“Thanks for that, Charles!”

Armand Leroi's “What Darwin didn't know”

Television-viewing inhabitants of Britain may have caught evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi‘s documentary “What Darwin didn’t know”, broadcast yesterday on BBC Four. Those that didn’t may watch the 90-minute programme online for the next six days. Be warned that this is no pop-science presentation, but rather Darwin for the culturati (and those who understand the meaning of the term “capricious”). It certainly demands the viewer’s undivided attention.

Another commentator has criticised Leroi’s tone as being “sleepy and Victorian”. It may well have been so, in places, but the documentary was pitched at a particular audience, and in most part this sleepy reviewer appreciated it. That said, the camera work and lighting did overly-accent the presenter’s noble features and dark intellectualism.

Personally, I would think no less of Leroi if he were pictured picking his nose. We didn’t get that, but at one point Leroi was filmed puffing on a pipe while perusing some dusty old tome in an unlit study. Very un-PC, and no doubt there will be letters of complaint from the usual suspects.

Leroi set Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in historical and scientific context, and included a highly informative discussion of other contemporary ideas, such as those of Hugo de Vries. He also featured the work of naturalist, philosopher and artist Ernst Haeckel, who did much to promote Darwin’s ideas in continental Europe. I was already aware of some of the arguments, but learned much from Leroi’s erudite exposition.

What I appreciated most was the presenter’s honesty regarding certain ‘difficulties’ in Darwin’s theory. What came across strongly was the reality of science as process, and the necessity for others to improve on and complete Darwin’s work. The title of this review is Leroi’s comment on the in parts vague conclusion to Darwin’s “On the origin of species…”.

As for more recent scientific developments, Leroi focused on evolutionary developmental biology (or evo-devo, which sounds rather like the name of an 1980s art-rock combo): a discipline which looks at the developmental processes of organisms in order to elucidate the ancestral relationships between them, and how these processes evolved.

One shortcoming of classical Darwinism is that it is not a predictive scientific theory. This may be because biological processes are, or at least appear to be, chaotic, and Leroi here employed the analogy of weather forecasting. While we cannot predict if it will be rainy or sunny this time next month, we can, using statistical inference, talk confidently about longer-term climatic changes.

Biology, like the Earth’s atmosphere, may be complex and chaotic, but at a fundamental level chaos is deterministic. Leroi believes that we will in time discover the deterministic laws underlying evolution, and in future be able to predict the outcomes and limits of evolution.