Sunday, January 5, 2014

Walking through time from Kingston Saint Mary to Kilve Beach in Somerset, England

The Quantock Hills, or Quantocks for short, are carboniferous limestone and sandstone formations in southwestern England—at least 350 million years old. These hills at the eastern end of the Exmoor National Park in the county of Somerset exhibit thick sequences of slates and sandstones of Devonian age that were deposited by large deltas that built out into a shallow sea [1]. Today, the Quantocks—with their landscape mosaic of heathland hill tops and valley woodlands—are a great place for hiking, biking and horseback riding, providing views of the Bristol Channel and Wales further north [2].

Over the recent years, the Quantocks have also turned into a hot spot of evotourism. An annual event combines walking, science of evolution and art happenings: a social and evotouristic pilgrimage takes place along the Ancestor's Trail between the village of Kingston Saint Mary and the fossil-rich beach at Klive at the Bristol Channel [3,4]. Inspired by Richard Dawkins' book The Ancestor's Tale, this footpath celebrates the Tree of Life and guides outdoor and biodiversity enthusiasts along a time line from the present day—via “natural selection events”—back to the origin of life; as it currently is scientifically understood.

Jerry Adler participated in such a “reverse re-enacting evolution” walk, describing steps and stages of the metaphorical voyage backward through 3.5 billion years. Adler, a former Newsweek editor, also highlights the contribution of the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) to evolutionary biology, who so often is overlooked in the history of life science, as only Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is credited for gaining the breaking insight [4]:

Although Wallace's theory was essentially the same as Darwin's, and presented in London at the same time, Darwin is the most famous (and reviled) scientist of the 19th century, while Wallace is known mostly to students and specialists. “I always had a soft spot for Wallace myself,” says [Chris] Jenord [walk leader].  “It's a little bit of the British underdog thing, the question of fair play. And the fact that he achieved so much coming from an underprivileged background”—in contrast to Darwin's country-gentry origins. A day before our hike, the Ancestor's Trail group organized a conference in Bristol commemorating the centennial of Wallace's death, intended in part to raise money for a Wallace statue in the Natural History Museum, a project that had languished for the last hunderd years. 

Finally, a bronze statue of Wallace by sculptor Anthony Smith was installed in November 2013 [5]: the statue depicts the moment when, in the rainforest of the Indonesian Bacan Island, Wallace sees the magnificient male of the golden birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera croesus)—one of the hundreds of butterfly species he discovered in the Malay Archipelago. Wallace truly traveled through time and space in search of the branches of the Tree of Life.

Keywords: evotourism, time traveling, origins of species, evolutionary theory, biology, palaeontology, history.

References and more to explore
[1] Natural England: Somerset [].
[2] National Trust: Explore the Quantock Hills [].
[3] Ancestor's Trail: a pilgrimage to the dawn of life [].
[4] Jerry Adler and photographer Stuart Conway: Time Travelers: Walking the Ancestor's Trail. Smithsonian 2014, 44 (9), pp. 40-47 [Take a Hike on Britain's Ancestor's Trail and Travel Back 100 Million Years].
[5] The Alfred Russel Wallace Website: A Bronze Statue of Wallace: A lasting legacy of 2013  [].

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