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.

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.