This three-year-old BBC documentary, about 1.5 hours long and hosted by developmental biologist Armand Leroi, was put on YouTube in January and is well worth watching. Leroi travels the world pointing out the products and processes of evolution, interspersing his commentary and visits to labs and field sites with historical vignettes about the introduction of Darwinism in the nineteenth century. The description notes:
Evolutionary biologist Professor Armand Marie Leroi charts the scientific endeavour that brought about the triumphant renaissance of Darwin’s theory. He argues that, with the new science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo), it may be possible to take that theory to a new level to do more than explain what has evolved in the past, and start to predict what might evolve in the future.
Well, I am a guarded fan of “evo devo” (the field that connects developmental biology to evolution), but think that, like the human genome’s promise to cure disease, evo-devotees have sometimes been overly enthusiastic about what their field can deliver.
And as for the notion that evo devo can tell us what might evolve in the future, well, I don’t buy that. Evo devo can give us hints about what is unlikely to evolve in the future, but that’s a different matter. And of course evolution has always been smarter than we are. Who would have predicted that wingless insectivores could have evolved wings and given rise to bats?
Henry Gee recounts a famous anecdote about J.B.S. Haldane’s delivering a similar evo devo prediction eighty years ago:
In 1932 the British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane mused that an all-powerful genius might produce from available human genes a race with Shakespeare’s intellectual power and the stature of the giant prizefighter Primo Carnera. ”But,” he added, ”he could not produce a race of angels. For the moral character or for the wings he would have to await or produce suitable mutations.”
Yet those wing mutations did occur in the ancestors of bats, although I can’t speak for bat morality.
Still, the evo devo doesn’t dominate this video, which I recommend as a very good introduction to the tenets and evidence for evolution. Armand Leroi is an excellent presenter. I haven’t watched this in a while, but as I recall (I may be wrong) I have about five seconds as a talking head.