5 Feb 2017

Great Ideas - Part 6 'Darwin's Origin of the Species'

From Great Ideas, 9:00 am on 5 February 2017

Great Ideas is a series, recorded in collaboration with Victoria University, about the ideas that have shaped the world we live in. It looks at what it takes to change our perspective and considers why these ideas still matter.


This week, Megan Whelan is joined by Dr. Rebecca Priestley, Associate Professor Joe Zuccarello and Professor Joe Bulbulia.


In 1835, Charles Darwin visited New Zealand  and left with not a lot of love.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin Photo: AFP


“I don’t know if he was tired and grumpy after a long voyage, but he was singularly unimpressed with New Zealand,” says Rebecca Priestley.


Darwin stayed with some missionaries, and wrote some nice things about the plantings in their gardens, but when he left, said “we are all pleased to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place.”


Years later, in 1859, Darwin published On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.


New Zealand had left an impression though, because he did write about the country’s species in Origin of Species.


What he said was quite prescient, says Dr Priestley.


Darwin wrote: “From the extraordinary manner in which European productions have recently spread over New Zealand, and have seized on places which must have been previously occupied, we must believe, that if all the animals and plants of Great Britain were set free in New Zealand, in the course of time a multitude of British forms would become thoroughly naturalized there, and would exterminate many of the natives."


This was before rabbits, possums and stoats were introduced to New Zealand, Dr Priestley says, and that prediction has largely come true.  


The ideas in Origin of Species were formed on Darwin’s expedition on the Beagle, but not published for 20 years.


“He did go off for a while and study barnacles in quite some depth,” says Dr Priestley says, “and it seems that he was trying to some extent test out his theory."


“I guess to some extent he wanted to be very sure of what he was saying because it was quite a remarkable thing.”


As the spirit of inquiry the reformation spawned grew, so too did scientific questioning.


“That questioning obviously increased once the church maybe lost a little bit of its power to control things” says Joe Zuccarello.


“Certainly, with the scientific method, and this diversity that came in ways of thinking…And I think it’s that that drove our trying to  understand the world.”


Two of the ideas in Origin of Species were controversial. The idea of common ancestors, and the idea of natural selection.


“The idea that [evolution] was just natural selection, that it was just surviving in the particular environment you find yourself in today and leaving slightly more offspring than someone else” was something that took even scientists a long time to accept - and is still controversial today - says Prof Zuccarello.


Darwin himself had a degree in theology - not in science - but was a keen observer of the world around him, says Joe Bulbulia. “It’s encouragement to young folk who find themselves bored with school. He hated Latin and memorisation, but was absolutely fascinated by the world around him.”


We tend to think of science as driven by experiments, says Prof Bulbulia, but Darwin did something different. “In Darwin’s case, it begins with this puzzle.”


“How do I make sense of this puzzle? What’s the best explanation for the distribution of species - and for design - and what are the arguments against it?”


There were many arguments against it - and still are - but they are mostly coming from a religious place, says Dr Priestley.


“We want to understand the world, but we can’t, we struggle, we haven’t,” says Prof Bulbulia. “I think when you begin to think of life from that Darwinian perspective, you are confronted with that humbling view of humans.”


In biology and in cosmology, Prof Zuccarello says “there’s a natural process that has produced everything.”


“We do understand a lot about it, and even if we don’t want to believe it, or add something more to it, it still happened. There’s a truth somewhere.”