the described species), and, more importantly, to be given a chance to do my small part3 in helping rescue from extinction -- by means of a genetically well-informed reintroduction strategy -- the Floreana mockingbird, Darwin's real muse in the Galápagos.

* * *

For more information about the Floreana mockingbird please visit Robert Curry's most excellent webpage: Darwin's Mockingbirds: The endemic mockingbirds of the Galápagos, and the Charles Darwin Foundation's press release, Action Plan to Save the Floreana Mockingbird of Galápagos.

Footnotes:

1. Carefully dissected by the steady hand of Mark Adams, a curator in the Bird Group at the Tring outpost of London's Natural History Museum.

2. Many thanks to Professor Robert. L. Curry of the Department of Biology at Villanova University who kindly made me aware of updated taxonomic placement, writing, "The South American Classification Committee of The American Ornithologists’ Union decided recently that the genus Nesomimus should be merged into Mimus, based largely on the analyses in our 2006 paper in Evolution (Arbogast, B. S., S. V. Drovetski, R. L. Curry, P. T. Boag, G. Seutin, P. R. Grant, B. R. Grant, and D. J. Anderson. 2006. The origin and diversification of Galapagos mockingbirds. Evolution 60:370-382). The evidence now available strongly supports the conclusion that the Galapagos populations (regardless of how many species might be recognizable there) are an offshoot of mockingbirds from the mainland (although probably from Middle America rather than South America). This means that a mockingbird in Galapagos is more closely related to some continental and Caribbean mockingbirds than those are to other mockingbirds from, say, Argentina. So, when writing about “Darwin’s mockingbirds,” it would be best to refer to them as Mimus trifasciatus (and M. parvulus, M. macdonaldi, M. melanotis) rather than Nesomimus. (The old name Nesomimus could still be used to refer to the clade of species in Galapagos, but only as a sub-genus, in which case the name wouldn’t be part of the formal Latin binomial.)"

3. I am but a tiny player in this large, multi-layered project involving the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation. Particular mention must be made of Paquita Hoeck, a PhD student in Lukas Keller's research group at the Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich, who is including these specimens (she'll receive a matching pair of Eppendorf tubes this week) in her much larger microsatellite analysis of Galápagos Nesomimus which includes hundreds of specimens of N. trifasciatus from Gardner-by-Floreana and Champion islands -- both historic specimens and birds they captured live and sampled on site over the last two years. I am doing an extraction and microsatellite amplification reaction in parallel in our Botany Department lab here at the NHM, to ensure that the data generated by Paquita in Zurich is indeed from these two specimens and not the result of contamination by fresher and therefore much more abundant DNA from more recent specimens that have passed through their lab. In other words, I'm just doing a control experiment, but I don't care, I still feel honoured to be participating at all.

4. Professor Curry also notes: "the section in which you quote Steinheimer includes an error, relative to modern analysis of the various populations in Galapagos, that dates back to John Gould and Darwin. Specifically, the statement that Darwin 'used the Galápagos mockingbird Nesomimus parvulus, the Charles mockingbird Nesomimus trifasciatus, and the San Cristóbal mockingbird Nesomimus melanotis, of which he collected one and, respectively, two specimens of each (Darwin's numbers 2206, 3307, 3349, 3350)' (besides using the older genus name) assumes that specimen 3350 was an individual of Mimus melanotis. However, Darwin collected that specimen on Santiago (James) Island, which is inhabited by one of the subspecies of M. parvulus. John Gould thought that 3307 and 3350 represented the same species (M. melanotis), but that interpretation does not seem to be correct. The bird illustrated in the Zoology of the Beagle voyage is clearly specimen 3307, as pointed out by Swarth (1930). An interesting historical tidbit here is that while Darwin collected his specimen of M. melanotis (on San Cristóbal) before his specimen of M. trifasciatus, the type specimen for the 'genus' (or subgenus) Nesomimus is the trifasciatus specimen (and it would be the type for all of Galapagos if the populations were treated as a single species, M. trifasciatus), because Gould happened to describe the Floreana specimen first."

29 July 2008

Kevin "I am a deep-sea biologist" Zelnio

One of the Beagle Project's biggest fans, Kevin Zelnio of The Other 95% and Deep Sea News blogging fame, has just published a piece in Seed Magazine's "Why I Do Science" section entitled On the Allure of the Ocean's Novelty.  Kevin's article kind of reminds me of a young Charles Darwin on the Beagle, who wrote on January 10th, 1832:
I proved to day the utility of a contrivance which will afford me many hours of amusement & work. — it is a bag four feet deep, made of bunting, & attached to semicircular bow this by lines is kept upright, & dragged behind the vessel. — this evening it brought up a mass of small animals, & tomorrow I look forward to a greater harvest. —
...then the next day wrote:
 I am quite tired having worked all day at the produce of my net. — The number of animals that the net collects is very great & fully explains the manner so many animals of a large size live so far from land. — Many of these creatures so low in the scale of nature are most exquisite in their forms & rich colours. — It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose. — The weather is beautiful & the blueness of the sky when contrasted with white clouds is certainly striking.
He even has a beard.

28 July 2008

My new map of the Voyage of the Beagle (update)

On Friday I posted an inset from a new map I'm making of the Voyage of the Beagle. I've revised it since then, adding more accurate indicators of FitzRoy, Darwin and Co's overland journeys, from "Routes of CD's eight principal inland expeditions, as drawn for Nora Barlow's 1933 edition of The 'Beagle' Diary." Here is the result:

Creative Commons License

25 July 2008

My new map of the Voyage of the Beagle

Note: a more recent version of this map inset is available here.

I've never been particularly impressed with the online map resources for the 1831-1836 voyage of HMS Beagle. So a few months ago, I got it into my head to create a new map of the voyage, one that is not only accurate but visually appealing.

I started with NASA Earth Observatory's gorgeous "blue marble" image then filled in a spreadsheet of all Beagle's ports of call and lat/long data from Fitzroy's Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's ships Adventure and Beagle, then painstakingly traced the voyage step by step but putting the lat/long markers and place names (many of which required extensive translation) into Google maps (which I'll make public shortly), then transferred these markers to the blue marble and connected the dots.

I'm very nearly finished with the static map, and have plans to make it all shiny and interactive eventually. Here's a teaser... part of the South American portion of the voyage.

*closes eyes and puts creative baby out there for whole world to see*

23 July 2008

Three cheers for Diana Sudyka

First, she donated a portion of sales from her giclee prints of a finch bedecked Darwin...

Then she designed our brilliant new logo gratis...

Now, she has donated a portion of sales from her new screenprint version of Darwin and the gang...
They are all sold out, I'm afraid, but don't let that stop you from visiting Diana's website, Etsy shop and blog and having a look around at the other beauties you will find there.

I am sure you will all agree that consistent supporters like Diana deserve some kind of special badge... about which, more soon!

22 July 2008

Lonesome George not so lonesome

Breaking news from Reuters:
Lonesome George may end bachelor days on Galapagos
Tue Jul 22, 2008 12:23am EDT By Alonso Soto

QUITO, July 21 (Reuters) - After decades of solitude, "Lonesome George" may finally save his species of Galapagos giant tortoise from extinction, his keepers said on Monday.

George, a Pinta island tortoise who has shown little interest in reproducing during 36 years in captivity, stunned his keepers by mating with one of his two female companions of a similar species of Galapagos tortoise.

Park rangers found a nest with several eggs in George's pen and placed three in incubators. It will take about four months to know whether the eggs bear George's offspring.

"Even if these three eggs are fertile and the born tortoises survive it will take several (genetic) generations to think of having a Pinta purebred ... even centuries," the park said in a statement.

After trying almost everything from artificial insemination to having George watch younger males mate, his keepers had nearly lost hope. At 60 to 90 years old, George is in his sexual prime and should be able to reproduce.

Scientists found a distant relative of George on another island last year, sparking hopes of another male for mating with some Pinta genes.

The visual differences of tortoises from different islands were among the features of the Galapagos that helped British naturalist Charles Darwin formulate his theory of evolution.

George, considered by many the world's rarest creature and a conservation icon, was thought to be the last of his kind after fishermen and pirates slaughtered his species for food.

Ecuador has declared the islands at risk and the United Nations says efforts to protect them should continue. Some 20,000 giant tortoises of various species now live on the islands.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

Is that a smile I detect on George's septuagenarian visage?

The President of the Royal Society on public engagement with science

What? What's that you say, Martin Rees? You say scientists need encouragement to engage with the public? That there's a big educational problem because young people who have an intrinsic interest in science (the big three: dinosaurs, space and tadpoles) somehow lose that interest due to poor (read "boring") instruction? That we must ensure young people are not turned off scientific careers?

Ahem.

*points to Beagle Project*

Sea-struck: Beagle Project interview on LabLit

Many thanks to Jennifer Rohn, LabLit editor, Nature Network blogger, fellow University of Washington PhD, fellow passer of the Life in the UK test and applicant for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK (no, we are not the same person, really, I swear), for conceiving and running this interview on LabLit.


Jennifer got everything right: from her correction of my typo that had Pliny the Elder living just 200 years ago to her 'Editor's note' that explains my distinct roles at the Natural History Museum and the Beagle Project ...and her photo captions are brilliant.

The one ittle exception is that she 'corrected' my proper spelling of whisky (an unpardonable sin in some circles). We should be forgiving, though, as Jenny, like me, is American, where whiskey is the norm. For all this, Jenny gets a special invitation to the Beagle launch party, which we hope will be in 2010 ...but only if we get the support we need to build her (see those PayPal buttons up there to the left?).

21 July 2008

SciFoo attendees list announced

Some of you may remember the shouts of delight emanating from the London area a few months back when I got invited to SciFoo Camp. Well, it's fast approaching now, and the SciFoo organisers have put up the near-final SciFoo "Campers" list on the (private) SciFoo wiki.

A quick scan reveals a few ever-so-slightly famous names including Craig Venter, Martin Rees and Sydney Brenner. If you don't know who these people are, might I subtly point you in the direction of Wikipedia?

PZ Myers will be there too (I plan on thanking him personally for all that lovely traffic he sends in the Beagle Project's direction).

Government calls on society to have its say on science: we say 'Build a new HMS Beagle.'

A press release from the Department of Universities, Innovation and Skills:
"Promoting public engagement on increasingly complex science issues and encouraging more people to choose science as a career are the key issues to be tackled by a consultation starting today."
How is this to done?
"The consultation to develop a Science and Society Strategy was launched by the Minister for Science and Innovation, Ian Pearson at Thinktank in the Birmingham Science Museum. The initiative aims to capture a range of views from the general public, scientists, businesses, media, education and government."
Sound of cracking knuckles and flexing fingers at Beagle Project central.

Dear Minister,

Your science and society consultation wishes to:

* Improve communication, generate interest, increase participation and convey the relevance of science;

* Build trust and confidence in scientific research in the public and private sectors; and

* Inspire young people from diverse backgrounds to become tomorrow's skilled scientists.

My input: help us build a new HMS Beagle in 2009. The build will be a focus for media and public interest in the Darwin bicentenary year of 2009, she will be launched in 2010, sailed by everyone from GCSE science students to practising science professionals. She will be equipped with webcams and satellte communications, her job will be to show young people exciting science as she visits Darwin's landfalls and crosses oceans.

She will apply the tools of modern science to the 170 year old work done by Darwin and Robert Fitzroy, she will visit many sites now suffering climate change and give young scientists eyes-on experience of its effects. Beagle will have a few hundreds of young people on its decks during its 20 year life, but their science, their exploration, their discoveries, their work side by side with practising scientists will be accessible to anyone online. And she will celebrate the days when brave young men with open minds went into uncharted waters (oceanographically and intellectually) and made new sciences, new displiclines that we today take for granted.

As Charles Darwin wrote: 'The voyage of the Beagle has been the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.' We have seen what happens when young minds meet exciting science outreach, and willingness to learn when they get on the decks of a square rigger. We believe a replica Beagle, built in 2009, sailing the world for 20 years afterwards, launched with the express intention of involving young minds in science would be a great result for science and society.

Give us a hand Mr Pearson, we need £5 million to build her. Then when the new Beagle sails into the Galapagos with British schoolchildren (alongside others) on its decks, watched by millions online and on TV you'll be able to say 'we made that happen.'

Regards,
Peter McGrath, director the HMS Beagle Trust.

19 July 2008

Beagle Project fundraising video on YouTube

In addition to volunteering her professional expertise to the Beagle Project, for which Peter has thanked her in his recent Beagle Project news update, Anna Faherty has also created this smashing YouTube video for us. May it go viral:

Beagle Project news update:

OK, an exciting couple of days. The Beagle Project descended on London (again) to meet politicians, potential funders and supporters.

• We had excellent news on the British funding front. As soon as we can tell you details, we will.

• We met members of the Darwin/Keynes family and were wonderfully received. More details of these meetings and pics coming up.

• We met Dr. David Kohn, top Darwin scholar and member of the board of the American Friends of Beagle, of which more soon.

• We are redesigning the Beagle Project website (we have had the most most tremendous help from Anna Faherty at Strategic Content) - any web designers out there with some time to spare, your input would be much appreciated.

14 July 2008

"Sizzle" fizzles

Note: this review is part of Sizzle Tuesday, a blogosphere experiment in which 50+ blogs will simultaneously publish their reviews of Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy at 5:00am EDT on Tuesday 15th July 2008.

I did not come into this review unbiased. I really, really wanted to like this movie. Randy Olson, director of Sizzle and also last year's Intelligent Design documentary Flock of Dodos, is a pioneer of science communication and I want him to succeed, and for more people to start doing what he is doing.

I am also very concerned about climate change, and especially the effect it is having on our biosphere, and so I am a big fan of any attempt to try and bring the topic more into the mainstream, especially debunking the phony claims of the climate change denialists running rampant out there.

It is for this reason -- that I was so prepared in advance to love this film and give it an A+ -- that I am really disappointed to have to say that I didn't like it.

I thought about opting out of the review. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, right? But that is not what Being A Blogger is about. It's about truth-telling from a personal perspective. So here is my personal truth about Sizzle:

The device used in the film is that it is a documentary of making a documentary about climate change. A real documentary film crew is filming a phony documentary film crew, with Randy Olson a common denominator - part of both real and phony film crews. And it seems that the exploits of the phony film crew are meant to be funny.

Problem is, they're not. First off, the "acting" is, well... uh... terrible. It reminded me of the homemade horror movie we filmed at a slumber party when I was 15 years old: overly affected and painfully adherent to stereotype. There were a couple of glimmers of true humor though, and as I want to be as positive as possible in this review, I thought I would list them here:
  • When the "camera crew" show up to the first interview in a Hummer.
  • When one of the "producers" scopes out the home of climate change denialist Dr Chillingari as a potential location for their interview with him, Randy Olson complains to the gay Hollywood "producer" that Chillingari's home is just too "weird", all the while said producer is dusting some of the many eccentricities cluttering his Malibu home and says something along the lines of, "oh, I don't know, I kind of liked it."
  • When the same producer quips, "Every documentary needs a celebrity. It's how they get validated."
  • When Randy Olson is talking on the phone to a celebrity's agent and says, "We're interviewing some of the world's top global warming scientists." and the agent says,
    "Yeah, I was afraid of that."
I'm afraid these are the gems, folks. Funny, I suppose, but only if you are simultaneously being tickled on the foot with a feather, and not nearly funny enough to warrant the "documentary of a documentary" device in the first place.

If there's a saving grace, it's the interviews with the top climate scientists Drs Richard Somerville and Jerry Meehl, who explain, in very straightforward terms, that climate change is real, it's caused by humans, and yes there's still hope to stop it. I particularly liked when Randy Olson asked Jerry Meehl, "do you believe the earth has warmed in the last 150 years" and Meehl replies "belief has nothing to do with it". Yay, science! I could have used a lot more of these interviews.

And at the end, the phony film crew is falling apart and they decide to get real by filming the "human face of global warming" and interviewing some of the people whose lives were wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. It's moving stuff, sure, but instead of focusing on the global warming link (though they do mention it at the end), the obsess far too long about the federal government's failed response to the emergency, which, as grievous as it indeed is, has nothing to do with a climate change documentary. Then they try to wrap it up with some phony feel-good scenes where the "film crew" become eco-warriors. But it's just too contrived to be meaningful.

In summary, Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy proves that, no matter how hard you try (and oh how they tried), climate change just isn't funny.

In which the Americans give Darwin bad breath and good will.

You will all by now be familiar with this pic of HMS Beagle, and we cannot thank Dr Gordon Chancellor enough for his permission to use it. It shows HMS Beagle on 17th October 1835 off James Island in the Galapagos, heaving-to (the sailing equivalent of putting the handbrake on) to lower a boat to recover the shore party. Darwin and a few Beagle crew had landed on James Island on 8th October and his Beagle Diary shows spent the time playing CSI Galapagos:
(11 Oct) A few years since in this quiet spot the crew of a Sealing vessel murdered their Captain. We saw the skull lying in the bushes.
eating tortoise and...
(12th-16th) We all were busily employed during these days in collecting all sorts of Specimens.
However on October 12th:
The little well from which our water was procured was very close to the Beach: a long Swell from the Northward having set in, the surf broke over & spoiled the fresh water. — We should have been distressed if an American Whaler had not very kindly given us three casks of water (& made us a present of a bucket of Onions). Several times during the Voyage Americans have showed themselves at least as obliging, if not more so, than any of our Countrymen would have been. Their liberality moreover has always been offered in the most hearty manner.


I can only say the same of present day American support for the present day Project to build a replica.

12 July 2008

Darwin's defining moment, Wallace's wake-up call.

Neville Hawcock writing in the Financial Times Defining Moments column publishes a brief, thoughtful acount of Darwin breaking cover in 1858. Wallace's Rottweiler and other members of the pack wil be delighted with Mr Hawcock's last paragraph:
The result, fewer than 18 months later, was On the Origin of Species, and a revolution in human thought that reverberates to this day.

That revolution would still have happened without Wallace’s intervention: the creationist view had long been crumbling. But it would have happened later, and perhaps not under Darwin’s banner. If next year is Darwin’s year, it is thanks to Wallace’s wake-up call.

9 July 2008

What is that there on the ground? Is it ... could it be ... a gauntlet?

This post goes out to all of our readers and fans who think The Beagle Project is a great idea - for science, for public engagement, for education, and yes, for counterbalancing those anti-rationalists out there who would indoctrinate our children against natural science, and while they're at it, against the natural world itself...

...but who haven't yet thought to turn good will into action by clicking our PayPal button and donating $1000, $100, $10, or even $5 to help us re-build the most important ship in the history of science.

Avast, ye armchair Beagle Project cheerleaders: prepare to be shamed into action!

It was bad enough that creationists were able to raise $27 million for their "museum" in Kentucky, and now I'm dismayed to report that they have successfully raised a further $500,000 to make a "documentary" for 2009 that intends to:
"challenge evolution in a fresh way. Based on an original concept from Dr Emil Silvestru of CMI–Canada, the film revisits some of the places Darwin visited, and ideas he formulated, during his historic 1830’s voyage on HMS Beagle. Together with natural history footage from South America, period re-enactments and interviews with leading authorities from around the world, the documentary will illustrate how the evolutionary viewpoint is far from the tried and tested science fact that many believe it to be. It will investigate the man, the legend and the unfortunate world-changing legacy of Charles Darwin."
The website's leading quote is:
"Since the story of evolution has saturated cultures internationally it has become a major hindrance to people accepting Christ. In nations like Canada, one of the main reasons huge numbers of young people won’t consider the truth claims of Scripture is evolution. As the Darwin hype grows in 2009 this documentary will provide Christian answers to godless naturalism."
And for this they have raised $500K, people! Of course, as with similar ilk, it will be completely bogus at best, slanderous at worst. But... but... there it is.

By comparison, for our science, education and outreach project that will see the HMS Beagle once again sailing the seas for science, attracting huge crowds in port and media coverage, providing young and old alike with moments of thrilling adventure both physical and intellectual, we have raised through our PayPal mechanism a grand total of jack squat*.

So come on, folks, if the creationists can raise half a million for their "documentary", then surely evolutionists can raise 10 million for The Beagle Project! The PayPal button is over there to the left, in several places. Click it. You know you want to.

H/t to George Beccaloni.

*Okay, that's not entirely true: we have had some very generous donations by PayPal and for those we are truly grateful. But the total amount is small. We have also had other donations, corporate and individual, and these have enabled us to keep an office and hire an administrator, but the bald fact is we still need $10 million US Dollars to build the Beagle.

8 July 2008

Beagle Project Podcats*

So who got the face of Charles Darwin and HMS Beagle on the UK £10 note? Who is behind the Friends of Charles Darwin, the Red Notebook weblog? The first Beagle Project podcast with the the Founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin is on its way.

* See Karen's title typo below.

7 July 2008

Underdogs on the Guardian Science Weekly Podcats

Note: Yes, I did notice my typo above but then decided it was far too delightful to correct.

This week on the Guardian Science Weekly podcats podcast:
"This week, the Science Weekly team discuss dark energy and the even darker matter of the gender gap with astrophysicist Sarah Bridle - recipient of a Women in Science fellowship. It's sponsored by a well-known cosmetics company - is it worth it? Do awards like this actually help to de-beard science? And isn't this a wider societal problem anyway?

Also in the show, we hear from comedian Bill Bailey about his admiration for the anthropologist Alfred Russel Wallace - the forgotten hero of evolution."

NHM London seeking two post-docs to undertake collections survey for climate change research

Note: revised on 8th July 2008...

The Natural History Museum
Two temporary postdoctoral positions: Biotic response to Climate Change


The Natural History Museum is investing in a review of its collections to identify areas for future databasing and research relevant to climate change. Two researchers with PhD or equivalent experience are sought to undertake a collections review involving extensive interaction with curatorial and research staff. One post is for six months starting October 2008, the second is for 9 months starting August 2008 and will include a review of similar exercises in other museums. The posts will be based at the Museum in South Kensington. Candidates with experience of collections-based research in any taxonomic group are encouraged to apply. Salary will be up to £28,170 p.a. pro-rata. For further information, including a full job description, and to apply online please visit The Natural History Museum website at www.nhm.ac.uk/jobs

5 July 2008

It's "Wallace Week" at the National Botanic Garden of Wales

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Wallace-Darwin paper on natural selection, and to highlight the Welsh connection to Wallace, the National Botanic Garden of Wales is putting on:
"...a short promenade performance in the Wallace Garden on Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th July at 3.00pm and Saturday 5th July at 12 noon, 1.15pm and 3pm. This show is short, half an hour long but is brilliant, informative, sensitive, friendly, imaginative and highly entertaining. There is no charge for the show and it takes place outdoors in the Wallace Garden. If the weather is unkind then the performance will take place in the Great Glasshouse."
The play is part of the garden's "Week of Wallace" which, in addition to the play, includes an "exhibiton and book of poems about the life and work of Usk-born Wallace."

Well done, Wales!

4 July 2008

Darwin and Wallace as you've never seen them before

Niles Eldredge, an appreciation by Sandwalk

If you haven't bookmarked Sandwalk, do so. And go and read Larry's appreciation of Niles Eldredge's science writing. Eldredge is something of legend: he coauthored the 1973 paper on punctuated equilibrium with the late Steven Jay Gould and is now curator of palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Oh, and we're delighted - in a running round punching the air kind of way - that he's agreed to become a director of the American Friends of Beagle. More on which later.

3 July 2008

The BBC has announced its Darwin 2009 plans

Sir David Attenborough (all kneel) and Andrew Marr are the star turns in a series of programmes:

The BBC has outlined a raft of programmes to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin, featuring Sir David Attenborough and Andrew Marr.

February 12, 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and November 24 next year marks 150 years since On The Origin Of Species was published.

Darwin's book laid out the theory of evolution by natural selection.

The programmes will feature during the BBC's winter season 08/09.

George Entwistle, controller knowledge commissioning, BBC Vision, said: "The key Darwin anniversaries provide an excellent opportunity for the BBC to explore in real depth this revolutionary idea, and the man behind it."

BBC1 will kick off the season with a one-off special from Sir David and the Natural History Unit in Bristol. With the working title Tree Of Life, Sir David will make the case for the importance of the science of evolution in the one-hour programme.

Marr will front a three-part series for BBC2, exploring the radical impact of Darwin's theory, with the working title Andrew Marr On Darwin's Legacy.

BBC4 will present two specially commissioned one-off documentaries - What Darwin Didn't Know and Darwin: In His Own Words. The latter programme will use newly-released documents from Cambridge University on Darwin's thoughts before he made his theory public.

Farmer Jimmy Doherty will recreate Darwin's plant experiments at Down House, the Darwin family home in Kent, in a BBC2 series Darwin's Garden.

BBC Radio 4 and 3 will also be marking the anniversaries with programmes.


Source: PA

1 July 2008

Breaking cover and breaking ground

Today is not only the 150th (thank you KevinZ) anniversary of the day Darwin and Wallace's joint paper was read to the Linnean (see below for an appreciation of Wallace's often underestimated contribution, and for the full text of the paper here), it is also the day on which Darwin started his first notebook on 'transmutation'.

H/t The Red Notebook.

And in the Daily Telegraph, Martin Rees of the Royal Society gives the anniversary the write up it deserves.

A guest post by Wallace's Rottweiler on the 150th anniversary of natural selection.

Note: you can also download a copy of this article (pdf)

Happy 150th Birthday Natural Selection!

A guest post by George Beccaloni



Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first public announcement of what Richard Dawkins has called "...the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind." He was of course referring to the theory of natural selection, the primary mechanism driving the evolution of life on our planet; an idea actually discovered independently by two minds, not just one. Whilst the owner of one of these brains, Charles Darwin, is rather well known, the possessor of the other, Alfred Russel Wallace, is not exactly the household name he once was. So who was Wallace and how did he come to be the co-discoverer of what is probably the most revered (and reviled) idea in human history?

Wallace was born near Usk, Monmouthshire, England (now part of Wales) on the 8th of January 1823 to a downwardly mobile middle-class English couple. Due to his father's deteriorating financial situation he was forced to leave school aged 14 and work for his brother doing land surveying. This job involved roaming all over the English and Welsh countryside and it was at this time that his strong interest in natural history developed. Wallace became an evolutionist in 1845 whilst living in Neath in Wales, after being inspired by Robert Chambers' controversial book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. So interested in the subject did he become that in 1848 he suggested to his friend Henry Walter Bates that they go on an expedition to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil to collect animals and plants and try to solve the great "mystery of mysteries" of how evolutionary change has taken place. Although Wallace made many important discoveries during his four years in the Amazon Basin he did not manage to find the elusive mechanism. That would have to wait until some time later.

In 1854 Wallace left England again on an ambitious collecting expedition to the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia and Indonesia). He would spend nearly eight years in the region, and undertake sixty or seventy separate journeys resulting in a combined total of around 14,000 miles of travel. He visited every important island in the archipelago at least once, and several on multiple occasions, and collected almost 110,000 insects, 7500 shells, 8050 bird skins, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, including over a thousand species new to science.

In February 1855 whilst in Sarawak, Borneo, Wallace wrote what was probably the most important paper published on evolution up until that point. His “Sarawak Law” article made such an impression on the famous geologist Charles Lyell that in November 1855, soon after reading it, Lyell started writing a "species notebook" in which he began to contemplate the implications of evolutionary change. In April 1856 Lyell paid a visit to Darwin at Down House, and Darwin divulged his theory of natural selection to Lyell for the first time: an idea which Darwin had been working on, more or less in secret, for about 20 years. Soon afterwards Lyell sent a letter to Darwin urging him to publish the theory lest someone beat him to it (he probably had Wallace in mind!), so in May 1856 Darwin, heeding this advice, began to write a "sketch" of his ideas for publication. Finding the "sketch" unsatisfactory, Darwin abandoned it in about October 1856 and instead began to write an extensive book on the subject.

In February 1858 Wallace was suffering from an attack of fever on the remote Indonesian island of Halmahera when suddenly the idea of natural selection occurred to him. As soon as he had sufficient strength he wrote an detailed essay explaining his theory and sent it together with a covering letter to Charles Darwin, who he knew from correspondence was interested in the subject of species transmutation (as evolution was then known). He asked Darwin to pass the essay on to Charles Lyell if Darwin thought it was sufficiently interesting:- evidently hoping that Lyell would ensure that it was published in a good journal. Lyell (who Wallace had never been in contact with) was one of the most respected scientists of the time and Wallace must have thought that he would be interested to learn about his new theory because it explained the evolutionary "law" which Wallace had proposed in his 1855 paper. Darwin had mentioned in a letter to Wallace that Lyell had found his “Sarawak Law” paper noteworthy.

Unbeknownst to Wallace, Darwin had of course discovered natural selection many years earlier. He was therefore horrified when he received Wallace's letter and immediately appealed to his friends Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice on what to do. They famously decided to present Wallace's essay (without first asking his permission!), along with two unpublished excerpts from Darwin's writings on the subject, to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on July 1st 1858. These documents were published together in the Society's journal a month later as the paper "On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; And On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection". Darwin's contributions were placed before Wallace's essay, thus emphasising Darwin's priority to the idea. Wallace later grumbled that his essay "...was printed without my knowledge, and of course without any correction of proofs", contradicting Lyell and Hooker's statement in their introduction to the joint papers that "...both authors...[have]...unreservedly placed their papers in our hands". This unfortunate episode prompted Darwin to abandon writing his big book on evolution and instead, he rushed to produce an "abstract" of what he had written up until that point. This "abstract" was published fifteen months later in November 1859 as On the Origin of Species: a book which Wallace remarked would "...live as long as the 'Principia' of Newton."

In spite of the theory's traumatic birth (which in the case of Darwin's ideas was more like a caesarean section!) Darwin and Wallace developed a genuine admiration and respect for one another. Wallace frequently stressed that Darwin had more claim to the idea of natural selection than he did and he even named one of his most important books Darwinism!

Wallace spent the rest of his long life developing and defending the theory of natural selection, as well as working on a very wide variety of other (sometimes controversial!) subjects. By the turn of the century he was very probably Britain's best known naturalist and by the time of his death in 1913, he may well have been one of the world's most famous people. So why then is he so poorly known today? This is a tricky question, because the explanation has to take into account that during Wallace's lifetime he was widely acknowledged to be the co-discoverer of the theory. In fact natural selection was often called the Darwin-Wallace theory and the highest possible honours of the land were bestowed on him for his role as its co-discoverer. These include the Darwin–Wallace and Linnean Gold Medals of the Linnean Society of London; the Copley, Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society (Britain's premier scientific body); and the Order of Merit (awarded by the ruling Monarch as the highest civilian honour of Great Britain). It was only in the 20th century that Wallace became almost totally eclipsed by Darwin.

My working hypothesis to explain the overshadowing of Wallace by Darwin is as follows: In the late 19th and early 20th century natural selection as an explanation for evolutionary change became very unpopular, with most biologists adopting alternative theories such as neo-Lamarckism, orthogenesis, or the mutation theory (see The eclipse of Darwinism). It was only with the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s that natural selection became the generally accepted mechanism of evolutionary change. By then, however, the history of the discovery had been forgotten by many (there was a new generation of biologists) and when interest in the theory revived, many wrongly assumed that the idea had first been published in Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Thanks to the 'Darwin Industry' of recent decades, Darwin's fame has risen exponentially, eclipsing the important contributions of his contemporaries, like Wallace.

The downward spiralling of Wallace's fame is reflected in the way that important anniversaries of the July 1st meeting have been celebrated by the Linnean Society: the 50th anniversary of 1908 and 100th anniversary of 1958 were very grand affairs, with foreign dignitaries and members of the Darwin and Wallace families in attendance (Wallace himself participated in the 1908 celebrations). The celebration today at the Society will, in contrast, be a considerably more modest event and the prestigious Darwin-Wallace medal which the Society traditionally awards to the world's most prominent evolutionary biologists every 50 years on the July 1st anniversary will not be presented this year as expected. Instead the medal will be awarded on February 12th next year - Darwin's 200th birthday!




I leave you with some pertinent extracts from the Linnean Society's publication which was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers (it is available in full here):-

The President of the Linnean Society said:-
"We are met together to-day to celebrate what is without doubt the greatest event in the history of our Society since its foundation. Nor is it easy to conceive the possibility in the future of any second revolution of Biological thought so momentous as that which was started 50 years ago by the reading of the joint papers of Mr. Darwin and Dr. Wallace, "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection," communicated to our Society by Sir Charles Lyell and by Sir Joseph Hooker, whom we have the happiness of seeing with us to-day.....The presence among us of Dr. Wallace, one of the two creators of the theory, and of Sir Joseph Hooker, who brought it into the world, is in itself enough to render our meeting memorable, and to ensure its success...

In presenting the gold medal the President said:-
Dr. ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE, We rejoice that we are so happy as to have with us to-day the survivor of the two great naturalists whose crowning work we are here to commemorate.

Your brilliant work, in Natural History and Geography, and as one of the founders of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, is universally honoured and has often received public recognition, as in the awards of the Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society, and of our own Medal in 1892.

To-day, in asking you to accept the first Darwin-Wallace Medal, we are offering you of your own, for it is you, equally with your great colleague, who created the occasion which we celebrate.... I ask you, Dr. Wallace, to accept this medal, struck in your honour and in that of the great work inaugurated 50 years ago by Mr. Darwin and yourself."

On being awarded with a silver version of the medal Darwin's cousin Francis Galton remarked "..I may say that this occasion has called forth vividly my recollection of the feelings of gratitude that I had towards the originators of the then new doctrine which burst the enthraldom of the intellect which the advocates of the argument from design had woven around us. It gave a sense of freedom to all the people who were thinking of these matters, and that sense of freedom was very real and very vivid at the time. If a future Auguste Comte arises who makes a calendar in which the days are devoted to the memory of those who have been the beneficent intellects of mankind, I feel sure that this day, the 1st of July, will not be the least brilliant."

It is a shame that few today realise the significance of this date.


Dr George Beccaloni (aka 'Wallace's Rottweiler') is an evolutionary biologist/entomologist with a particular fondness for cockroaches - a group of insects even more maligned than Wallace! He founded the A. R. Wallace Memorial Fund which has restored Wallace's neglected grave and erected monuments to him at his birthplace and elsewhere. George is co-editor of the book Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace, which will be published by Oxford University Press in November 2008. His e-mail address is g.beccaloni (at) nhm.ac.uk.

Originally published on The Beagle Project Blog on July 1st 2008. This essay is copyright George Beccaloni. However, it may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, in whole or in part, provided that attribution is given to the author.

Diana Sudyka does it again

Regular readers will know that Chicago-based artist Diana Sudyka created our lovely new logo. Some of you might also remember that last year she painted a watercolour of Darwin and his famous finches; the giclee prints sold like hotcakes, and Diana donated a portion of the proceeds to the Beagle Project. I've got mine hanging above my computer at home (a place I spend only a little bit of time each day). The print is just gorgeous with its doting finches dotting a friendly foliage-swathed Darwin.

Well, she's done it again: this time it's a limited edition screen print based on that original watercolour. They are sure to go quick, so you'd better act soon to snap one up on Diana's Etsy shop. And while you're at it, take a moment to have a look-see around her website and blog. You won't regret it!