Legacy of Charles Darwin

In 2009, BBC broadcaster Andrew Marr presented a series of programmes examining the legacy of Charles Darwin. It was shown on BBC2 as part of the Open University Programme.

These are my notes to which I added the book references discussed in the programme.

Andrew Marr – Darwin's Dangerous Ideas



http://www.brunette.brucity.be/PEGASE/darwin/beagle.JPGWhen traveling with The Beagle expedition, Charles Darwin discovered fossils of long extinct animals and noticed that some of the species were related to living animals – for example the armadillo's ancestor was far bigger. Darwin was fascinated by what he called “the wonderful relationship between the dead and the living”. The fossils were sent back to England and Henslow put them on show where they were a big success. Reflecting about the permanence of species, Charles Darwin confided to his friend, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker that “species are not immutable” : some species adapt and some species become extinct, the environment is important for adaptation and therefore, so Darwin: all life is connected through the struggle of species “bound together by a web of complex relations”. Darwin worried about the repercussion of these thoughts and held off publishing them.

http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/ridley/images/wallace.jpgAt the same time, Alfred Russell Wallace, another naturalist who made ends meet by selling fossils, asked himself why some species live and why others die. Wallace noticed that mankind has an input in the balance of nature – destroying the rain-forest leads to fast extinction because species lose the struggle to survive. Fearing that Wallace would pip him to the post with the theory of species, Charles Darwin published his seminal “On the Origin of the Species” in 1859 where he explained the process of “natural selection”.

File:Haeckel arbol bn.png

The German biologist Ernst Haeckel promoted Charles Darwin's works and coined the word “ecology”("oekologie") to define the conditions of struggle for existence and he also drew and classified species.


Darwin explored “the linkage to nature”, the fact that species are co-dependent. He wrote a book about the earthworm which recycles nutrients, makes mulch and helps the germination of seeds. Darwin writes that the loss of an organism like the earthworm would make parts of the planet hostile to live.


The Socialist William Morris, inspired by Darwin, explained that massive industrialization affected living conditions because not only have whole counties of England, and the heavens that hang over them, disappeared beneath a crust of unutterable grime, (Art under Plutocracy)


http://www.bristowandgarland.co.uk/Natural%20History/9816.jpgThe entomologist James William Tutt devoted his life to the study of moths and wrote about 900 articles and twenty books on the subject. He discovered that the peppered moth can camouflage on lichen-covered trees, and that black moths were rarer because birds could find them more easily than the peppered ones. In the course of his studies, Tutt discovered that in industrialized areas black moths are more common than peppered ones because they can camouflage on soot-covered trees. Thus linking human activity to evolution.


http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Images/Chicago/0226206386.jpegThe English ecologist Charles S Elton described the relationship between animals and environment in his work “Animal Ecology” (the ecology of invasions by animals and plants). He studied the behaviour of voles, mice and rats - “mouse society”- and concluded that weather, food availability and disease have an impact on ecology but in the case of rats and mice, they benefited from human interaction as they were eating grain from silos, and Elton concluded that food availability produced an increase of population: “setting up terrific dislocation in nature”, intensive farming brought an explosion of pests..


In 1956, the USA started to use the poison DDT to exterminate pests. As a result of DDT spraying, other species died too: bees, wildlife and even livestock that were drinking in contaminated waters. US marine-biologist Rachel Carson received a letter which said that in one area all the birds died because the insects and hence the food-chain was poisoned. Rachel Carson felt a sense of “urge and passing time”, and in 1962, published “In the Silent Spring” which explored the effect of DDT. Carson also noticed that pest insects adapted and evolved to become immune to DDT. The US government launched an inquiry about the interconnection of nature. Silent Spring therefore marks the beginnings of modern environmental movements because Carson wanted the public to be aware about the effects of intensive farming on agriculture.

http://www.waveneybooks.co.uk/images/lovelockgaia.jpgIn 1969, James Lovelock was employed on a freelance basis by NASA remarked that life on Mars was impossible and only the Earth had the right combination of gases to sustain life. The Earth as a whole was like a self-regulatory entity, a global ecosystem with its “vast delicate system of interconnection”. Lovelock's work inspired the author James Golding, who was his neighbour, to coin the term “the Gaia hypothesis”. The now famous NASA image of the blue Earth as seen from space emphasized the idea humankind's habitat being a lonely planet in the cosmos – it embodies the idea of the Earth vulnerability.

http://sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc1/hs085.snc1/4902_94380983246_20305533246_1989158_2233162_n.jpgWhen Charles Darwin wrote about the coral reef, he wrote that it left more impression on him than the pyramids. Coral reefs flourish in shallow water growing upon skeletons of coral. Sunlight, the right temperature, chemical composition of the ocean influence coral formation. Changes in the ocean means changes in the coral structure. The German biologist Thomas F. Goreau who worked on Jamaican coral reefs explained that microscopic algae live inside the coral and convert sunlight into sugars. If the ocean warms up, the coral expels the algae. According to his son Thomas J Goreau, mass coral bleaching means that the corals are dying because the oceans were getting warmer. This has an effect on greenhouse gases because corals absorb carbon monoxide and lock it away.

http://img.amazon.ca/images/I/51PaHClhtLL._SL500_AA300_.jpgThe tropical forest is shrinking as well, half of it has been eradicated so far – it is the habitat of most species. In "Tropical Forest and Climate" (1992),  Dr Norman Myers studied the human impact on the rainforest and concluded that whilst the extinction of one species per year is normal. Nowadays, the rate is 4% of species disappear per year, and including mammals, plants, insects this means that the rate of extinction is 1 per day. According to Myers, we live in a period of mass-extinction. The greatest numbers of casualties are in the rainforest, he says that the “Hamburger Connection” is responsible for that. The rainforest has to make space for cattle pastures.

Ecology has made humankind  more aware of ecosystems and species interdependence. James Lovelock showed that the Earth is our only habitat, and we have much to loose if our impact destroys the environment.

March 2010
Lovelock: 'We can't save the planet'

Professor James Lovelock, the scientist who developed Gaia theory, has said it is too late to try and save the planet.

The man who achieved global fame for his theory that the whole earth is a single organism now believes that we can only hope that the earth will take care of itself in the face of completely unpredictable climate change.

Interviewed by Today presenter John Humphrys, videos of which you can see below, he said that while the earth's future was utterly uncertain, mankind was not aware it had "pulled the trigger" on global warming as it built its civilizations. We're not really guilty. We didn't deliberately set out to heat the world'

What is more, he predicts, the earth's climate will not conveniently comply with the models of modern climate scientists.

As the record winter cold testifies, he says, global temperatures move in "jerks and jumps", and we cannot confidently predict what the future holds.

'The world doesn't change its climate conveniently'

Prof Lovelock does not pull his punches on the politicians and scientists who are set to gain from the idea that we can predict climate change and save the planet ourselves.

Scientists, he says, have moved from investigating nature as a vocation, to being caught in a career path where it makes sense to "fudge the data".

'Science has changed in our lifetime'

And while renewable energy technology may make good business sense, he says, it is not based on "good practical engineering". At the age of 90, Prof Lovelock is resigned to his own fate and the fate of the planet. Whether the planet saves itself or not, he argues, all we can do is to "enjoy life while you can".

Further reading: 

Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin

Art forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel 

British Moths by James William Tutt

Darwin on Earthworms by Charles Darwin

Art under Plutocracy by William Morris

The ecology of invasions by animals and plants by Charles S Elton

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Gaia - A new Look on Planet Earth by James Lovelock

Corals and Coral Reefs by Thomas F. Goreau, Nora I. Goreau and Thomas J. Goreau

Scientific American, August 1979


The Primary Source (tropical forests and our future) by Norman Myers -

Darwin's Dangerous Idea - BBC videos presented by Andrew Marr



(illustration by Ernst Haeckel)