BBC documentary: “What Darwin Didn’t Know”

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.

h/t: Al


  1. Sigmund
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    I’ll have to watch this.
    It would be good to do another such program, except concentrating on improvements in ethical philosophy over the past 2000 years.
    “What Jesus didn’t know” – the ethical problems associated with slavery, eternal torture, exorcism, racism, discrimination, etc.

    • lamacher
      Posted July 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      That is a terrific idea.


      • Notagod
        Posted July 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        I like it 2.

  2. Dominic
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Yes – Leroi is good – I think I mentioned Aristotle’s Lagoon, another BBC programme he did. It may be on the web if you search. And Henry Gee lives in Cromer on the north Norfolk coast.

  3. NMcC
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    “…although I can’t speak for bat morality.”

    I can. Evil, bloodsucking little bastards.

    • lijebaley
      Posted July 10, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Your comment is very unfair on bats as a whole. Many bat species are as important as bees for crop polenation and, of the 1240 or so species of bat, only 4 are true Vampires:
      Desmodus rotundus, Diphylla ecaudata, Diaemus youngi and Investment Banker.

      • NMcC
        Posted July 10, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        Oh, sorry, did Prof. Coyne say bat? I thought he said Board of Barclay’s Bank.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted July 11, 2012 at 2:55 am | Permalink


    • Posted July 10, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Well, I would presume that’s quite close to a view of human morality than chickens, cows, pigs, goats, etc. would hypothetically have.

  4. DV
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    If your uppper limbs evolve into wings, that would have detrimental effects on your prizefighting ability, no?

  5. CJ
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Another great documentary is the similarly titled “What Darwin Never Knew” with another evo-devotee, Sean B. Carroll. It’s based somewhat on Carroll’s two books “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” and “The Making Of The Fittest.” The latter book and “Why Evolution Is True” are in my opinion the two best books to recommend to anyone on the evidence of evolution.

  6. Bruce Gorton
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Video removed by jac

    • Posted July 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      A word of warning folks. Don’t watch the video Bruce Gorton so thoughtlessly posted unless you want to be enraged and disgusted beyond relief or belief. You won’t be able to unsee it.

      And Bruce… if your goal is to arouse a vigilante squad to converge on Colorado City AZ, may I suggest 4chan for such a purpose. If it is to arouse hatred for religion in general, I’d remind that this particular event still does not have an identified perp, just the suspicions of the ex-member. FYI, embedding videos is frowned upon at this website (though unfortunately too easy to do by mistake); you can avoid doing so by using the “a href=” construct, in brackets.

      To avoid posting OT though, you have to engage your cerebral, rather than your adrenal, cortex.

  7. tualha
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Of possible relevance to the question of bat morality:

  8. Posted July 10, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Of further relevance to the question of bat morality, do not vampire bats help out less fortunate feeders by regurgitating blood for them if requested, while at the same time keeping track of those who habitually freeload, and refuse to help the freeloaders?

    David B

  9. Prof.Pedant
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    “”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.”

    Since Angels are always depicted as six-limbed entities (a pair of arms, legs, and wings) it would take some mutations that replicate a set of limbs and then mutations which strongly modify those limbs. My guess is that is quite a bit less likely than bat evolution.

    • Thanny
      Posted July 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for saving me from having to make that point.

  10. MadScientist
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Bats don’t count – don’t forget that angels have arms in addition to their wings. So if you started with Shiva, lost a few arms, and developed one set of arms into wings, then you’ll have an angel.

  11. bernardhurley
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Jerry for posting this. I’ll watch when I have time.

  12. Posted July 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Great video. Thanks for posting. Quick question: this video claims that the eye only evolved once, yet I know I have read in many places (Zimmer, Shubin etc.) that the eye has evolved independently on multiple occasions. Am I missing something?

  13. MAUCH
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I thought this was very good. It hits home the fact that though Darwin originated the idea of natural selection it was those starting with R. A. Fisher and moving onward that fleshed out the modern evolutionary theories as we know them today. After seeing this video perhaps at least a small handful of doubters might realize how ludicrous it is to take ancient long discarded arguments such as the fallacies of Lamarckian blending and attempt to punch holes in Darwinism. Whatever this straw-man is that they call Darwinism it has nothing to do with the theory that is today used so successfully by all the life sciences.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] From the BBC, via Carl Zimmer, via Why Evolution is True. […]

  2. […] BBC documentary: “What Darwin Didn’t Know” ( Share this:EmailShare on TumblrDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  3. […] BBC documentary: “What Darwin Didn’t Know” ( […]

%d bloggers like this: