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What Darwin did for us
Bishop Wilberforce, at the Oxford Museum debate in 1860, famously asked T. H. Huxley (aka Darwin’s Bulldog) whether he was descended from an ape on his father’s side or his mother’s.
Were the good Bishop to be alive today (and still as misguided), he might ask instead if Huxley was related to an Iceberg or a Cos, for apparently, as well as having 96% of our genes in common with chimpanzees, we share 16% of our genetic material with a lettuce.
It’s sad that Charles Darwin, Shropshire’s favourite son, although proposing the best theory so far for the origin of all living things, did not live long enough himself to understand how heredity works. It was left to Gregor Mendel, monk and pea-grower extraordinaire, to discover how physical characteristics are passed to succeeding generations. Although he published the results of his research as early as 1866, it had little impact until after his (and Darwin’s) death, and it wasnt until the 1940s that Mendelian genetics and natural selection were finally reconciled to form the basis of our current understanding of evolution.
A further breakthrough, of course, was Watson and Crick’s work on the structure of DNA in the 1950s; DNA sequencing has subsequently confirmed Darwin’s assertion that all living things have a common ancestry. DNA is now a part of our everyday vocabulary, not only in the form of genetic fingerprinting, but in such controversial areas as genetically modified crops. Although there are legitimate political and environmental concerns about putting this new technology into the hands of Agribusiness, I cannot see myself that GM foods are a health risk. Eating a GM carrot is no more dangerous (pesticides apart) than eating its non-GM equivalent, almost certainly an F1 hybrid; hybridization, as practised by farmers and horticulturalists for centuries, is essentially a form of genetic engineering.
For gardeners who struggle with botanical nomenclature, DNA sequencing is something of a mixed blessing, as it is increasingly encouraging those pesky taxonomists to reclassify and thus rename the plants we grow or covet. And in our gardens, it seems inevitable that the latest must have varieties will soon be ones that have been created in the lab rather than the polytunnel.
The 2008 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to scientists who made it possible to transfer the gene that causes luminosity in jellyfish to other biological systems. Amid the popular newspaper stories of fluorescent mice and monkeys, this technique has made a major contribution to medical research, showing, for example, how brain cells develop or how cancer spreads through tissue. Would it be frivolous then to wonder how long it will be before we are lighting the path to the front door with a neat row of glowing box balls?
Weve come a long way in the 150 years since The Origin of Species first appeared. Darwin was reluctant to publish his ideas for fear of offending religious sensibilities, and the science of genetics continues to raise profound ethical and moral questions. But one thing is sure, in a world where plant and animal life is under increasing threat, Darwin’s insight that all living things are interrelated has never seemed more relevant to our continued existence on Earth.
First published in the Shropshire Group Newsletter, January 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25.
© Copyright for this article: Tony Bays
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.
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