Andrew Berry

Andrew Berry teaches evolutionary biology at Harvard.

One Single Plan: Proto-Darwinism

Andrew Berry, 17 March 2005

For three days – les trois glorieuses – at the end of July 1830, Paris was in turmoil. The attempt by Charles X and his ultra-royalist first minister, the Prince de Polignac, to stamp out liberal discontent with a set of repressive ordinances had backfired. By 28 July, insurgents had raised barricades, taken the Hôtel de Ville, and driven royalist troops out of Paris. Charles...

Whenever you can, count: Galton

Andrew Berry, 4 December 2003

In 1904, George Bernard Shaw announced that there was now ‘no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilisation’; in 1912, Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, jubilantly launched a campaign for eugenic legislation designed ‘to stamp out feeble-mindedness from future generations’; and in 1919,...

Surprisingly, it is not at all clear why sex exists. Requiring the contribution of two parents in the production of offspring is remarkably inefficient. In evolutionary terms, hermaphroditism is . . . twice as efficient a reproductive strategy as sex. Why, then, isn’t the natural world dominated by male-less species?

Scientific discovery, as any PhD student halfway through their project will tell you, is hard work: progress is step-wise, and the steps are small. Not surprisingly, however, the popular view of science overlooks the daily grind and focuses instead on the occasional flashes of inspiration that have punctuated its history. In this view, science progresses in a series of great leaps forward,...

Wrinkled v. Round: Gregor Mendel

Andrew Berry, 8 February 2001

A report in Science magazine in 1990 exposed the absurdity of our publish-or-perish academic culture. It focused on citation rates – the frequency with which my article is referred to by my colleagues, or indeed by me – which serve as an index of the impact of a particular piece of research. Because of the plethora of obscure or regional journals in circulation, the study was...

Interviewed by the BBC 25 years after Herbert Spencer’s death, Beatrice Webb, who had known him well, referred to him as Darwin’s John the Baptist. Spencer would have relished the description, which is in many ways appropriate: he coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and was responsible for popularising the term ‘evolution’. Indeed, his adherence to evolution, ‘a profession of faith’, as he put it, both anticipated and exceeded Darwin’s. In 1852, seven years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Spencer was already carrying the argument to evolution’s creationist adversaries: ‘Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.’‘

An Ugly Baby: Alfred Russel Wallace

Andrew Berry, 18 May 2000

Alfred Russel Wallace was 35 and stricken with malaria in what is now Indonesia when, in 1858, he wrote a letter to Charles Darwin in England that would send Darwin into a tailspin. In a feverish ‘flash of light’, Wallace had independently stumbled on the theory of natural selection. Darwin had been working on the idea for some twenty years, but had not yet published. ‘So all my originality,’ he wrote, ‘whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.’‘

In the introduction to Almost like a Whale, Steve Jones calls The Origin of Species ‘without doubt, the book of the millennium’. Jones is an evolutionary biologist, so this judgment could merely reflect disciplinary bias. But not only did The Origin of Species disabuse us of the notion that we humans are in some way set apart from the natural world, it also provided a mechanism, natural selection, to explain how the exquisite fit of organisms to their environment can arise without divine intervention: man deposed, God disposed of, and all in a single volume.‘

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