I don’t like Sydney… and Darwin parties across the country

Media bulletins

Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday is tomorrow, Thursday 12 February.  We’ve issued a release on his views of Australia.

Darwin didn’t like Sydney – more on that below – but his great great grandson Chris Darwin lives in Sydney and will be in Melbourne eating his way through the evolutionary tree – from the primordial ocean soup to dinosaur drumettes at the birthday party on Thursday evening. Chris is happy to talk about his ancestor.

Also for his birthday: in Sydney tomorrow cupcakes in the Domain; In Darwin crocodiles – the great evolutionary survivors – will be the focus of celebrations.  The sceptics have a bbq in Melbourne and discuss the ascent of man in Canberra. And there’s exhibitions opening in Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin. More events below.

In Melbourne we’re also exploring evolutionary issues including:

  • Is science sexist: Prof. Michael Ruse, Florida State University
  • Science on trial: Prof. Douglas J. Futuyma, Stony Brook University, NY
  • Evolution down under: Prof. Jenny Graves, Australian National University
  • Why we need moods and negative emotions: Prof. Randolph Nesse, University of Michigan
  • What does evolution tell us about homicide? Prof. Martin Daly, McMaster University
  • What can ants tell us about evolution? Prof. Ross Crozier, James Cook University

And finally, it’s not evolution but a friend of ours Kim McKay has won a top US science prize for a children’s book True Green Kids…100 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet.

And later today we will load the talks from last Sunday’s Darwin church service on our web.

More below .

Kind regards,


0417 131 977



Tasmania remarkable but I do not like Sydney

That was Charles Darwin’s view of Australia according to Emeritus Professor Frank Nicholas speaking on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Darwin’s 200th birthday is tomorrow, Thursday 12 February. It will be celebrated by scientists around the world, recognising the role that Darwin’s theory of evolution plays in underpinning all of modern biology.

His theory grew out of his five year voyage on HMS Beagle – which took him to Sydney, Hobart, and Albany.

If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out, former Prime Minister, Paul Keating once opined.

Charles Darwin disagreed. He was repelled by the social environment of the Emerald City, Nicholas says.

“On the whole I do not like New South Wales,” he wrote in his diary.

“It is without doubt an admirable place to accumulate pounds & shillings; but Heaven forfend that ever I should live, where every other man is sure to be somewhere between a petty rogue & bloodthirsty villain.- “.

Nicholas, a geneticist at the University of Sydney, co-authored Charles Darwin in Australia with his wife Jan. The book has been recently updated and republished for Darwin’s anniversary by Cambridge University Press.

Nicholas is speaking this week at Evolution: The Experience conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre.

“It has now become clear that Darwin left his heart in Hobart Town,” says Nicholas.  In a letter to his friend John Hooker, on the news that Hooker had been provided financial support by the Tasmanian Government to publish his Flora of Tasmania, Darwin even flirted with the idea of emigrating there:

“What capital news from Tasmania: it really is a very remarkable & creditable fact to the Colony: I am always building veritable castles-in-the-air about emigrating, & Tasmania has been my head quarters of late, so that I feel very proud of my adopted country; it is really a very singular & delightful fact, contrasted with the slight appreciation of science in the Old Country.”

These views on Hobart have just been highlighted in a chapter written by historian Emeritus Prof Michael Roe of the University of Tasmania for Charles Darwin in Hobart Town, published and launched by the Royal Society of Tasmania only last week.

But by end of his time in Australia, says Nicholas, Darwin was predicting great things for the 50 year old British settlement, even if its ambience was not always to his taste. His views are summarised in his Journal published three years after his visit:

“In the same quarter of the globe Australia is rising, or indeed may be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilization, which at some not very remote period, will rule as empress over the southern hemisphere. It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag, seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilization.”

But that wasn’t the last time Australia crossed Darwin’s path. An exhibition to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, which will open at Sydney University’s Macleay Museum on Thursday, traces the Antipodean connection of “Darwin’s bulldog”-Thomas Huxley, the zoologist and educator who became Darwin’s chief defender in the intellectual storm stirred up by the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

It turns out that Huxley met Henrietta Heathorn-his motivator, the love of his life and his eventual wife and mother of eight children-in Sydney in 1846. The love letters between the two in the late 1840s while she remained in Sydney and he returned to London were painstaking transcribed by Sydney University’s Prof Iain McCalman, another speaker at the conference.

Other events marking Darwin’s birthday include an ‘eat your way through the evolutionary tree’ party at the Melbourne Museum.

Eat your way through 4 billion years of evolution

Melbourne will host a unique dinner to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday on 12 February at Melbourne Museum.

Guests will eat their way through the evolutionary tree – from primordial soup, to the first life on Earth, to the mammals.

The menu was developed by John Long, one of Australia’s leading palaeontologists, and head of science at Melbourne Museum.

The birthday party is open to the public and will include evolution themed entertainment.

“We’ll start with crusty arancini symbolising the earth’s crust. Four billion years ago the Earth was young and lifeless,” says John.

“Algae appeared in the oceans three billion years ago. We’ll be eating algae – as sushi wrapped with nori,” he says.

“The oceans thickened to form a primordial soup – represented by shots of seafood bisque – and filled with invertebrate life – represented by scallops, prawns and oysters.

“480 million years ago fish appeared. Then life spread from the oceans to the land, the dinosaurs, birds and the mammals appeared. All will appear on the menu.”

“The killer asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is the theme for desert. It’s marked with meteorites of churros with a lava centre.”

And then Chris Darwin, Charles’ great great grandson, will cut a unique 200th birthday cake modelled on an Aldabra Island tortoise from the Museum’s collection. These tortoises grow to over a metre and can live for more than 100 years. They demonstrate the gigantism that Darwin saw on the Galapagos Islands.

“There dinner concludes. The rise of the primates is off the menu.”

Entertainment will be provided by the National Institute of Circus arts and their spectacular Whale Evolution show, IMAX film features, and the museum’s own exhibits.

Darwin’s birthday party is just one of a series of events marking Darwin’s work and ideas.

Darwin parties across Australia

  • Evolution – the Dinner at the Melbourne Museum: guests will eat their way through the tree of life, from primeval soup to meteroric impact surprise
  • Happy Birthday Charles Darwin: you can join Tim Entwistle and scientists of the Botanic Gardens Trust for birthday cupcakes at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney
  • Darwin installation garden display opens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney
  • Charles Darwin – the reluctant revolutionary exhibition opens at the Queensland Museum, Brisbane
  • Supercrocodilians – Darwin’s ultimate survival story exhibition opens at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
  • Birthday cake will be available in the café of the Australian Garden and Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne, Victoria
  • The Art Instinct: beauty, pleasure and human evolution book launch and public lecture by the author, Denis Dutton, Sydney
  • Darwin Day Barbecue with the Atheists, Humanists, Rationalists and Skeptics, Alexandra Avenue, Melbourne
  • Accidental Encounters exhibition opens at the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney
  • Darwin, Wallace and the ascent of man free public lecture by Ian Cowan, hosted by the Canberra Skeptics at the Australian National University, Canberra
  • Charles Sturt University and other scientists from both sides of the NSW-Victorian border will celebrate with cake at a morning tea and evening drinks in Albury

For more public information about events that celebrate evolution and Darwin: www.evolutionaustralia.org.au

Evolution speakers

And this week there are a host of international and Australian speakers willing and able to talk about Darwin and his impact on the arts, film, society, medicine, and of course, science. Many of them are attending a Darwin conference in Melbourne.

Here’s some highlights:

Is human evolution over: Prof. Steve Jones, University College London

Without variation we’d have no genetics and no evolution – still no one really knows why it’s there. This is just one of the many big questions Professor Steve Jones explores through his work, along with sex, variation, race, and inherited disease.

His book, In the Blood, explores, confirms and debunks some commonly held beliefs about inheritance and genetics. Topics explored include issues as diverse as “lost tribes”, European royal families and haemophilia. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/biology/academic-staff/jones/jones.htm

Prof. Jonathan Marks, University of North Carolina

Prof. Marks’ research interests focus on primate/human evolution, race, molecular genetics and evolution, general physical anthropology, history of studies of human evolution and variation, anthropology of science, critical studies in human genetics, and general anthropology.

Is science sexist: Prof. Michael Ruse, Florida State University

As one of the most prolific and well known philosophers and historians of Darwinism, Prof. Ruse has authored and edited many classic books including:

The Philosophy of Biology, Sociobiology: Sense or Nonsense?, The Darwinian Revolution, Is Science Sexist?, Taking Darwin Seriously, Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry, Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?, Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, Cloning, Genetically Modified Foods, Stem Cell Research, Debating Design: Darwin to DNA, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose?, The Evolution/Creation Struggle, and Charles Darwin.

Prof. Alan Dixson, Victoria University, Wellington

Prof. Dixson’s lecture will deal with the origins of human mating systems and sexual behaviour as illuminated by comparative studies of the reproductive anatomy and behaviour of extant primates.

Science on trial: Prof. Douglas J. Futuyma, Stony Brook University, NY

Douglas J. Futuyma is a Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University.

He is the author of the textbooks Evolutionary Biology (3 editions) and Evolution (2005), and of Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (1982, 1995), which concerned the conflict between science and creationism.

Evolution down under: Prof. Jenny Graves, Australian National University

Jenny Graves is a geneticist who works on Australian animals – kangaroos and platypus are a specialty, but devils (Tasmanian) and dragons (lizards) and even frogs are fair game.

Her laboratory is famous for using this unique perspective to explore the origin, function and (dismal) fate of human sex chromosomes, and even to discover novel human genes.

Why we need moods and negative emotions: Prof. Randolph Nesse, University of Michigan

Randolph Nesse’s primary current research focus is on how selection shapes mechanisms that regulate defences such as pain, fever, anxiety and low mood. His work emphasises the utility of negative emotions, and how a signal detection analysis (the “smoke detector principle”) explains why defence expression so often seems excessive.

He notes that low mood is useful to disengage effort from unreachable goals, and failure to disengage often leads to depression. Closely related is his work on how social selection for relationship partners can shape human capacities for altruism, empathy and complex sociality.

What does evolution tell us about homicide? Prof. Martin Daly, McMaster University

What does evolution tell us about homicide? Trained in the study of nonhuman animal behaviour, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have brought a Darwinian perspective to bear on human social behaviour, including interpersonal conflict as manifested in homicide and nonlethal violence.

What can ants tell us about evolution? Prof. Ross Crozier, James Cook University

Ross Crozier’s interest in biology began from watching ants and termites in South East Asia as a child.

He’s explored many aspects of the evolution and genetics of social insects, for example how do they recognise and estimate relatedness?

A/Prof. Jonathan Foster, University of Western Australia

He has combined a career in the UK and Australia as a senior international researcher in cognitive neuroscience with a role as consultant neuropsychologist in clinical practice. Foster’s research has focused on the key mechanisms underpinning the changes that occur in neurocognitive functioning across the lifespan.

Prof. Peter Gluckman, University of Auckland

Peter’s research encompasses the hormonal regulation of fetal and postnatal growth, developmental neuroscience and neuroprotection, and comparative aspects of the evolutionary-developmental biology interface.

Prof. Michael Goddard, University of Melbourne

Since his PhD on genetics of guide-dogs for the blind (1973-77), Michael Goddard has worked on research into the genetic improvement of livestock. This concentrates on the utilisation of molecular genetics in livestock improvement. For instance, he helped develop the concept of “genomic selection” and is now applying this to dairy and beef cattle.

Prof. David Green, Monash University

David’s proof of the universality of networks in 1992 showed that networks (nodes linked by edges) are inherent in both the structure and behaviour of all complex systems. It also established a link between evolution and self-organisation in general.

Prof. Colin Groves, Australian National University

Colin Groves’ has worked for 40 years on the taxonomy and phylogeny of primates (including humans) and other mammals.

This research has involved work in museums, fieldwork in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, and much writing and lecturing on evolution and in opposition to creationist fantasies.

Prof. Brian Hall, Dalhousie University

Prof. Hall trained as an experimental embryologist at the University of New England (UNE), Armidale (NSW), and is an expert on skeletal development. He has played a major role in integrating evolutionary and developmental biology into the discipline now known as Evolutionary Developmental Biology (evo-devo).

Prof. Ary Hoffmann, University of Melbourne

Ary Hoffmann has shown how natural populations evolve in response to environmental stresses, initially using Drosophila as a model system and later applying the same approaches to beneficials and pest organisms.

His research has led to major advances in understanding how stressful periods influence evolutionary rates, how insects adapt to overcome stressful conditions, and when evolutionary limits occur.

Dr John Long, Museum Victoria

John’s research work has focussed on the early evolution of fishes in Australia and other parts of Gondwana. He has collected fossils throughout Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Africa, and has been on two expeditions to Antarctica. He has become well-known for his discoveries of well-preserved Devonian age fish fossils from Gogo, in the Kimberley (including his discovery of Mcnamaraspis, the state fossil emblem of Western Australia), and of dinosaurs and marine reptile fossils in Western Australia.

Prof. Rick Shine, University of Sydney

Rick’s studies on sexual selection in snakes and lizards have provided some of the first and most detailed information on topics such as sperm competition, cryptic female choice, and sexual conflict.

His recent studies on invasive cane toads have documented remarkably rapid evolutionary responses both in the toads and in the Australian species with which they interact, suggesting that an evolutionary perspective can play a critical role in formulating solutions to conservation issues.

Dr Suzanne Sadedin, Monash University and University of Tennessee

Fortunately, a flirtation with computer science provided Suzanne with an avenue into theoretical evolution.

Her recent work includes investigations of cultural evolution, social networks, landscape genetics and the evolution of complexity.

Dr Thomas Suddendorf, University of Queensland

Thomas’ research interests include the cognitive abilities of primates and young children and the evolution of the human mind. Of particular interest to him are representational capacities such as those related to understanding of self, time and mind.

Read about the conference at http://evolution09.com.au/

And the other events at http://evolutionaustralia.org.au

Kind regards,



Niall Byrne

Science in Public

ph +61 (3) 9398 1416 or 0417 131 977


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