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article imageThe Ultraviolet Garden – A Lecture by Richard Dawkins

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Feb 18, 2009 in Science
In 1991, world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave a landmark series of 5 lectures on evolution at the prestigious Royal Institution; the fourth lecture can now be seen on YouTube, in high quality video.
Richard Dawkins immediately sets the tone for this lecture by telling us what happened when he asked a little girl what flowers are for. “Two things,” she said, “to make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us.” He says that this was a very nice answer and that he was very sorry to have to tell her that this was not true.
Yet, most people would probably agree with the little girl. The Book of Genesis, in the Bible, is very clear on that point: Man has dominion over all living things. The animals and plants are there for our benefit. Dawkins goes on:
One pious man in the Middle Ages thought that weeds were there to benefit us because it is so good for our spirit to have to go and pull them up. And another Reverend gentleman thought that the louse was indispensable because it provided a powerful incentive to cleanliness.
It goes even further than that, since there is also the idea that animals really want to do their bit, and positively want to be eaten by us. To illustrate how bizarre this idea really is, special guest Douglas Adams reads a passage from his famous “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” This, of course, makes this lecture an even rarer and more special event than it already is, since Douglas Adams died of a heart attack during a workout in 2001.
The theme of flowers and bees is then introduced, by showing some effects of ultraviolet light, a colour that we cannot see, but that bees can see. It so happens that bees cannot see red (the other side of the “visible” spectrum) and that we can. We therefore have a very different perception of the same world. Hence, the title of the lecture “The Ultraviolet Garden.”
Dawkins then continues with the theme of the flowers and the bees to show an interesting type of co-operation. Flowers are actually sex organs. The bees very willingly pollinate (fertilize) flowers, but not because they want to. They do it, because the flowers offer them something that they cannot refuse: nectar and pollen.
Over time, the flowers and the bees have adapted to each other more and more and their lives’ paths have become increasingly entangled. The bees have effectively “bred” the flowers and the flowers have effectively “bred” the bees.
This is not the only type of evolution, however. There is also a type where the two parties do not co-operate. It is often said that antelopes are there for the benefit of lions, because they are food for them. It is also often said that lions are there for the benefit of antelopes because they keep the population down. That is nonsense, of course, but it does show that the lives of animals can be closely related, even if the animals do not care the slightest bit about each other’s well-being.
The presentation then goes on talking about the theme of the lecture: what is it all for? Richard Dawkins talks about computer viruses and their organic equivalents and then builds up to talk about self-replicating machines, something that is commonplace in nature but also something that humans have not duplicated yet, at least not entirely.
How did life actually start? It is thought that life arose on this planet somewhere between 3 and 4 billion years ago. At the time, there was no life, no biology, only physics and chemistry. We do not know how, but somehow, without violating the laws of physics and chemistry, a molecule arose that was able to duplicate itself. From there on, evolution by natural selection took over.
That may seem like a stroke of luck, but Richard Dawkins points out that it had to happen only once. The probability needed for it to happen, is only something like 1 in a billion billion billion a year. Of course, if it did indeed happen only once in our universe, it obviously happened here on this planet, since we are the ones talking about it. Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins thinks that it is a rather more probable event and that there is probably a lot more life in the universe.
Once single-cell organisms were well-established, multi-cellular organisms came into being. Richard Dawkins shows us an example in the form of volvox, a simple alga in the form of a globe. He then goes on talking about humans, horses and blue whales, and via an excursion into the world of the very small (nanotechnology) and the very big (gigatechnology) he discusses an extra level of complexity as presented by social insects, where the individual insect looks very much like a cell in our own bodies and where the actual organism is the colony, not the individual insect.
From this naturally follows a different way of looking at things. Plants do not have wings, bees do. However, since the plant uses the wings of the bees to spread its own genes, those wings could just as well be plant wings. Although he doesn’t mention it, this is actually the very contribution of Richard Dawkins to modern biology and which he has called the “extended phenotype,” the idea that genes do not only shape the body in which they reside, but also the world around them.
The lecture contains a lot more than I have described here. After all, this is Richard Dawkins talking, not some cotton-headed New Ager. Richard Dawkins is able, better than just about anyone, to show us the mysterious beauty of the world while demonstrating that science is not the cold and heartless world that many or even most people seem to think, but that it is eminently more interesting, beautiful and fascinating than the woo-woo of New Age spirituality. As he would say so many years later in his book The God Delusion: “Science is the poetry of reality.”
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