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OU on the BBC: Jimmy Doherty In Darwin's Garden - Dangerous ideas

Updated Tuesday, 24th February 2009

He was sure of his science; experiments proved his point. But for Darwin, evolution and selction were still dangerous ideas.

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Join Jimmy as he explores the work Charles Darwin did before the publication of On The Origin of Species in 1859. Together, these experiments helped give Darwin the confidence to finally make his radical ideas on evolution public.

Travel was always a key part of the theory and the series starts with his seeds in salt water experiment. This experiment proves that many different types of seeds can survive immersion in salt water for a month. Darwin went on to do a range of other experiments which support his idea that seeds can travel the world on ocean currents.

Jimmy also meets Dan Minchin and the sea pea, a flower found on the coast of Ireland whose seeds have travelled all the way across the Atlantic.

One of the key experiments of this programme is the weed patch experiment. Run by Toby Beasley, former head gardener at Down House, it was an experiment that reveals just how tough it is for plant seedlings to survive.

Jimmy helps Toby to replicate the experiments over a period of six months which helps illustrate the Malthusian idea of death keeping populations in check. In the case of the seedlings it is drought, torrential rain and slugs that will mean that only the hardiest survive.

Darwin was well aware of the importance of the diversity of the natural world to his theory. Jimmy works with Dr Mark Spencer of the Natural History Museum to carry out a survey of Great Puckland’s Meadow, just adjacent to Down House. It was the astonishing range of plants that Darwin found in this meadow - 142 different species - that helped convince him that his theory was correct.

One experiment which Darwin never actually carried out is the idea that cats can affect the amount of red clover in nearby fields. It seems a surprising link but Jimmy carries out an experiment at his farm and although on a small scale it helps show the complex food chains that operate in the natural world


The first programme ends with the sudden arrival of the Wallace manuscript in 1858 at Down House. Darwin is horrified that Wallace had come up with virtually the same theory and he now knows he has to publish. The joint meeting at the Royal Society is covered, as well as the rapid writing and publication of On the Origin of Species: a book that changes the world forever. But typical of Darwin, he is always moving forwards and as soon as he his book comes out he is looking for new experiments to cover - as Jimmy reveals in the next programme.

Find out more

Read an extract of On The Origins Of Species

More evidence for evolution is in the fossil record






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