Shining Like a Ground Beetle — my review of Darwin’s nerdy birthday party

Week before last, I went to Darwin’s Birthday Party at the Natural History Museum in London. The next day, I scribbled about it for Pi Media. Read the review here:

What follows is a version with hyperlinks:

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Commuters in London’s Waterloo Station during the 1960s may not have realised the shaggy man sitting alone on a bench, casting himself outside the bustle, was about to revolutionise evolutionary biology.

William Donald Hamilton changed how we view ourselves, in a sense. His work led to the “gene’s eye view” of evolution popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hamilton’s masterwork, a brace of scientific papers entitled The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour. Here, he developed a mathematical equation— a simple rule—that explains how helping your relatives can be good for you. Hamilton’s view of evolution allows room for niceness.

For the past 20 years, UCL’s Centre for Ecology and Evolution (CEE) has hosted a birthday party commemorating Charles Darwin, who I will assume needs no introduction. There’s even a building named after him on Gower Street. But this was no ordinary party. No. This was the kind of bookish party the earnest, reclusive Darwin might have appreciated.

Kicking things off in the Natural History Museum’s really quite chilly lecture theatre was Laurent Lehmann. Dr Lehmann, from Université de Lausanne in Switzerland, gave a mathematical tour de force, deriving from scratch—in front of our very eyes—Hamilton’s Rule. (I assume, at least, it was a tour de force. I didn’t understand it so much.)

This was very much a theoretician’s talk; the softly-spoken assistant professor, hands clasped behind his back, reducing to animals to “game-playing machines,” maximising this and regressing that. All in all, a bit much for my cold-ridden brain.

Following this dry blitz, David Haig of Harvard University livened things up in a presentation peppered with gory photos and Comic Sans. Professor Haig made his name researching how a single person’s genome can, in essence, fight with itself.

Every person (and many other organisms besides) inherits one set of genes from their mother and an alternative version from their father. Conflict arises because your maternal genes ‘want’ your foetal self to go easy on her pregnant body by growing to a manageable, push-out-able size, for example. Your father’s version of the same growth genes, on the other hand, ‘want’ you to get bigger and bigger. Growth becomes—in Haig’s metaphor—a tenuous balance between your father’s genes pressing the accelerator, while your mother’s genes hold their foot on the brake.

When something goes amiss and a person inherits two sets of a particular gene from dad, her growth has no brake, leading to overgrowth conditions such as Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome. The opposite, undergrowth, can occur if two sets of a mother’s gene are inherited or the father’s genes are missing.

Genomic conflicts can also lead to conditions with dangerous names like choriocarcinoma or ovarian teratoma. The latter is a (usually benign) tumour that starts in the egg-producing cells of the ovary. The strange thing about teratomas (literally monster tumour) is they are made of tissues found in other organs, which is to say they can grow hair, teeth or bone. A tumour with teeth! It’s especially gross when you hear about it from a delighted antipodean professor.

Teratoma with teeth (Source: Wired)

Hamilton himself described these conflicts within the genome as “the bitterness of a civil war […] breaking out in our inmost heart.” In such grim poetry lies the beauty of biology.

The party would only have interested those with a keen and unwavering interest in evolutionary theory—from the technicalities to the in-jokes, the lore to the gore, you’d need a strong constitution to stomach it all. But, such as it was, the event was a fitting intellectual tribute to Darwin and Hamilton: the shy men with their fearsome insights.

Bill Hamilton died too young. In his essay, My Intended Burial and Why, he painted a beautiful scene of his ideal interment in a Brazilian forest; a meditation on what it means to die:

“[My body] will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures […] and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death […] So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.”