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Origin Day lecture: Randal Keynes response

Updated Tuesday, 24th November 2009
Randal Keynes offers his response to EO Wilson's lecture.

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Armand Leroi

The next commentator is of course Randal Keynes. If you have been aware of Darwin today, and who has not, you have been aware of Randal because he has been everywhere.  But he is of course famous as, not only the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, but the author of that wonderful, charming, delightful book Annie’s Box which inspired that lovely film Creation, which I'm sure most of you have seen.  He has been instrumental, the leading, taking the leading role in the reservation of Down House and to get it designated as a World Heritage site, and is of course a trustee of the Charles Darwin Trust.  Randal.

Randal Keynes

Thank you.  It’s wonderful to be able to speak here in the Royal Institution on this day, and I would like to take up the theme of the diversity of life.  I use E.O. Wilson’s title, not biodiversity, the present phrase, or other phrases that Darwin used in his time because I think that E.O. Wilson has given that phrase a resonance that’s really valuable for us all and for Darwin’s heritage.  If you ask the question who is writing like Darwin now, I would suggest one person straight off, and one book, The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson.  It’s not clear to everyone I think that The Diversity of Life is a central and key theme of the Origin of Species, but many insist that it is and I feel very strongly with them that that’s right.  You see it in the last sentence of the book, and one can suggest that the whole book is constructed so that it leads towards that last sentence.  The last sentence is the punch line, and the phrase in it from, which is that - well the whole book explains how from so simple a beginning, endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, l have been and are being evolved.  That sense of proliferation is absolutely key to Darwin’s very special view of natural life. 

I want to touch first on The Origin of Species with that as a central idea, and the power of the idea to explain.  I would just like to suggest that Darwin doesn’t actually prove the case for evolution by showing us speciation happening, that was a great complaint of Thomas Uxley’s I believe.  He said you can't yet prove it.  But Darwin explains why we can't see it happening because of the limits of the human view in space and time and so on, and what Darwin rests his case on is just how much it can explain, how it can explain taxonomy, embryology, distribution in space, distribution in time through the geological record, organic form and behaviour, as touched on by E.O. Wilson with instinct.  And putting all of these together, how it explains the beauties of natural life but also the utter weirdness of so many of its patterns. 

To remind yourself of the power of the book just, I would suggest, read the last chapter, Recapitulation and Conclusion.  For me it’s one of the most thrilling reads in the history of human thought, in the experience that one can have of human thought, and Darwin gallops through all those different areas and just says it can explain this, it can explain that, it can overcome this problem, it can overcome that, and at the end, this explanation that Darwin offers, it doesn’t have to be simplistic and reductive to do all of this explaining, it enriches our understanding and our wonder at the same time.  These, I would suggest, are the qualities of E.O. Wilson’s writing in Darwin’s footsteps. 

There is, though, one feature in the vision that raises real problems for us today.  Darwin writes have been and are being evolved.  He had at his time this sense of this process that was just continuing, continuing, continuing and would produce an endless continual further proliferation of forms.  He thought that humans were just, you know, a point on a way forward.  Evolution by natural selection is the process, the outcome is the diversity of life on earth.  This was the understanding when he wrote in 1859.  It was then also the understanding in 1909, no change.  1959, I don’t know, had Rachael Carson written that yet?

Sandy Knapp

It was ’62.

Randal Keynes

’62.  1959 we were still happy.  You see where I'm getting at. 

2009, now can we still say that these endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful are being evolved?  Is it not arguable that there are human impacts disrupting, damaging, degrading the ecosystems in which evolution takes place, that are having a terrible effect on that proliferation, that wealth, those adaptations and everything like that?  It’s a very, very strange and difficult subject, but I would urge you to consider whether there hasn’t been a significant change in the balance of evolution through natural processes and sort of crashing around of humans with their impacts. 

If Darwin were alive today, I feel he would be simply appalled by the loss of biodiversity.  Now biodiversity, we have a very poor understanding of.  Species loss, yes, but remember always that Darwin says that extinction is part of the natural process.  It’s not actually species loss in itself entirely that I think matters, it’s the loss of habitats, of clusters of creation, of creatures, of dependencies and so on, that interlinking and interdependence, that was what really his vision of life depended on.  We must save this natural wealth, but to be able to save it, to know what to save and how we can save it we must understand how it works.  Darwin emphasised in The Origin of Species how little we understand about the workings of any natural system, its complexities, its knock-on effects, its little interactions.  We must observe, monitor, experiment, and so I would suggest that we commit this anniversary to action on biodiversity.  We look at that very poor understanding, we realise that Darwin stood for understanding, he gave us understanding and we devote ourselves again to the task of giving that understanding to all the people around the world who need to have it if the world is to take action to preserve its natural wealth.


Randal, thank you very much for that moving little talk.






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