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Thursday, September 9, 1999 Published at 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK


Darwin gets a makeover

Steve Jones: Passionate in support of evolution

Biologist Steve Jones is a brave man. First, he selects Darwin's Origin of Species as the single most important book to have been written this millennium, then he attempts to rewrite it.

Steve Jones in his own words
But anyone who dares to say anything about evolution these days has to be brave because of the heat and bile that seems to surround the subject.

The arguments are just as intense 140 years after Darwin first thrust his ideas upon the world. To suggest as he did that life, and that included human life, had emerged without the influence of God's guiding hand was bound to ruffle a few feathers in the 19th Century.

But the recent decision by the Kansas State board of education to drop evolution as a subject in the science curriculum shows the religious plumes have yet to settle.

Steve Jones will give them no comfort.

"There are a hundred million Americans who are willing to say they do not believe in evolution and that they do believe that life was created by divine force within the last 10,000 years.

"That belief is also spreading throughout the islamic world. I think we have to tell people why we believe in evolution. It's no good saying 'I believe in evolution because it is true'. You need the facts, and that's what my book does. I give the facts and Darwin has the argument."

A modern version

The Professor of Genetics at University College London has called his new book Almost Like A Whale. The title is a reference to a quote from Darwin that American black bears who swim with their mouths open to catch fish could, one day, evolve into whale-like creatures.

In his updating, Professor Jones has set out to re-write the Origin of Species as if Darwin had written it in 1999 instead of 1859. We now have more examples, the UCL professor says, of the way evolution is still happening; we know about genes and DNA and can now identify minuscule evolutionary changes which show the theory at work.

"The example I use, and it's a rather obvious one but a very impressive one, is that of the Aids virus. Since that reached the western world in 1975, it has moved on, it has evolved. You can make a family tree of the modern forms of Aids across the world and try and work out what the ancestor looked like.

"Amazingly enough, last year, they found a sort of fossil Aids virus in a forgotten blood sample in Zaire. It was a 50-year-old virus that was exactly like you would have predicted it to be from looking at its descendants today."

Power of genetics

Darwin would have been amazed by what geneticists are able to do today - to "experiment with evolution", as Professor Jones puts it.

By moving genes from one species to another, scientists can now introduce changes to an organism that might otherwise never have occurred or taken millions of years to come about.

It is an astonishing power, but one Professor Jones believes does carry some risk. Because we can never hope to truly control natural selection, there is always the chance that nature will bite back when we try to "improve" it for our own selfish ends.

"Everybody knows that insecticides work much less well than they used to because so many insects have evolved resistance to DDT.

"A second more alarming example is antibiotics - the fact that we are now in a situation where some of the most dangerous bacteria, like tuberculosis, are resistant to any known antibiotic. We may soon be back to the situation we were in before World War Two, before penicillin was discovered. These are classic examples of evolution at work."

Almost Like A Whale is published by Doubleday.

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