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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Charles Darwin's tree of life sketch

Charles Darwin's tree of life sketch

In a collaborative study the United Nations, European Community and other organisations including Defra are exploring the economic benefits of biodiversity.  The study intends to put a value on forests, deserts, animals and plants to ascertain the value of ‘natural capital’.

I fear that we are firmly in Thomas Gradgrind territory here, an unyielding obsession with facts and quantification.   Gradgrind, ‘with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.’

If life on earth is a process of natural selection between inter-dependent but competing species, then clearly bio-diversity is fundamental to existence – do we need a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate this?

Oscar Wilde famously observed that, ‘A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’  And it seems to me we must live in cynical times to be seeking to price the financial value of our planet’s finite natural resources.  This is particularly so when you consider how much we still don’t know.  It’s estimated, for example, that there are between 10 and 30 million species of insects but only 950,000 have been identified.  As for the total number of species of bacteria, nobody really knows, estimates range from 10 million to a billion.  So while Domestos may kill 99% of known bacteria, that really isn’t much to boast about.

Coral reefs support extraordinary biodiversity.  It is not unusual for a reef to have several hundred species of snails, sixty species of corals, and several hundred species of fish. Of all ocean habitats, reefs seem to have the greatest development of complex symbiotic associations.   In Nurturing the innovation reef  Mario Morino suggests that innovation is like a coral reef.  Marine biologists don’t fully understand what causes the reef to form but we do know that human actions can nurture or harm the process.  The same is true for innovation, he suggests – a natural chaotic unpredictable process that is hard, perhaps even impossible to foster.  ‘We must focus on finding ways to nurture and accelerate the natural processes of innovation once they’ve begun naturally.

So let’s nurture the diversity of the reef – both the coral and the human.  After all the same DNA molecules build the cells of the coral polyps, the sea urchins and the sponges that break them down, the parrotfish and us.  We are all natural capital; all worth investing in.

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If you were laid up at home, convalescing after an illness, how would you spend your time?  A bit of daytime TV, catching up on DVDs, drinking lots of cups of tea?  I’ll hazard a guess and say that you wouldn’t spend your time watching cucumber plants climb.  But that is exactly what Charles Darwin did in 1863 – using a pattern of markers he noted how the tips of the plants would circle around and around over time and grasp anything they touched.

There’s been a lot in the media lately about Charles Darwin, celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth.  What I hadn’t realised was how young Darwin was when he made his famous voyage on the Beagle and how the experiments he carried out over forty years spent living at Down House in Kent helped him to develop his theory of evolution.  The Galapagos Islands may have provided the spark but it was the years of patient work in Kent that refined his thinking.

And one thing which I think is very interesting is the simplicity of many of these experiments.  In 1855 Darwin carried out a survey of Great Pucklands meadow close to his home and through patient observation, identified 142 species of plant and how they occupied subtly different niches within the meadow and regulated one another’s population.  In another experiment with oat seedlings, Darwin showed how they always twisted towards the light and by devising little caps to cover the tips of the seedling leaves, he found they no longer responded to light.  In this way he showed that there was a photosensitive region at the tip of the seedling leaves.

The big theories that Darwin was grappling with – the interconnection between different species, the governing forces of nature – are some of the most complex questions there are and still arouse strong feelings.  Evolution or intelligent design remains a political issue, especially in America and it was interesting that President Obama chose in his inaugural address to talk about the need to ‘restore science to its rightful place.’ 

So how does any of this relate to local government? In a number of ways, I think: 

  1. True, Darwin had independent means but if he was well-equipped in terms of resources, it was in having time (and a big garden).   
  2. You need to be patient.  I think particularly as councils focus more on behavioural changes, we need to be more patient in our approach.  Darwin studied the humble earthworm for over 45 years before publishing his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits.  (Don’t all rush to the library!)  It includes the observation that, “Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.”  If we are in the business of reducing inequalities, promoting better health and quality of life, is the three-year span of Local Area Agreements and an assessment framework that seeks to assess progress annually all that meaningful? 
  3. Don’t under-estimate simplicity.  Perhaps too often we are drawn to macro solutions.  We seem to always be in the business of restructing local government and redesigning the NHS.  We need new charters, new models of accountability, revitatilised performance frameworks, new models of efficiency, services transformed around the user etc.  We still seem to hanker after big ideas which will effect dramatic changes.  But often there might be some simple things we can do that won’t grab the headlines but will make a real difference to people’s lives.  We all know the difference we feel as customers between being treated courteously and not. 
  4. Thinking space – Darwin appears to have spent quite a bit of time pondering.  He went on a daily walk to collect his thoughts.  Perhaps we need to recognise the balance between time spent thinking and doing.  Of course, it does help if, as most people accept was the case with Darwin, you’re a genius.

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