Environment Forum

On the origin of the Darwin myths

Ever been told by a ruthless boss that, “as Charles Darwin said, it’s survival of the fittest”?

Rather than answering that it was actually a one-time sub editor for The Economist magazine, Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase, or fighting back with an equally wrong comment about someone being descended from monkeys, Darwin academics are calling for a moratorium on the everyday use and abuse of the great naturalist.

Two-hundred years after he was born, and 150 years after he published “On the Origin of Species”, it’s time to check the facts, as “most of what most people think they know about him is not true,” according to Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge.

Visiting Singapore for a Willi Hennig Society-organised talk about Darwin and his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, who is also the subject of several myths, van Whye ran through a series of widely-believed Darwin misconceptions that make humankind look pretty slow on the uptake.

First off, he the pointed out that Darwin and Wallace, were not, really, such iconoclasts.

By the late 1830s, two decades before Darwin’s Origin, the scientific community had already accepted that the world was far older than could be allowed by a literal reading of Genesis, he said.

On Darwin anniversary: tourist limits to Galapagos, Antarctica?

Should the world celebrate the 200th anniversary today of the birth of English naturalist Charles Darwin by working to limit the number of tourists visiting the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica to protect their spectacular wildlife?

Would that help elephant seals like this one above on the Antarctic Peninsula slumber more peacefully? And would it cause less disruption for marine iguanas, below right, on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos?

The Galapagos in the Pacific Ocean gave Darwin insights into evolution on his famed voyage around the world aboard The Beagle. Many species — from mockingbirds to tortoises – differ from those on the South American mainland. For a story, click here.

Magical Madagascar worth saving

A Black and White Ruffed Lemur clings to a branch at the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary near Pletteberg Bay on South Africa’s scenic Garden Route September 30, 2007. Common to Madagascar, the Black and White Ruffed Lemur is currently classified as Endangered by the World Conservation Union. World Animal Day is commemorated on October 4. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA)Scientists have joined forces to save magical Madagascar by using a new method they hope to apply to other hot spots of biodiversity. For full details you can check my colleague Deborah Zabarenko’s story.

As someone who has had the great privilege of visiting this island continent twice I can only say: “Right on!”

Madagascar is a classic example of natural selection at work: most of its species have evolved in splendid isolation because the island broke free from the rest of Africa tens of millions of years ago. 

Galapagos bird brains survive wind turbines

Galapagos wind turbine — courtesy E8 group of power generatorsThree giant wind turbines are helping the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean towards a goal of eliminating use of fossil fuels by 2015 — and no birds have been killed in a six-month pilot scheme despite worries in many nations that big blades and bird brains don’t mix.

The Galapagos are home to mocking birds, finches, petrels, blue-footed boobies, doves, albatrosses and other exotic species many of which only live on the islands. Studies of Galapagos birds helped British 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin work out his theory of evolution.

“In six months of pilot operations there have been no bird kills,” said Melinda Kimble of the U.N. Foundation, a sponsor of the $10.8 million project led by power producers including American Electric Power and also backed by Ecuador’s government.