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Welcomes and introduction to the Charles Darwin symposium

Robyn Williams, ABC Radio National, and Craddock Morton, National Museum of Australia
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Good morning. I am going to read a short quotation which you possibly know very well:

Farewell, Australia! You are a rising infant and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the south: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.

Charles Darwin of course. He was a young lad. He’d been at sea for a long time. We’ll hear more of those details of how he got on and what he thought and what a remarkable fellow he was during this day.

My name is Robyn Williams. I do things on ABC Radio. We are going to whip through the day with three sessions: the first on the concise story of Darwin; the second one on the Origin of Species; and then talking about the legacy. We will have several speakers followed by questions and answers in a lump at the end of each block. We will have separate chairs for each session. Tea and lunch will be in the hall downstairs. At 1 o’clock I shall launch Tom Frame’s marvellous book on Darwin and Australia in the Friends lounge.

To welcome you this morning I will ask Craddock Morton, who is the Director of the National Museum of Australia, to do the honours.

CRADDOCK MORTON: Thanks very much, Robyn. I am going to be even briefer than Robyn and I am not going to say anything at all about Darwin. I want to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the traditional owners of the land upon which this symposium is taking place, and to welcome everyone who is participating in the symposium. This is one of a number of symposia that we have had over the years which relate to exhibitions that are currently showing in the Museum. We did one on deserts; we did one on Cook; and now this one with Darwin. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I commend the Darwin exhibition to you.

I am just back from New York from the American Museum of Natural History where the show originated. I was speaking to a number of people there who have taken either this show or different versions of it. It is on in London and in Milan at the moment and I saw it recently in Tokyo. Each one of the participants has added a section into the exhibition on the effect of Darwin on the thought in their own country. It’s been quite an amazing and surprising phenomenon.

When I first met Robyn at the Eureka moments! Highlights from 50 years of Australian science exhibition some years ago, I said I wanted to get more history of science into the Museum because at that time we had very little. This is a very good example of the sorts of things we have been trying to do. We have been delighted with the success of the exhibition. It has exceeded our expectations. It was an exhibition which we didn’t really know what the response would be, and the response has exceeded our expectations.

For those who haven’t seen it - this is my commercial - we have also produced a book to go with the exhibition entitled Charles Darwin: an Australian selection. The authors in this book I am happy to say, are here today: Robyn is one of them; Tom Frame, whose book is being launched at lunchtime today, is another; Nick Drayson, who is chairing the first session is a third; and Mike Pickering who curated the exhibition is the other one. So I commend this book to you. In New York last week I was told by the Americans that they found this the most interesting book that had been produced in association with those who were showing the exhibition. I suspect that that was a piece of typical American politeness but I am prepared to take it at face value.

I don’t want to say anything more other than to say I look forward with great interest to the outcomes of this session today. I want to thank everyone involved for taking the time to participate. I want to thank the staff of the Museum for once again doing a terrific job in putting the whole thing together. Thank you very much and welcome to the Museum.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, I am very proud of that book on your behalf. I actually gave a copy to Adam Spencer for his 40th birthday and in New York I presented one to our retiring United Nations Ambassador Robert Hill, previously of this parish when he used to be Defence Minister and a good friend of mine. It is so wonderfully presentable because the first part, as you probably know, is Darwin’s diary of being here in Australia. You can follow each day and you can see his crossings out and see what a marvellous lucid writer he was. And then we have the three essays. It is rather nice. I am very pleased with what you have done. It is terrific. Thank you.

Darwin is really out of the box. He is such a nice guy and he could have been a shit like Newton. Even Einstein was a bit peculiar. But Darwin was terrific. He was also not the sort of person who necessarily was smart from the beginning. A bit like me and some of us, he kind of doddled through and had this marvellous luck. He did something that most scientists these days neglect: he was born into a very rich family. So if you have any kids growing up who want to be scientists, make sure you leave them several squillion bucks so that they can say, ‘What do I do next? I will go and do that for five years.’

The other thing about him I find staggering is that, if you take away evolution, he would have been great anyway on so many fronts that it is almost unbelievable. He wrote 19 books - some people say 16 - and hundreds of different sorts of papers totalling some six million words going from barnacles, orchids, insect eating plants, earthworms, the expression of emotions in dogs, apes and people - all really understanding original things as you could not believe coming from the sophistication of the twenty-first century. He had no apparatus worth speaking of. None of this smart stuff that we have that allow you to work out tremendous things by homing straight into the essence of life.

I will give a couple of examples. One of them is what he did with worms towards the end of his life. If you go to a particular part of Cambridge you can see in one of the attachments to an old college how deep the earth was. England rose by something like a yard or nearly a metre over a fairly short time, and that was done by worms. So what did Darwin do? He stuck a post in his back garden and watched how the earth rose up against that post and deduced from it some wonderful things about earthworms in some of the last stuff that he did.

Another example to do with botany is when you imagine how it is that plants grow and you fill in the earth right to the tip of the plant and it still grows. So clearly something is affecting the tip. And if you work out the next bit, that something must go down to the other part of the plant transmitted by some sort of messenger. So he inferred what we now know as auxins and gibberellins, the plant hormones. This is stupendous stuff.

Then when you look at the implications of evolution - he wrote several books but the main one, Origin of Species, we know was published 150 years ago in November - all aspects of that could be tested. You can look into the cell of most people in this room and you will see 23 pairs of chromosomes; if you look at apes you see 24. Is the whole idea wrong? Will it come crashing down? It looks that way if you look immediately at the molecules. Then you go in further and you see chromosome number 2 is in fact joined in the middle, so you have two chromosomes linked by telomeres. This is one of the examples that you get at each stage of some of the revelations that have come since the publication of Origin of Species. It is a wonderfully exciting intellectual exercise around a human being who was both personable, exciting and interesting. Then of course you get the philosophical aspects that people like Tom Frame and others will talk about, which make the whole thing so broad and fascinating. We can do so today, as has happened more and more in the twenty-first century, in a spirit of good will despite the stand-offs that have happened in various parts of the world, not least America.

That is enough from me.

The first session - Darwin: a concise story - is going to be chaired by Nick Drayson. He is a dear friend of mine who wrote a shocking, extraordinary novel about Darwin Confessing a Murder, which tells the whole story of how Wallace and he, Darwin, and Emma got embroiled in an as yet disclosed until Nick disclosed it shocking drama and how it was all wiped out just after Darwin’s death by the explosion near Krakatoa.

The latest book written by Nick, who is a natural historian attached to this esteemed establishment, is A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, which is a total delight and I urge you to get hold of it. You can even give it to your children and they won’t be shocked. Would you please welcome Nick Drayson to chair the first session.

Date published: 30 April 2009