Darwin Season, Radio 4
Melvyn and Co trace the origin of intelligent listening
Sunday 11 January 2009
Radio is at its best when the BBC decides to go big on something. It's the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth next month, and later this year it is 150 years since the publication of 'On the Origin of Species'. So Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' four-part special, from Monday to Thursday and an afternoon series of 'Letters to Darwin' have been utterly fascinating. If I could do a 'Spinal Tap', I'd give it six out of five.
On Monday, Bragg visited the Cambridge locations that played a part in Darwin's intellectual development, among them St Mary's church (he had planned to become a cleric), the millpond where he indulged his passion for beetle-collecting (it was a big craze at the time), and Coe Fen, where his great role model John Stevens Henslow introduced him to the concept of ecology (though it wasn't called that then).
Tuesday dealt with the voyage of the 'Beagle'. As pointed out by one of the week's resident boffins, the geneticist Steve Jones – one of science's great popularisers – the 'Beagle' was known as a "coffin class" vessel, which tells its own story. And Darwin suffered terribly from seasickness, but thanks to his mania for collecting specimens – and sending them home at regular intervals – he was a bit of a star by the time he got back to Britain. His grand theory was already hatched, but he spent the next 20 years collecting evidence to back it up, including writing four books on barnacles – "stunningly boring", according to Jones, but vital.
The richness of detail in these programmes was stunningly interesting, by contrast, and backing them up superbly were the 'Letters' by, among others, Jonathan Miller and Craig "Genome Map" Venter, detailing what's happened to the theory of evolution since Darwin's time. Perhaps the best was Wednesday's, by Jerry Coyne, the American biologist who seems to spend half his time fighting the intelligent design lobby.
Species change over time, Darwin theorised; now we know how dinosaurs became birds, how vertebrates colonised the land and mammals recolonised the sea, how whales were once deer-like creatures and we were once apes. "You'll find it hard to believe that more Americans believe in creationism than evolution," Coyne tells Darwin. They all need to be seated by their radios and forced to listen to Bragg and Co. That would surely sort their heads out.
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