Open Eye: BBC learning zone: After Darwin: the story of genetics

The great evolutionist could never explain how inheritance worked. 'Lifelines', part of the Quantum Leaps series, shows how the mystery was solved
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The Independent Online
Charles Darwin was arguably the world's most famous and influential scientist, but the next programme in the Open University's Quantum Leaps series explains how his ideas were once nearly discredited because of a fundamental flaw in his theory.

Lifelines (screening at 7.30pm, Friday 5 June on BBC2) explores how Darwin was troubled by this flaw until the end of his days. His theory of evolution is now the cornerstone of our understanding of the world, but throughout his life he could not explain how inheritance worked - how characteristics are passed from one generation to the next. When Gregor Mendel's work on peas was re-discovered in 1900, modern genetics was born and this new science seemed to offer scientists an alternative explanation for evolution, with Darwin consigned to history.

It wasn't until the thirties and forties that a way of synthesising the two theories was established. Lifelines tells the story of the intellectual journey that brought together Darwin's ideas with new understandings about genetics and the discovery of DNA.

Programme contributors include: Professor Steve Jones, a great populariser of genetics, and one of Britain's best known scientists, whose most recent series for the BBC was In the Blood; Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, who has given Darwin's ideas enormous contemporary relevance; Professor John Maynard-Smith, one of Britain's most distinguished scientists, who has played a key role in developing Darwin's ideas; Professor Steven Rose, author of Lifelines and Not in Our Genes, Rose, is a key figure in the 'new' biology and is Professor of Biology at the Open University and Director of the University's world-leading Brain Research Group; and Colin Tudge, popular science writer and journalist.

The Quantum Leaps series focuses on scientists whose imagination has transcended the wisdom and culture of their day and forced us to reassess what we know about ourselves and the physical world. The programmes were originally produced for the Open University's new level one Discovering Science course, but the BBC is screening them in prime time because it believes they will have wide-ranging appeal to a general audience.

Discovering Science took in its first students this year, but there are already about 4,000 people studying the course in the UK. It is the first large scale Open University course to use CD-ROM extensively, and its innovative use of this medium recently won it the Best Environmental Web Site category at the last British Environment and Media Awards.

Students are introduced to basic scientific concepts in an interactive learning environment. The use of CD-ROM enables demonstrations of the causes of earthquakes or the formation of the universe in a way not possible through traditional written material or a home experiment kit. A practical kit, video cassettes and a one-week residential school further demonstrate the practical nature of science in the home, the laboratory and the field.