Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:43 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 2:43 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, with his description of Charles Darwin's meticulous observations and record-keeping. That is the theme that I would like to follow. How do we inculcate in the modern generation, particularly pupils at primary schools, secondary schools and through into universities, this great ability for observation and deduction therefrom?

I declare an interest as chairman of the trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I want to concentrate on Darwin's contribution to plant sciences, but I must first thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for giving us this great opportunity to explore, as so many people in the House today have done from different directions, the relevance and contribution that Darwin can make to some of the overarching issues with which we grapple.

Although Darwin wrote more books on plants than on anything else, he did not in fact consider himself a botanist. He was really very modest about this. His first major work had been on barnacle taxonomy, and his early enthusiasm as a child had been studying beetles and much else on his field walks. He felt comfortable in zoology and, of course, geology but he did not have an equivalent training in botany. He tended to defer to the director of Kew at the time, Joseph Hooker, on plant matters. In his will he left money to Kew to compile an index to the names and authorities of all known flowering plants and their countries. That was a heroically ambitious concept, which has not been completed today. He left £250 a year for five years. Not unnaturally, an official from a government department, a forerunner of Defra, asked the obvious question: what is going to happen when the money runs out? Well, the Government and now international Governments have picked up the tab. It is a project which, it appears, will at last be coming to fruition, in 2010. As signatories of the Convention on Biological Diversity, we have enshrined in that targets, with the deadline of 2010, of the global strategy for plant conservation. Kew is very proud to have a leading role in this, and it now looks realistic to say that this checklist will appear next year.

Darwin wanted this list for purely scientific purposes, but it is now internationally recognised as critical for practical conservation purposes. After all, you cannot produce local conservation plans unless you know what is there in the first place that you are trying to conserve, and whether these plants are common or rare locally, nationally or regionally. You then need to understand to what extent individual species are dependent on each other and what role they play in determining the prevalence of other species.

Darwin's 200th anniversary this year and the global strategy for plant conservation deadline next year have proved excellent opportunities to draw public interest in the key role that plants play in making life possible on this planet, and demonstrating how living organisms have evolved on a basis of mutual interdependence. The current concern—a topical one—of the decline of the honeybee population, and the implications for food production, is just one example of our rather belatedly recognising what was blindingly obvious to Darwin: that one depends on the other.

Next year is also the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society, and I declare an interest as a fellow. As the world's oldest science academy, its anniversary will provide another platform to increase public involvement in science and it will build on the momentum of Darwin's bicentenary celebrations. The Royal Society is planning a full programme of events to promote the scientific ideas, questions and issues of the 21stcentury among new audiences, following up the work of my noble friend Lord Jenkin on the Science and Society report, which he mentioned in his fascinating speech.

Darwin's insight made him a genius but his methods of observation and collection of data were simply robust, as the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, said. He was methodical and very thorough. These are methods which are accessible to children. My noble friend Lady Hooper asked whether we are doing enough to interest young children. Throughout this week, all 23,000 maintained primary and special schools in the country are receiving a treasure chest from Kew containing everything needed to take part in the Great Plant Hunt. This is funded by the Wellcome Trust and will encourage primary school children to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin. Pupils aged five to 11 will be taught to explore habitats and grow plans; they will also have the opportunity to collect seeds and send them to Kew's millennium seed bank at Wakehurst Place. I believe that this is a truly inspired initiative by the Wellcome Trust and I pay tribute to my colleagues at Kew, who have contributed so much of the material for teachers. I pay tribute also to the chairman of Royal Mail, Allan Leighton, who has arranged for the chests—23,000 of them—to be delivered free by Parcelforce, so a round of applause for Royal Mail from me.

Schools are responding enthusiastically as they receive their chests. The programme has been rolled out just this week—Sir David Attenborough delivered the first chest—and one can already see results coming up on the Great Plant Hunt website. So here is a really exciting project. It has been pitched at children of absolutely the right age to capture their enthusiasm. It was, after all, Darwin's peregrinations in the countryside, finding beetles and things, which gave him his lasting interest in natural history. I hope—and think there is a very good chance of it—that the Great Plant Hunt will inspire another Charles Darwin of a future generation.

I was very interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, speak about the rebuild of "HMS Beagle" for scientific research and educational purposes. We are talking about a different, older generation here. A square rig with satellite communication—it sounds a bit of a contradiction—will enable links to laboratories and classrooms around the world. It will be an enormously helpful opportunity for an older age group to engage in the kind of science that Darwin was doing himself.

Darwin still has the ability to inspire pupils and students to participate in the collection of data about life on this planet. From this, we will develop a better understanding of the interdependence of species. As we are the most destructive of all species, we should learn how to put in place local, national and international initiatives which protect our fragile ecosystems. It was Darwin who made us realise that all species are related. From this stems an appreciation of how critically important it is for us and future generations to understand the constraints under which we should manage our lives. We deplete our natural resources and degrade the diversity of life at our peril.