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Darwin Now pod 9: Living legacy

Updated Tuesday 8th December 2009

Find out how Darwin’s scientific legacy is being carried forward in this year of the bicentenary of his birth.

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Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani

Rissa de la Paz: Hello and welcome to the last of our monthly podcasts for Darwin Now.

Over the course of this series, we’ve had a glimpse of the ways in which Darwin’s theory of evolution has had an impact on fields as diverse as ecology, genetics, anthropology and linguistics. Darwin started a global conversation that influenced not only scientific thought but notions of social progress. As the curtain falls on the bicentenary of his birth, we'll be looking at how this remarkable man's scientific legacy is being nurtured by institutions and individuals alike. We'll also be re-visiting some of the global initiatives organised by the British Council during Darwin year, but we begin with one scientist who's a passionate advocate of Darwin’s questioning stance.

Sheila Ochugboju is Senior Communications Officer at the African Technology Policy Studies Network.

Sheila Ochugboju: Darwin's legacy to me is the value of asking powerful questions, and then going on the journey of finding answers, and those questions are so powerful they hit at the core of who we are, what we believe, so our religious beliefs, our scientific beliefs, everything sits right in the heart of who we are, and we shouldn’t run away from them. Darwin didn't run away from it in his time. He had the courage to put it out there and allow other people to take what they would out of it and to continue to have the conversation.

Rissa de la Paz: What are the compelling issues that confront young people in Africa today?

Sheila Ochugboju: One of the big challenges facing young people in South Africa or Africa in general is HIV/AIDS, and I realised this when I went to speak to young people in schools in townships across South Africa in 1999. At that time I was working as a research scientist looking at viruses, baculoviruses, and I was working with genetically engineered viruses for pest control, but over and over again the questions I was being asked by the young people were about HIV/AIDS, and thankfully I knew enough to be able to have a conversation. But they kept on wanting to understand it in a more compound way, and so I had to challenge myself to explain it in a more compound way, and really as a virologist it’s the most intriguing, fascinating manifestation of evolution in action, and I used to tell the story of, you know, viruses like a man who comes with a cloak and he enters your house and then he puts on clothes, almost like the big bad wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and pretends to be your grandmother, and he’s in your house and he’s living with you and now you don't know whether or not he’s part of your family, came in like that and mutated, and adapted to your body and then began to wreak havoc in your system and in your life, and they could really understand that, and ten years on I'm seeing that those challenges have not reduced in terms of communicating science. They’ve gotten bigger because as scientists we've not been able to find enough ways to communicate it in the ways that help people to make decisions and to change their choices and their behaviour.

So I think that a disease such as HIV/AIDS illustrates how we as a global community have evolved, have evolved in a way that necessitates different ways of having conversations, and we need to be more culturally aware, we need to be much more astute in our cultural navigation techniques. We need to be astute as scientists, as parents, as policymakers. There is just no room for us to fail any more, because, you know, our failure to communicate, we do not empower people to make the choices they need to live, and we are therefore complicit in keeping people disempowered and disenfranchised.

When young people ask questions, they want you to explain the science but also in the light of who they are as people, their religion, their socioeconomic level, the fact that they’re living with their grandparents and their parents are gone, how did they make decisions, what is good and what is bad? So there's a lot of valued judgments that they want to be able to make, and it's difficult to convey those but you have to find a way of at least starting the conversation to allow them to make the choices.

Rissa de la Paz: Darwin’s example of asking searching and sometimes uncomfortable questions has been promoted by Ochugboju and her collaborators in a series of recent African Science Cafés, where local communities engage with scientists, often setting the agenda for the discussion.

Sheila Ochugboju:
There are African science cafes in Uganda, in Ghana, in South Africa and there’s even one starting in Egypt. And these are conversation spaces where world class scientists go, they talk for ten minutes alone, no PowerPoint allowed, but they talk on the question that has already been framed by the young people, and they are allowed to frame it in whatever way they want. So you have forty minutes where anybody in the audience can actually ask the scientists any type of a question, and the scientist has to honour that question and give it its due consideration like Darwin did. We found it amazingly empowering for the scientists that are involved in it and the community as well, because they've never had this kind of access.

I’m really excited about the African science cafes because I feel that this is the space where we can bring Darwin's legacy to life. This is a space where we can ask powerful difficult questions and those questions can emanate from communities themselves.

Rissa de la Paz:
Elsewhere in the world, similar opportunities for people to engage with science are being provided by the Darwin Now project organised by the British Council.

Roberta Kacowicz, Director of the British Council in Recife, Brazil.

Roberta Kacowicz:
The Darwin Now Programme has been organised around two main themes. One of them is Evolution for All which aims to bring further understanding of the relevance of his ideas to the world today. And the other theme is Challenging Controversy. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was published, it challenged the view of some Western Christians. Many of them had problems in accommodating deeply held religious beliefs with evolution. And today it is understood that actually even scientists who do hold strong, religious beliefs, they find that it is possible to accommodate this and feel quite comfortable working with evolution.

Through Darwin Now we will look at the impact of Darwin’s ideas of evolution on contemporary biology. The aim of the programme is to engage young people from around the world and provide an opportunity to explore the ideas that lie at the heart of evolutionary theory in an unprejudiced and open way given our cultural relations and missions.

The programme includes outreach work and exhibitions in schools and other scientific institutions, plus web-based work including an interactive website with supporting workshops. We expect to run the campaign in up to 50 countries worldwide including regions of Europe, North America, East Asia and in Latin America.

Rissa de la Paz: One highlight of Darwin Now has been an interactive exhibition which explores both Darwin’s life and the backdrop to his ground-breaking theory of evolution. The exhibition demonstrates how advances in fields as diverse as geology and economics influenced Darwin's thinking and examines the reactions to his revolutionary ideas.

From its initial launch in Korea and Hong Kong in November 2008, the exhibition has been shown in over 25 countries worldwide.

Kacowicz has taken the exhibition to capital cities and small villages in seven states in Brazil.

Roberta Kacowicz: What we’ve been doing is, for example, in the States of Rio Janeiro we took the exhibition to the Darwin’s Trails because when Darwin first came to this region one of the first places he visited was Rio and he travelled along the coast, the south coast of Rio, going through various communities. So we took the exhibition to these communities which was really good because the people in these communities already knew about Darwin’s visit so they were very excited to be involved with the launching of plaques in each of these communities in recognition of Darwin’s presence there.

Rissa de la Paz:
The exhibition has afforded a unique opportunity for a dialogue between local communities and one of Darwin's direct descendants.

Roberta Kacowicz:
We also took the exhibition to Manaus in the Amazon during the Annual National Science Festival, where we were very lucky to also be able to have the presence of Darwin’s great, great grandson Randal Keynes, and as you may imagine Randal was a huge success, he was the star actually with people crowding around, wanting to take photos and get autographs. Randal also gave a talk on the human aspects of Darwin, not many people knew that Darwin was very concerned with slavery and of course in Brazil especially that had great resonance.

After that we also took him to Salvador, and what was very special about that was because we took him to some villages in the interior of Salvador, places where time seemed to stand still. So Randal Keynes was very excited and touched, you know to be in a place where it seemed just the same when his great, great grandfather was there.

Rissa de la Paz:
The Travelling Exhibition has had an impact on the classroom and beyond.

Roberta Kacowicz: The activities we’ve run so far, both in Brazil and in some of the other countries that have already started the programme exceeded all our expectations, huge numbers of people attending and we’ve received lots of requests to take the exhibitions to other places around the country, people offering to cover all the expenses themselves. And apart from the exhibitions in Brazil we’ve produced 200 posters that come with educational resources and we’ve distributed these with schools across the country. Around maybe 1,000 schools will have received these posters by the end of the year. Teachers will be using them in not only science classes, but also history, geography and across different disciplines. So we could safely say that at least 100,000 students will be benefiting from this material.

Rissa de la Paz:
Young researchers are also enjoying the chance to pursue their own questions through the British Council's Darwin Now Awards. They're invited to carry out in another country fieldwork relating to Darwin, his legacy, evolutionary theory or biodiversity. One of the recipients of an award is Janice Ansine, who works at the Open University in the UK, co-ordinating a range of projects that enhance public engagement with science and nature. She'll use her expertise to examine '“The biodiversity experience, Jamaican style.” She'll explore the island’s contribution to Darwin’s legacy and encourage people to use their own local arts and culture to express their personal responses to life's infinite variety.

Ansine considered various aspects of Darwin’s life and work in relation to Jamaica before deciding on her project.

Janice Ansine: The link between Darwin and Jamaica, it’s a varied link. There is the dichotomy that exists between the religious thought and the scientific thought. I grew up in Jamaica and there is always this discord associated with Darwin and evolution versus Christianity. Jamaica is a deeply religious country. You grow up going to church and then when you start thinking and you’re learning about things in different ways, you start to question things. You know, where are you from? How did you originate? You tend to start exploring these issues in different ways. And this happens to a lot of young people in Jamaica as you grow up.

The general collection of Jamaican species and biodiversity has contributed to a large extent to other studies and work over the years, and Darwin himself actually had naturalist colleagues in the Caribbean and in Jamaica doing little experiments for him in his day, and this information did help to guide his work. But many Jamaicans don’t know about this. They do know that a lot of specimens were collected in Jamaica. And a lot of these helped to build the specimen collections, say for example even at the Natural History Museum in London, but it’s taking it to that other level. How else did Jamaica influence this type of work in that time?

Not many people in Jamaica, for example, know that Darwin had thoughts about slavery and there are writings about some of the things that he did linked with supporting the abolitionist cause, and this is debated in some of the more recent publications about Darwin’s life that have emerged in this 200th anniversary of his birth.

When I saw the call for applications for the Darwin Now awards, a lot of these issues came to the forefront that I’ve thought about over the years in terms of Darwin’s contribution in scientific theory. How is this perceived in Jamaica? And looking at the state of our own natural resources and what the resources have contributed over time to general knowledge about biodiversity.

And reflecting on this I thought this could be an opportunity to meld all these issues. All these sort of divergent issues that do come together but probably are not thought of in this way. And I thought what better way to do it than to explore it within the context of Jamaican arts and culture.

My project basically will be looking at how we can use different mechanisms, more creative ways of communicating these issues, and getting the public involved in one way, first of all looking at how they can interpret these theories.

Rissa de la Paz: The first phase of Ansine's project will draw on conversations that Darwin himself had with contemporaries in Jamaica.

Janice Ansine: One of the things that I’ll be doing is looking at some of the correspondence that Darwin himself had with naturalists from Jamaica who he would ask to assist him with various pieces of research, looking at various species and so on. And some of this information is noted in quite a number of his letters over those years. I’ve managed to start sourcing some of his correspondence using the resources that are based at the University of Cambridge through the Darwin Correspondence Project.

Rissa de la Paz:
The insights from this phase will help shape the second stage of the project – a short series of workshops and seminars. The fruits that emerge –be they poetry, prose, music or art – will be showcased in the final phase of the project, an exhibition to enhance public awareness of evolution and biodiversity.

Janice Ansine:
What I’m hoping to do is to develop a serious of small workshops with the young people, possibly those who pursue the arts. And have them using their own creativity, whether it’s through the written word, through music or through art to interpret their own views of these issues. And then using what they create to mount a larger exhibition and look at how people react to that and see, can that create a change in people’s perception? Not only in perception, in terms of action and the things that they may do at their own individual and local levels.

Rissa de la Paz: How will the project weave together Darwin's theories and the responses they inspire in local communities?

Janice Ansine: I am hoping that this project will be seen as an example, a working example, hopefully a successful example, of how you can interpret scientific theories for the public to get engaged and involved, utilising things that they can understand, that they see as part of their lives. So, therefore, it’s not disparate from their lives, it’s not something that’s set apart and different, but because it’s interpreted in a way which they understand and they love, they can take on board these issues.

Rissa de la Paz:
Darwin Now has been actively exploring the interplay between science and culture through a number of high profile events both in the UK and abroad, many aimed at young people as Roberta Kacowicz explains.

Roberta Kacowicz:
One other element of the programme is the International Students Summit, Darwin and Evolutionary Science. This came because for the past four years the British Council and the Natural History Museum have co-hosted International Students’ Summits. In 2006/2007 we focused on Climate Change and last year we changed to Darwin and the theme was Evolution and Natural Selection. And this year, 2009, it was on Darwin’s Ideas in society and culture.

There were 66 students from 31 countries and together with 130 students from the UK. And this was an opportunity for these students to meet with academics and specialists, question them and to have their voices heard and to give opinions on how they see Darwin in evolution today.

From the feedback that we’ve received these students found the summit very inspirational. Allowing them to know more about Darwin’s life, they were able to share ideas and make new friends. And also already we have been able to exploit their participation by inviting some of these young people to some of the events that we’ve been organising in-country. So for example, in Colombia they did invite one of their young people who attended the event to their launch, and this young person spoke about his experience at the summit and was able to talk to some of the young audiences who attended the launch.

In October this year we will be running an International Seminar, which will take place in York and this is in collaboration with the National Science Learning Centre with the support of the Wellcome Trust and the Natural History Museum.

The focus of the seminar will be to share expertise in public engagement with evolution in science. Particularly among young people and to examine the most effective strategy for giving pupils and the public the opportunity to examine the most effective strategy for giving in the classroom more knowledge and skills and understanding to reach informed opinions on evolutionary science. This year Brazil is sending three participants.

We’re also doing an International Conference on Evolution in Society which will take place in Egypt at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and we hope to explore Darwinism in context and to promote an informed dialogue about evolutionary science grounded in the mutual respect for differences in ideas, cultures and religious beliefs.

Rissa de la Paz:
The seeds sown by the Darwin Now project are bearing fruit in a greater public appetite for engaging in conversations about science and debating the issues raised.

Sheila Ochugboju: I think the way in which we communicate science really has to change. We can no longer tell just one part of the story, we have to tell the whole story every time, straight away. We have to learn to tell it to young people from the age of five, also to grandmothers of the age of eighty, they have to understand it as well as each other. So if we're really serious about empowering young people and creating a future where they will live happy, successful lives we have to look at all the challenges that face their community and how science can help them to ask better questions and find clearer answers about those challenges.

Rissa de la Paz:
And while this is the final podcast for Darwin Now, long may such searching conversations continue ...

Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani

Rissa de la Paz: This podcast was produced as a collaboration between the British Council and the Open University.

 

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