Where Grey Matter meets Dark Matter

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Episode 25 - 18 March 2010

Here is Anita's copy of Origin of the Species on her bookshelf. Note that this is the adulterated
version by Ray Comfort, which was handed out freely at her University. Those wacky Creationists.
(If you don't know who Ray Comfort is, watch this - he's the guy who's not Mike Seaver.)

People didn't know much about the origin of species until there was a book published on the origin of species, called The Origin of Species (although the original title was "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life".) The book was published in 1859 and presented a detailed explanation, with very few assumptions, of why there are so many different types of bugs and slugs and mugs, and how they can come to be.

At that time the world was awash with information and speculation about life and how it got there. Explorers had pretty much filled in all the blank spaces of the globe, and naturalists were bringing back catalogues of new species. Palaeontology was also coming into its own and widening the list of known species to include those that don't exist anymore. Perhaps more importantly, palaeontologists and geologists were finding out that the Earth was a lot older than established doctrine permitted. It was into this maelstrom that Charles Darwin stepped, and emerged a household name.

The HMS Beagle. People were much smaller in those days.

From the end of 1831 to October 1836, the ship HMS Beagle travelled around the world, largely in the Southern Hermisphere (even dropping in on Australia), taking Darwin with it. On the way, he collected several fossils and contemporary specimens, but it was in the Galápagos (named after the saddle shape of the shells of tortoises), in the South Pacific, that (it is tradition to say) he really got the goods. He noticed that some of the species there were very similar to mainland species but with some curious variation. There were also marked variations between the islands - indeed, an experienced testudinidaphile could identify a tortoise's home just by the shape of its shell. There was also some important stuff about finches, but since Darwin didn't label his finch collection properly, they were more of inspirational use. The interesting thing about these variants of animals was that they were largely similar to others of the same species on the same island, but were quite different to the same species on different islands. 'Hmmm...', Darwin could be heard to remark.

By thinking about this a lot, and gathering more information for a few years, Darwin guessed that if you grant that a population has some variance in the different attributes that can be passed down to the next generation, then animals in the same species will come to specialise in different activities, and if you isolate these different populations, eventually they will grow apart so much that they become different species. Yet still he wasn't ready to commit all this to the unyielding treatment of the printer's press and the critics' review. It wasn't until Alfred Russel Wallace produced a paper (nearly 20 years after the voyage of the Beagle) with ideas very similar to Darwin's that he finally published the book he is famous for.

Here's Darwin sometime after he got back from his trip on the Beagle. He's probably thinking.
Portrait by George Richmond, late 1830s.

Darwin's work created a worldwide headslapping moment as all the pieces fell into place. The huge diversity of species could be explained by the relatively obvious observation (tautologically) that animals and plants are different and, consequently, are better or worse than others at different tasks. It was the last bit of XP required before leveling.

Darwin was prone to bouts of ponginanthropy.
Image originally published in The Hornet magazine, 1871.

But the idea behind 'natural selection' (that things better suited to their environment tend to do better and spawn new generations) can be applied to pretty much anything: economics and business, politics, TV shows, slang words,... Pretty much anything in human society has an element of selection, and humans will tend to select for those things that are better at some particular purpose. This then further spawns a whole list of spin-offs and copycats. The conversation has now mutated into one about memetics, so it's probably time to extinctivise it.


  • Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species (1st ed.), London: John Murray.
  • Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene,Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Free Press.
  • Ken Miller (1999). The peppered moth: an update, Brown University.
  • Blackmore, Susan J. (1999). The meme machine, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 288.


Planetary scientist Chris McKay.

From Home Improvement and Masterchef to debates about deforestation and climate change, a large chunk of human activity is about modifying our environment to suit our desires. When this is done on a planetary scale we could call it 'terraforming', although the origin of this phrase means to make a place more 'Earth-like', and so depending on what you do, and what you think of Earth, 'terraforming' may or may not be the right word to use..

Terraforming and the colonisation of other worlds is staple fare of sci-fi. Aliens and Total Recall are two films that come to mind. As humans can now seriously contemplate living in places other than Earth, the question is obvious: where should we go? We talk to Chris McKay, a planetary scientist from the Space Science Division of the NASA Ames Research Center. He fills us in on what the outlook for life (both terran and alien) is in our solar system and beyond.

Source: International Space University



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