What Darwin Didn’t Know

Why should sterile termites work so hard for the good of the colony?

Why should sterile termites work so hard for the good of the colony?

Broadcaster: BBC 4

Year: 2009

Genre: documentary

URL: http://bobnational.net/record/302634

Review by Will Channell


What Darwin Didn’t Know (90 mins) is a BBC Four documentary presented by Armand Marie Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Biology at Imperial College, London. The 90 minute show looks at how over the past 150 years ‘Darwinian evolution’ has become a bedrock of evolutionary biology, despite changing rather dramatically since Darwin’s original theories in On the Origin of the Species.

The programme has two dimensions;  a look back to Darwin and the origins of his theory, and then at the application of the revised theory in contemporary research. The programme manages to introduce complex topics and demonstrate them in ways any viewer can understand. The content is applicable up to and including undergraduates.

The classic example of cichlid fish in Lake Malawi is used to demonstrate speciation, showing how one fish species could have diversified into hundreds, through a process of consistent geographical isolation of species (see 4 minute clip via this link). At this point Leroi discusses how genetic bottlenecks can play a part in the introduction of directional selection into speciation. Now Leroi chooses to take a different direction and delves into the context and history of Darwin’s work, looking into the public outcry and poor initial reception garnered by Darwin’s work. Darwin himself struggled with the implications of his own work and what it would mean in the wider context of the times. In particular the work appeared to challenged the strong held views of the time in regards to God and creationism. Although this is not of specific biological point, it offers good background knowledge, demonstrating ethical arguments based around scientific research. This case study also shows how science in a broader sense works; finding a problem, forming a hypothesis, developing a theory, analysing evidence, and adopting theory. Furthermore it offers a good transition into showing how Darwinian theory first overcame opposition from the church (amongst others) and was accepted and utilised by the scientific community.

At this point the programme becomes of greater use to undergraduates, as it begins to focus on the modern use of Darwin’s theory and its incorporation into contemporary research. It demonstrates how the genetic revolution has not made Darwinian evolution any less valid or relevant, and how its principles can be worked out in any modern genetic laboratory.

Leroi demonstrates the application of Darwinian theory to modern genetic studies using the well-known and well-studied example of Drosophila fruit flies; showing how studies of phenotypic variation and genetic variation can be linked and using bioinformatic analysis can allude to a species’ evolutionary past. This example is an incredibly simplified version of the genome-wide studies that take place in modern experimental studies which make use of next generation sequencing and ‘Big data’, however they demonstrate the points well enough, giving the viewer a sense of the theories application and use.

In addition to this the earlier parts of the show, discussing the details of Darwinian theory, could be of great use to GCSE and A-level student who are for the first time learning about Darwinian theory. Topics of use in this show include; speciation, directional evolution, extinction and evolutionary pressures, these are all discussed in enough detail to explain the theory to a school student preparing for exams.

In regards to style, this documentary is more formal than many other ‘popular science’ programmes, the lecturing tone of the presenter and his background in academia shine through. This does little to hinder the easy and engaging nature of the show but does enhance the authority and reliability of the information presented to the viewer.

The two key strengths of the programme are the way in which it portrays 150 years of scientific history concisely in a format of 90 minutes, but in an interesting manner and also the insight it gives the viewer into how an important scientific theory still has a huge effect on modern scientific practice and research.

It is of valuable use to a range of students, particularly in explaining the Darwinian theory of evolution to younger students of secondary school biology. The application of this theory into scientific practice is also of some use to more advanced students, for instance those considering an experimental career in evolutionary genetic studies.


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