On the Origin of the Species

Geoff Watts examines the impact of Darwin's On The Origin of Species on science, society and religion, then and now, on the 150th anniversary of its publication.

To mark the occasion for the final edition of Leading Edge, he visits 50 Albermarle Street in London, the home and office of Darwin's publisher, John Murray. There he meets another John Murray, direct descendent, and Randall Keynes, great great grandson of Charles Darwin, who tell him the circumstances of publication.

He also meets relatives of the fancy pigeons kept and bred by Darwin to demonstrate the unnatural selection of characteristics desired by humans. Pigeon breeder John Ross describes how Darwin showed they were all descended from the humble rock dove.

One of the mysteries that Darwin did not solve was the origin of life. Dr Graham Cairns-Smith of Glasgow University descibes how he thinks natural selection was at work even there to enable inorganic chemicals and crystals to evolve as precursors of the complex biochemical systems we see today.

A simple understanding of natural selection might suggest that a few vigorous weeds would dominate plant habitats, but instead you get flowery meadows with rich diversity. Professor Jonathan Silvertown of the Open University has shown how plants adapt differently to tiny variations in local conditions, which is why there can be 40 species in an English meadow and how about 30 ancestral types in the Cape Province of South Africa have evolved into 4,500 species.

Professor EO Wilson of Harvard University is one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists. He assesses Darwin's legacy and how it is leading towards a new unification between reductionist and ecological approaches to biology.

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30 minutes

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Thu 26 Nov 2009 21:00