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  • This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea

  • ever to occur to a human mind.

  • The idea is evolution by natural selection.

  • And the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.

  • I'm a biologist and Darwin has been an inspiration to me

  • throughout my whole career.

  • His masterpiece, On The Origin Of Species, was published 150 years ago.

  • And it changed forever our view of the world and our place in it.

  • What Darwin achieved was nothing less than a complete explanation

  • of the complexity and diversity of all life.

  • And yet, it's one of the simplest ideas that anyone ever had.

  • In this series, I want to persuade you

  • that evolution offers a far richer and more spectacular view of life

  • than any religious story.

  • It's one reason why I don't believe in God.

  • I want to show you how Darwin opened our eyes to the extraordinary reality

  • of our world.

  • In this first programme, I'm going to tell you who Charles Darwin was,

  • explain how he discovered his theory of evolution, what it is,

  • and why it matters.

  • By the end, I hope to have convinced you of the truth

  • that evolution is a fact, backed by undeniable evidence.

  • And I want to give you a glimpse of the brutal elegance of the force

  • which, Darwin realised, drives evolution on...

  • ..natural selection.

  • When Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago,

  • sailors and explorers were sending home

  • a dizzying array of specimens like these

  • from all parts of Britain's growing empire.

  • Every animal was believed to have a unique place in God's creation,

  • each made by God according to his perfect, unchanging design.

  • At school in Shrewsbury,

  • the young Charles Darwin was taught that God had created the Earth,

  • and all this rich variety of life just 6,000 years ago.

  • Today, thanks to Darwin, we know differently.

  • But even now, according to polls, four out of every ten British people

  • prefer to cling to the old ideas

  • and believe that God created our world

  • and every living creature in it.

  • I think it's scandalous

  • how little our children are taught about evolution at school.

  • A typical class gets just a few hours

  • to study one of the most important ideas in science.

  • This lot got me.

  • I went to meet a science class of 15 to 16-year-olds

  • at Park High School in London to try to open their eyes to Darwinism.

  • Why do we need to find out about evolution?

  • Why do we need to find out about evolution?

  • Because it is the explanation for our existence and because

  • it explains such a huge number of facts,

  • because everything we know about life is explained by it.

  • I believe in my religion

  • so whenever I read about evolution,

  • I can't understand it, I don't believe it,

  • I just, like, believe my religion.

  • Right, so you know what you believe when you start,

  • and any new book that says anything different,

  • you don't read it?

  • Even if you've got evidence,

  • I just like...I've found a stronger evidence,

  • which is the Holy Book, so...

  • So, the reason you believe it

  • is because that's the one you were told first?

  • 'I can see that a few hours in the science lab is no match

  • 'for a lifetime of religious indoctrination.'

  • I was brought up to believe it.

  • Is that a good reason to believe something?

  • Yeah, because I went to church since I was little.

  • Yeah, and it says it in the Bible.

  • Yes, but in the Hindu sacred scriptures,

  • it says something different, doesn't it?

  • Yeah, they're brought up to believe that...

  • So everybody should believe what they're brought up to believe

  • even though they contradict each other?

  • You can be made to believe something in science, and then,

  • you can be made to believe something in religious studies,

  • but it's really up to you what you believe.

  • You can't just say that...

  • Well, look, I hate this phrase, "made to believe", that's awful,

  • and I would hate anybody to think

  • I was trying to make anybody believe anything.

  • I'm asking you to look at the evidence.

  • Perhaps you haven't got a full impression

  • of how strong the evidence actually is.

  • Nobody has seen evolution take place over a long period,

  • but they've seen the after effects,

  • and the after effects are massively supported.

  • It's like a case in a court of law

  • where nobody can stand up and say, "I saw the murder happen",

  • but yet, you've got millions and millions of pieces of evidence

  • which no reasonable person could possibly dispute.

  • That's sort of the way it is.

  • 'There's only one thing for it -

  • 'I'm going to show them evidence -

  • 'something they can touch with their own hands, see with their own eyes.

  • 'Later, we'll see if I can make them think again.

  • 'When Charles Darwin was a teenager,

  • 'he would have been as much of a creationist

  • 'as some of these children.'

  • Darwin was born into a prosperous Shropshire family in 1809.

  • His father was a doctor,

  • and keen that his son should follow in his scientific footsteps.

  • But the adolescent Charles,

  • more interested in shooting and fishing than academic prowess,

  • was contemplating an easy life as a country parson.

  • Luckily for him, and for us,

  • he had the opportunity to open his eyes to see the world.

  • In 1831, as a young man of 22,

  • Darwin's family connections got him a once-in-a-lifetime invitation -

  • a round-the-world voyage on the survey ship, HMS Beagle.

  • Over five years, Darwin collected hundreds and hundreds of specimens

  • to send back to the collections.

  • But increasingly,

  • he wasn't satisfied with just recording

  • the animals and plants he saw.

  • He was beginning to have doubts about the Biblical story

  • of how animals were created.

  • While ashore, riding across the South American flatlands,

  • Darwin amused himself

  • by chasing after rheas - shy, ostrich-like flightless birds.

  • But he was puzzled.

  • Why had God bothered to create

  • two very similar but slightly different types of rhea?

  • Had an original group of rhea split in two,

  • and once separated, started to develop in their own way?

  • The mystery deepened when Darwin noticed an even more marked effect -

  • on islands.

  • I was lucky enough to retread Darwin's footsteps

  • on the Galapagos Islands last year.

  • Here, he began to wonder

  • why God would have created distinctive kinds of tortoise,

  • finch or iguana on more or less identical small islands.

  • Were iguanas like these related rather than separately created?

  • Were they cousins of the similar but different iguanas on nearby islands?

  • This pattern of relationships

  • became even more intriguing when Darwin encountered fossils.

  • The evidence of fossils

  • would help Darwin develop a theory of life on Earth

  • far more wonderful and more moving

  • than any religious story of creation.

  • This team of American scientists

  • has uncovered the remains of two-million-year-old ground sloths.

  • Today, I'm joining the dig

  • because it was fossils like these

  • that made a huge impression on the young Charles Darwin

  • during his voyage on HMS Beagle.

  • To Darwin, they looked like ancient, giant versions

  • of animals he saw around him.

  • (MAN) The ground sloths flourished

  • for millions of years, and were quite successful.

  • - They were huge, weren't they? - Some of them were.

  • They were bear-sized, up to...almost rivalling mammoths and mastodons,

  • up to six metres in height when they reared up onto their hind legs.

  • (DAWKINS) What struck Darwin was how, apart from their enormous size,

  • the fossils closely resembled in every other detail

  • the skeletons of modern sloths living nearby.

  • (MAN) You can see similarities in the details of their teeth,

  • peculiar features that they share with modern armadillos,

  • modern tree sloths and modern anteaters.

  • We can infer that they are related to these animals.

  • (DAWKINS) The discovery of fossils was a huge challenge

  • to the religious orthodoxy of Darwin's youth.

  • What were these animals? When had they lived?

  • And why didn't they exist any more?

  • Some suggested that fossils were just God playfully ornamenting his world.

  • Others claimed

  • they were the bones of sinners drowned in Noah's flood.

  • But Darwin was one of the first scientists

  • to correctly identify them as long-dead species of animals.

  • He was starting to grasp that the Earth might be a lot older

  • than the Bible led us to believe.

  • And how had he realised this?

  • Through a fascination with geology.

  • During the voyage of the Beagle,

  • Darwin had had time to immerse himself

  • in the pioneering work of Charles Lyell.

  • Lyell argued that the landscape we saw around us was formed

  • by the slow action of vast forces, not thousands,

  • but millions of years of gradual change.

  • So, if the Earth was shaped and reshaped

  • over an immense period of time,

  • was there room, Darwin began to wonder,

  • for life to undergo slow changes as well?

  • You know how old these rocks are?

  • They're about 200 million years old.

  • Back in the 19th century, lots and lots of people

  • came here to look for fossils.

  • And some of the most famous fossils have been found here.

  • 'I'm taking the science class I met earlier to the beach.

  • 'Many of these teenagers have been brought up

  • 'to mistrust the idea of evolution.

  • 'I'm hoping they'll find a small fragment of the kind of evidence

  • 'that made Charles Darwin think again.'

  • Do you know what our ancestors were like 200 million years ago?

  • - They weren't... - They were around,

  • they wouldn't have been here

  • because this would have been the bottom of the sea.

  • They would have been kind of like shrews, little whiskery, twitchy...

  • It seems to be like a dream, but it's real.

  • Yeah, yes, it does, doesn't it?

  • This is all sedimentary rock,

  • meaning it's laid down at the bottom of the sea, mud coming down,

  • layer after layer after layer - that's what fossils are.

  • 'On a beach like this,

  • 'the pounding sea gradually exposes different layers of rock

  • 'and within them, hidden treasure -

  • 'a history of past life on Earth.

  • 'So, each layer you go down to,

  • 'you find a completely different set of animals.'

  • And if you look at the animals that you find, and plants,

  • over the great span of time,

  • you find that they form a kind of ordered sequence,

  • you find fish,

  • 400 million years ago, but you find no mammals at all

  • 400 million years ago.

  • The fish gradually changed into amphibians, changed into reptiles,

  • reptiles changed into birds, changed into mammals.

  • Did you find that?

  • - Yes. - Oh, that's terrific.

  • That's really great. Yeah.

  • That's a beautiful ammonite.

  • That's really beautiful. Well done for finding that. That's wonderful.

  • 'The fossil hunt has been a success.

  • 'Like Darwin, these teenagers have been brought face to face

  • 'with some tangible remnants of evolution.'

  • The evidence Darwin had seen with his own eyes on the voyage of the Beagle

  • seeded huge heretical questions in his mind.

  • And once he started thinking, he couldn't stop.

  • Darwin, once an easily distracted student,

  • returned from the voyage of the Beagle

  • a determined, even obsessive research scientist.

  • The trip had changed him and it was soon to change the world forever.

  • Back in London in the late 1830s, the specimens he'd collected

  • and his reporting of the voyage made Darwin a scientific celebrity.

  • Even more importantly, while cataloguing his finds,

  • Darwin realised that life forms weren't fixed.

  • They had changed over time.

  • They must have evolved.

  • Now, he wanted to pull together all the evidence

  • to understand how and why this had happened.

  • It took Darwin 20 years of research, on and off, to develop the ideas

  • that would eventually be set out in The Origin Of Species.

  • He wanted to be fully certain of his facts.

  • BIRDS TWITTER

  • The hard graft was done here at Darwin's home,

  • Down House in Kent.

  • Long before the days of the internet, of course,

  • Darwin drew upon the collective knowledge

  • of an entire generation of naturalists all over the world.

  • He sent out thousands of letters asking for data,

  • posing questions, trying out theories.

  • And back the letters flowed