24 November 2009

On Origin's anniversary, it's time for some legacy-thinking

150 years ago today John Murray published Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This is the last of three Darwin anniversaries spanning 18 months, a period of celebration we've been calling Darwin200 here in the UK.

For me, as both director of science for this here Beagle Project and also the science coordinator for the Natural History Museum's Darwin200 campaign, it's been pretty much all Darwin all the time for the entire time. I confess to having succumbed a little to Darwin fatigue – I don't get quite as excited as I used to at the sight of a First Edition of On the Origin of Species for example, and I worry that any Darwin-related projects or stories proposed for the next few years will suffer from unfair backlash ('Oh this is a Darwin project? Wasn't the anniversary in 2009?').

And this has got me thinking: what will be the legacy of these celebrations? What, if anything, have we done that will have a lasting effect on the academic and/or public consciousness? Some of the Darwin200 projects have involved permanent installations – Andrew Smith's young Darwin statue at Christ's College in Cambridge is a literally gleaming example – but many more have been of a more ephemeral sort: conferences, plays, musical performances, special exhibitions, etc. As good as these have been, they're over now.

One solution is to immediately embark on yet another commemoration, another 'Year of [insert scientist's name or scientific discipline here]'. Directly on the heels of Darwin200, many of that group's partners will be smoothly transitioning to the International Year of Biodiversity. But if I've learned one thing from Darwin200 it's that it will be over before we know it. It's time for some legacy-thinking. By that I mean creative thinking – and action to go with it – about how to capture and extend the momentum of these commemorations beyond their sell-by dates.

We believe that The Beagle Project, though indeed initiated during the build-up to 2009, will bear Darwin's legacy well into the future, without hinging on any special day, month, year or even decade. Our vision is a project that will generate and maintain enthusiasm for science and the natural world not only by commemorating the achievements of the past but by creating the opportunity for new adventures and the discoveries that will change our future.

18 November 2009

Saving Darwin's Muse: Update! With data!

Remember Darwin's mockingbirds? Last year I was all excited about getting to extract DNA from the specimens Darwin and Fitzroy collected on Floreana in Galápagos in 1835. Well the paper reporting the results of the DNA study will be published today in Royal Society's Biology Letters and it's already been covered by The Times, the BBC and Conservation Magazine's Journal Watch (so far... I will add more here if and when they appear). The Natural History Museum press release is here.

It's an exciting day, to see this project published, and I'm delighted about the coverage, not least about how it can highlight the bird's conservation status and efforts underway to protect its long-term survival.

The only thing about this that makes me a little bit uncomfortable is that these articles focus a lot on me, when, in fact, as I said in my first post on the topic, I am but a tiny player in a large, multi-layered research and conservation project. 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 first author on the paper and is doing a much larger genetic analysis of Galápagos mockingbirds which includes hundreds of specimens from Gardner-by-Floreana and Champion – both historic specimens and birds they captured live and sampled on site over the last few years. Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation are developing a conservation programme for Floreana, and the Bird Group at The Natural History Museum in Tring, where the mockingbird specimens are held, were instrumental in providing access to the specimens and dissecting the tissue samples.

So what did I do then? As the NHM's Darwin200 science coordinator I facilitated the inclusion of the 1835 specimens in the project, I helped write the paper, and in terms of the research itself I did DNA extractions and microsatellite amplification reactions on the NHM specimens in parallel with Paquita to ensure that the data generated in Zurich were indeed from the two historic specimens and not the result of contamination.

Update: the latest piece, in Conservation Magazine's Journal Watch, interviews Lukas Keller. Hurrah!