What Darwin Didn’t Know

Just watched “What Darwin Didn’t Know” with Armand Leroi as part of the BBC Darwin season. I was looking forward to it but it was a little disappointing. The tone was too sleepy and Victorian. There was some but not enough on what Darwin didn’t know, which was odd given the title. Modern evolutionary biology, the sort of topics you might see in journals were only first mentioned 40 minutes into an hour program. This included trees, evo-devo, and genomics. I would really have liked a program about the enormous pervasive splendour of modern evolutionary biology, rather than having a big section showing the same stuff again about bloody peppered moths.

On the bright side there was an almost embarrassing amount of time spent discussing cichlids. Nice! Unfortunately it was scattered with odd stuff, a couple that I remember are below.

‘Malawi was colonised about 2 million years ago’. Well the evidence indicates that the diversification occurred about 4.5 mya (Genner et al 2007).

‘Evolution of cichlids ran twice; Malawi and Tanganyika’. Hmmm probably 4 times (Tanganyika, Malawi, Victoria and palaeo-Makgadikgadi).

Didn’t they consult anybody on this stuff?

He mentioned the evolution of evolvability, but possibly meant something entirely different? That wasn’t very clear to me.

Oh well, it was quite nice visually, and not that bad really, but given the cool title I was hoping for more.


Genner, M.J., Seehausen, O., Lunt, D.H. Joyce, D.A., Carvalho, G.R, Shaw, P.W., & Turner, G.F. (2007) Age of cichlids: new dates for ancient lake fish radiations. Mol. Biol. Evol. 24: 1269-1282. PDF

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Dave, The programme was not about the triumphs of modern evolutionary biology: it was about the development of evolutionary thought post-1859. The Peppered Moth may be a cliché to you and me — but is not to the public. Besides, melanistic moths were the first clear demonstration of evolution by NS in the wild — and remain one of the best. (And Niko Tinbergen’s Kettlewell footage was great.)Viz. the Cichlid Malawi date. Yes, we did check: 2 mya is the date that George Turner gave us when he accompanied us to Malawi. And although we were certainly aware of multiple African cichlid radiations — which, including the Crater Lakes, well exceed 4 — we chose not to mention them since the point was made adequately, and simply, with Tanganyika. Besides, invoking other radiations would simply have made my point with even greater force. SincerelyArmand Leroi

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  2. Dave Lunt says:

    Hi Armand, first let me say it was a very good programme. I blogged soon after which is never the best time to convey the tone of your feelings reliably. I was looking forward to this programme more than anything for a long time, and the fact that my expectations were not quite met doesn’t mean it wasn’t a very good piece of TV. (I have equally high expectations tonight for Attenborough’s “Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life”, lets see)The Malawi date isn’t such a big thing, but it seems to show that George Turner doesn’t read the papers his own postdocs write! Oh well. Yes mentioning the multiple lakes would have made the same point even more strongly, I absolutely agree.I like peppered moths, and I entirely agree about the Kettlewell footage, I hadn’t seen that before, it was great. My problem is (and this is no exaggeration) that the general public are likely to go through their entire lives without remembering a second example of natural selection. I think that it is in our interests to convey the enormous numbers of evolutionary examples. I hope that all the Darwin year programmes can help with that a bit.I thought your evo-devo stuff in the programme was really excellent, the genomics stuff too. That would have been unfamiliar, shocking, and very persuasive to the general public who are used to black and white drawings of stuff on the Galapagos, moths, old men with beards, and have a gut instinct that evolution is all about fossils and whatever science was involved happened a long time ago. I remember my brother (a very well educated mathematician) calling me up after a TV programme about HOX genes years ago, and saying “now I get it”, now I see how mutation and selection can do all this. Giraffe’s necks and peppered moths hadn’t had that effect. My undergrads react in a similar(ish) way to me teaching them evolutionary developmental genetics. That is why I think we need to re-evaluate the time given to different examples when we talk to the public. (PS I really think you are the ideal person to build on your excellent “mutants” programmes and do more evo-devo, you should persuade the BBC!)”What Darwin Didn’t Know” is a great and provocative title, but it can be condensed down essentially to genetics. I would have liked 10 minutes intro on Darwin etc and the rest on all the fields he couldn’t possibly have anticipated and how unequivocally they support his ideas. But don’t get the idea that I didn’t really enjoy it, I did.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    I question how the cichlids or the moths prove anything about what is usually meant by the term evolution. Sure, it shows selection or teasing of traits out of a preexisting genome. But does it show anything about mutation? Only if that were the case, would it be in any sense predictive. In fact I would think that the similarity of “new” species in distant locations suggests strongly that they came from selection of traits already there, not from any mutations.Regarding the moths, is it not true also that the same info was in the genome before and after the dark ones were selected? How can this example prove what is the key component of the theory…i.e. adding new information by means of MUTATIONS. Selection alone can’t show that. David W.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    On another point, I would have liked to have seen the program to address that Darwin didn’t know that his concept of comparitive anatomy would be totally refuted by we are told today about the superorder Afrotheria…which suggests that elephant shrews are closer relatives of elephants than to other shrews. Or a hippo is closer to a giraffe (or as the program said, to a whale) than to a peccary or pig. Or that a golden mole is closer to a sea cow than to another mole. Didn’t protein sequencing essentially disprove a fair prediction of Darwin at least in regards to Afrotheria?

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