Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson for Wales 1:54 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, the biggest temptation in this debate today will be to look back only in a historical sense at the great achievements of Charles Darwin, to glorify his scientific research and evaluate his achievements. However, on occasions such as this, we must look forward with optimism and inspire a new generation of young scientists. Who better as a role model than Darwin to take them forward?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is to be congratulated on enabling this debate to take place today, and for the way that she introduced that great man's contribution to society. Her contribution is a model of how best to celebrate the life of Darwin.

Charles Darwin ignited a revolution not just in biology, but also in society, as part of the wave of science, progress and optimism that pervaded Victorian Britain. The public appetite for the natural sciences was seen in packed lecture halls. Editions of Darwin's Origin of Species sold out rapidly not just in the halls of learning but in railway stations.

The year 2009 gives us the opportunity to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin, perhaps one of the most significant scientists ever, and not just for his work on natural selection. He was also a great botanist and geologist—arguably the father of ecology and biodiversity studies. We celebrate his bicentenary at a time when British society needs its scientists more than ever and needs the public to understand the scientific process not blindly but with informed trust in the people who carry out scientific research on our behalf. It is because of that need that I hope the 2009 celebrations—and, importantly, the legacy of those celebrations—will become an inspiration for young men and women throughout the country to embrace science as the Victorians did: as a fundamental of basic literacy and an integral part of their intellectual lives.

For my part, I would like every comprehensive school in the country to be presented with a bust of Charles Darwin and a selection of books, Voyage of the Beagle and perhaps Fossils, Finches and Fuegians by Richard Darwin Keynes, so that interested pupils can be inspired by Charles Darwin's open-mindedness and determination—remember that he suffered appallingly from seasickness, yet stuck out five years on HMS "Beagle"—and the sheer adventure of discovery.

That brings me to the question of a legacy for the 2009 celebrations and the importance of engaging young people in science education. Lectures and exhibitions have taken place. It was a real mission this year to fascinate young minds. It was when Darwin set foot on HMS "Beagle" that the intellectual journey began that led to his writing, somewhere in the Pacific in 1835, that if his observations of the variation among Galapagos mockingbird species was borne out, that would "undermine the stability of species". How appropriate that his "Eureka!" moment came at the age of 26 on a British survey ship.

The message of Darwin needs to be transferred to a new generation. I must declare an interest in the HMS Beagle Trust. I have no direct financial interest in the trust. Neither, I believe, does my fellow trustee, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who very much regrets that he cannot be here today. Present here is David Lort-Phillips of Pembrokeshire, a descendant of one of the leading crew of the original HMS "Beagle". He has undertaken tremendous preparation work for the trust, as has Peter McGrath, a tall-ship skipper and youth trainer from Whitby. It is their enthusiasm that has inspired this address. My interest is in science education and exploration. As the son of a master mariner, inevitably I am fascinated by this project.

It is important that I inform those here today of the basis of the Beagle Trust project. The plan is to build a replica of HMS "Beagle" during the current years of celebration of Darwin's bicentenary. Once built, the new ship will retrace the circumnavigation of 1831 to 1836, which was made under the command of Robert FitzRoy and carried aboard a young Charles Darwin on a journey that he called the most important event of his life.

The new "Beagle" will host modern scientific research, and scientists will be paired with teachers and students to address important questions of evolution, biodiversity and climate change. A charismatic international flagship for science, she will be used to promote wider public engagement and learning programmes. It is planned that the boat will be constructed in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, and space has been provided by the port authority. The cost, estimated on plans prepared by one of the world's most respected classic shipbuilders and riggers for a sailing square rigger with lines and rigging based on the HMS "Beagle" of 1831, is £5 million.

The lead scientific programme will involve DNA bar-coding and environmental metagenomics to detect and identify new species of marine life, working in collaboration with astronauts aboard the international space station to produce ground-truth space imagery of oceanic phenomena, and hosting individual peer-reviewed research projects proposed by leading scientists both ashore and afloat. The plan is also to put young people into this situation so that they can benefit from scientific research on the spot in the areas which Darwin actually visited.

The rebuilt "Beagle" will provide a 20-year legacy for the Darwin celebrations, and people will become interested in science, as Darwin did, in a memorable experience aboard a tall ship. The project has enormous potential, and the "Beagle" project already has a partner in NASA in the States, which has signed an international space Act agreement for the project to work with the crew of the new "Beagle" on observing and sampling the little understood oceanic phenomena. British school children will be able to talk to the crew of the new "Beagle" and, through them, to astronauts on the international space station. I hope that the Minister for Science might find it worth a word of congratulation to a small educational charity in Pembrokeshire, which has entered into a formal agreement with what is arguably the most famous scientific body in the world.

This project has the potential to remember Darwin and to inspire a new generation, and I ask the Government to help to support this project positively. It is a route to promoting our scientific and maritime inheritance while providing a beacon for the youth of the 21st century.