August 7, 2008

Retracing Darwin’s Fascinating Footsteps

Children from a Year 11 science class are walking across the beach on Dorset's Jurassic Coast, picking up pebble after pebble in search of evidence of evolution. For some, the exciting discovery of ammonite fossils hidden inside the rock, and clear explanations from presenter and scientist Richard Dawkins of what they are looking at add enough physical proof to their classroom lesson to convince them that Charles Darwin's theory - first published 150 years ago - is correct.

But several of the bright, intelligent youngsters admit that their religious beliefs will not allow them to even consider that the universe and everything in it was not created directly by God - no matter how much evidence is produced for them. Apparently four in 10 British people agree with this view.

For Dawkins - a confirmed atheist - this reaction is frustrating in the extreme, but it also spurs him to rediscover and re-examine Darwin's theories for himself in this very personal documentary. Because of his passion for his subject, last night's first of three programmes was lively and informative - no dry, boffin-type business here.

For someone who was never offered lessons in evolution at school, and has never explored Darwin's book On the Origin of Species as bedtime reading, it was enlightening to find out the source of my own evolutionary beliefs. Somehow I had absorbed and considered the man's views without being aware of their source, so it was fascinating to find out more.

Richard was last night seen retracing Darwin's footsteps and witnessing for himself the rich evidence of the natural world - iguanas on the Galapagos Islands, giant fossilised sloths in the Americas and even pigeons back home in England - which opened Darwin's eyes to the extraordinary truth that all living things must be related, and had evolved from a common ancestor.

Returning to his own birthplace of Kenya, he considered the brutal realities of the struggle for existence for wild animals on the plains of Africa. Here, he argued, we see the ongoing process of sex, suffering and death that drives evolution onward as the fittest survive to reproduce and the weakest perish without offspring.

In the slums of Nairobi, where hundreds die of AIDS each year, Richard met prostitutes who seem to have acquired a genetic immunity to the HIV virus. This resistance, it seems, can be inherited and so will become more prevalent.

"This is the unstoppable force of natural selection," he says.

Whether you choose to believe him or not, Dawkins' study is a great history lesson about Darwin - a man who wanted a quiet life as a parson but instead changed forever the way many of us see the world and our place in it.

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.