jump to navigation

Evolution Overdrive August 20, 2008

Posted by Ian in Science.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Given 2008 is the 150th 199th anniversary of the publication of The Origin Of Species it is no surprise there is significant activity going on about Darwin and evolution this year.  Given Darwin and the Origin of species are both somewhat old (lol) it seems there is a bunch of evolution related stuff going on this year.  And it seems this last month was the time for it to all start happening in my world.

In the last month or so I seem to have encountered a number of fascinating events, books and the like relating to evolution (some relating to the anniversary, others just coincidence) so I thought I’d share them along with some comments/reviews.  It is nice to talk about the positive reasons for one’s world view once and a while rather than forever battling the opposite views, as important as that is!  Listed roughly in chronological order:

The Making of the Fittest by Sean B Carroll

I found this book in a local book store and was initially captured by the title and also it’s subtitle:  DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution.  Flicking over to the back page yields an even bolder statement:

A generation ago, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene changed our view of the living world and the evolutionary forces that shaped it.  Sean B Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest is destined to be the watershed book for the new generation.

Big words indeeds.  Still it had caught my attention and the reviews listed in the front were all interesting.  Further I like books that get straight to the point and a quick read of the preface, entitled “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” quickly suggested that was exactly what this book was about. 

Essentially the book covers the DNA case for evolution quite distinct from fossils, observable so-called microevolution or anatomical similarities.  And in my opinion the book does it does it well enough that, with limited other background, it is easy to see evolution is real purely from the DNA evidence. 

The book is very easy to read, and I think Carroll has an amazing ability to simplify and explain the concepts without losing too much through oversimplification or confusing the reader by inconsistent simplification.  I think this is a must read for anyone interested in the topic.

Richard Dawkins:  The Genius of Charles Darwin

Part of the BBC approach to the anniversary is producing several documentaries about Darwin and Evolution.  In particular Richard Dawkins has produced an interesting three part documentary entitled The Genius of Charles Darwin.  All three parts of this documentary are currently available on YouTube and the best way to see them is to go here.

I have now watched all three and I have mixed feelings about it.  I have tremendous respect for Dawkins and the work he does – in fact it probably wouldn’t be too far off to call me a bit of a fanboy – and a lot of the material in this documentary series features some great Dawkins moments.  However even through these tinted glasses I am not convinced this series is overly effective.  It does contain a lot of great material but I am torn on whether or not the continual jabs at creationism are actually constructive, not because I have a problem jabbing at creationists (lol) but because it is distracting in this context. 

I think this documentary tried to achieve two things without focusing on either – the first to explain the theory and history and Darwin, and secondly to build the case for teaching it in classrooms and the implied counter to teaching creationism.  Its at times schizophrenic approach towards two different issues fails to build a complete case for either which is a bit disappointing in my opinion. 

I do think they are well worth watching but I think they could have been much better with a more dedicated focus.

Allan Wilson:  Evolutionary

I recently heard about a documentary about a (sadly) not well known kiwi hero which was getting limited distribution in New Zealand from a few different sources (such as here).  That hero is Allan Wilson – one of the key figures in the history of evolutionary theory and leader of the team at Berkley that coined the notion of mitochondrial eve and was responsible for pushing forward the biochemical chain of evidence for evolution.  In a very real sense his contributions to science were no less significant than Rutherford’s yet few kiwis (myself included until this year) have ever heard of him. 

Anyway quite by chance while going to see another movie I noticed the Cinema Gold complex in Palmerston North (a boutique cinema attached to the main one) was showing the documentary so I bought tickets and went along.  Amazingly, in a cinema with only 40 seats, there was just 5 people there for the viewing at 3:30pm on a Sunday.  I guess the time wasn’t ideal but still!

Anyway the documentary was a brilliant look at both the man himself and his work and legacy.  It covered his New Zealand upbringing, his move to the USA, and to my delight, not just a once over lightly of what he discovered but considerable detail about what it was and how it worked.  It was not only a fascinating biography but also tremendously educational as well.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

It is also worth mentioning that this documentary was actually shown together with another documentary called Made in Taiwan.  This is a New Zealand documentary (which apparently has been shown on TV before) which follows Nathan Rarere and Oscar Kightley as they send away their DNA for sequencing and tracking at Oxford in the UK.  They trace back their ancestry through different Pacific islands and they see how different island nations have changing characteristics as you move across the Pacific.  Ultimately the end up in Taiwan meeting the indigenous people there, and they were amazed to find very similar people there to the other pacific islands. 

The story is wonderfully told with a warmth and purpose that makes it compelling viewing.  You get a real sense of science, reality and life coming together in a really meaningful sense.  I initially was only really going to see the Allan Wilson documentary but I am very glad I saw this as well.  If you haven’t seen it do – it is well worth it.


By more chance, while waiting for the Allan Wilson documentary to start, I wandered into Whitcoulls and noticed they had a 25% off DVDs sale.  I browsed the shelves to see if there were any movies I couldn’t live without, and then had my usual look through the documentary section. 

There, with a relatively innocuous black and white photo of Darwin as it’s cover, was a documentary simply entitled Evolution.  Closer inspection revealed it to be a Siren Visual publication of the PBS documentary narrated by Liam Neeson which was called Evolution.  I had wanted a copy of this 8 hour documentary for ages and a quick check of the price tag revealed a more than reasonable price of $29.95, and of course less 25% was a smooth $22 and change.  Great value!

I have only watched the first 4 hours so far and it is exceptionally well done.  The first episode (2 hours) is dedicated to the story of Darwin himself including recreations which masterfully tell the story with good taste and humour.  The second episode covers the major transformations that have taken place over prehistory including the basic body plan, the shift from water to land (and back), and the emergence of humans.  The third episode covers the role of extinction including mass extinctions in the story of evolution. 

The remaining 4 episodes cover evolutionary arms races, sex, the “mind’s big bang”, and finally one that should be interesting entitled “What About God?”  To be honest this series so far is a much more powerful tale of the history and evidence of evolution than Dawkins most recent documentary discussed earlier.  I wish Dawkins had just referred the evolution side to this documentary and pressed home the education issue more completely.

Anyway this is also in the highly recommended category – the narration and structure is very slick and it makes for enjoyable watching.  Oh and for an extra bonus, the first episode features both Daniel Dennett and none other than the late Stephen Jay Gould!

Finally I want to make a plug for Siren Visual which are an Australian DVD production company that have taken the initiative of producing Dawkins material plus PBS documentaries and many other great TV programs in DVD format, and at great prices.  I have the Root of All Evil, The Enemies of Reason and now Evolution on DVD from them (all purchased at NZ mainstream retailers) and I’d never get them otherwise!

Moral Minds by Marc D Hauser

Another trip to a bookstore (a dangerous occupation for my bank account!) yielded yet another fascinating book that I have just started reading.  What initially caught my attention was that it is a book about morals which has been a hot topic in the comments on this blog recently.  However two things made me realise this was an important book. 

Firstly the subtitle is How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong.  This is an issue which strongly resonates with me and my view of the way the world works, and a serious academic discussion of this issue seemed important to me.  The very first sentence of the book gets right to business:

The central idea of this book is simple:  we evolved a moral instinct, a capacity that naturally grows within each child, designed to generate rapid judgements about what is morally right or wrong based on an unconscious grammar of action.

The book is epic (460 pages plus references etc) but very well written and easy to read.  My initial impression some 30 pages in is the central theme is that, like the underlying skill for language, there is an underlying skill for moral judgements that we draw on to effectively live as a species.  Hauser explains the development of a child’s moral skill as analogous to learning a language:

I argue that our moral faculty is equipped with a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems.  Once we have acquired our culture’s specific moral norms – a process that is more like growing a leg than sitting in Sunday school and learning about vices and virtues – we judge whether actions are permissible, obligatory, or forbidden without conscious reasoning and without explicit access to the underlying principles.

The second reason I picked this to be an important book was the caliber of the reviewers.  The front cover features a glowing comment by Stephen Pinker while the back cover features an equally positive comment by Noam Chomsky.  When Chomsky says something is “a contribution of great importance and influence” that’s good enough for me!

The Principle of Evolution:  Absolute Simplicity

As part of celebrating the anniversary discussed earlier, the Royal Society of New Zealand in conjunction with Radio New Zealand are producing a series of lectures across New Zealand about Darwin and evolution.  Further details can be seen on the Royal Society Website

Tonight I attended the third public lecture which was in Palmerston North.  It was by Professor David Penny who is the director of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Biology and Evolution at Massey University.  The lecture was titled The Principle of Evolution:  Absolute Simplicity and it was very good.  Penny is a relaxed and engaging talker who covered the basics of evolution well.  The lecture was recorded by Radio NZ and apparently is being broadcast on Radio NZ this Sunday.  I found reference to it here and reference to the previous two lectures here and here.  However I can’t find any downloads for them so hopefully they become available soon!  Should be well worth a listen if you can anyway.

It is nice to have so much positive material about evolution to talk to and much of the material discussed above will have pride of place in my resource library for a very long time I suspect!  I look forward to your thoughts on the material covered.


1. Damian - August 21, 2008

Next year is the 150th anniversary of the book and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

But, hey, great set of links!

2. Ian - August 21, 2008

So it is, I wonder why are all the big agencies (BBC, Royal Society of NZ, History Channel doing Evolve etc) pushing it now then? I just assumed all the activity was because it was this year. Ahh well I guess that makes this year the 225th anniversary… (in base 8 lol)

3. Damian - August 21, 2008


4. Damian - August 21, 2008

Hehe, I’ve just noticed that your correction is wrong too. (Sorry!)
This year is the 149th anniversary of the book. Not the 199th.


5. Ian - August 21, 2008

Long week lol.

6. Damian - August 21, 2008

Ha! I know what you mean.

7. Ken - August 22, 2008

I think the RS launched their activities in February. There has also been mention of a July 2008 date for the 150th anniversary of the first presentation of the natural selection theory in a joint Darwin/Wallace paper.

Your comment on the BBC’s The Genius of Charles Darwin is interesting. I hope to watch the videos this weekend but I think I know what you mean. It’s interesting because the approach is not really down to the presenter (Dawkins). Having watched several of the uncut interviews which were used for The Root of All Evil I was interested to see how much the directors actually drive the interviews – specifically requiring that certain questions are asked, or even pursuing a subject much further than Dawkins himself wanted to.

So, I think this particular approach was one that the BBC directors wanted. Possibly this was part of the reason for choosing Dawkins as the presenter. I guess they are producing so much on Darwin this year they can afford to concentrate on different approaches and utilise some controversy. There will be plenty of opportunity to convey approaches to Darwin which are more neutral, or even pro-Christian.

I have also noticed that the UK documentaries are often much more willing to promote religious controversy than we would be in NZ. Perhaps this is partly a result of the huge diversity they now have – and the problems this is producing.

8. Ian - August 22, 2008

I agree the producers probably had a bit part in it, but I’m not sure it is just that. I definitely get the sense of Dawkins frustration throughout the whole thing with respect to creationism and it feels like it spills out over the whole series.

Anyway it will be interesting to see what your take is after seeing them – maybe it’s just me lol.

9. Embarrased by Darwin « Open Parachute - September 1, 2008

[…] See also: Royal Society of New Zealand Darwin Lectures Part One: The Evolution of Darwin Part Two: The Evolution of Biological Complexity. Part Three: The Principles of Evolution; History of Life Part Four:The Fossil Record Part Five: Evolutionary Psychology Part Six: The Storytelling Ape: Evolution, Art, Story, Culture Evolution Overdrive […]

10. vicki - September 21, 2008

hello, i am currently doing my A level in re and have been given this coursework question..

Only a Belief In emobodied existence after death is philosophically justifiable..

i was wondering does anyone know any books or websites that
i would find of help in answering this question.. or even any help from you?

if you do please email me on

it would be much appreciated x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: