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January 28, 2017 By Andy Ross

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Evolution

We are having loads of fun doing a topic dear to my heart in schools, Dinosaurs!

Each year, through the auspices of the Creative Links Officer in the local authority (thanks Noelle) who finds funding from the Youth Music Initiative, we run music sessions in school, ten hours on making an opera with Primary aged children. Each session adds to the previous, gradually building up a storyline, songs, acting, set design, costume, and all the other elements that go into making staged performances including dress rehearsal and final performance with an audience. Of course, it is not long enough to really do much except give the children a taste of what actually happens but it is an interesting experience and I hope that the groups learn something as we go. I always do and here is what happened this week. 

Most people like dinosaurs. Some even Really Really like them. I do. I am so besotted with prehistoric life that we went fossil hunting in December in Wales and found lots of ancient life, although no dinosaurs, sadly. I buy books, watch programmes and I would say that natural history is a passion. And, as with any passion, there is always something to learn.

Evolution, so the thinking went when I was at school, is all about life striving to become better. Better suited to its environment or better than other things around it. But the coelacanth has always puzzled and fascinated me. It is my Favourite Creature of all time, and I own many pictures of it including one that is over three metres long by South African artist, Walter Oltmann.  The ceolacanth is a deep sea fish which was considered a "missing link", the piece of the proverbial jogsaw puzzle which fitted between ocean dwelling creatures and the first animals to venture onto land. But surely if evolution is all about striving to become better with lesser developed creatures becoming extinct, the coelacanth should not exist. And exist it surely does. Not in one population but in two - one blue-grey and the other gold. One just off the coast of Africa and the other in Indonesia. 

A late night read-in-bed of a fascinating book has suddenly made sense of this. Evolution, it seems, is NOT a linear progression of refinement but rather a network of diversity rather like the branches of a tree. Some branches live and some don't. Some diversify and try out new things, some wither and die. And some, like the coelacanth, have actually reached their optimum. Rather than being a relic from the ancient world it turns out that the coelacanth is probably so perfectly adapted to its living conditions that it no longer has to change. No alteration of its genetic makeup is going to make it any better than it currently is. Now isn't that amazing!? And heartwarming to know that, no matter what has happened in the world over the enormous span of time that the ceolacanth has lived in the oceans, it survives. Perhaps there is a lesson for all of us there. I know I certainly have learned something Very Important, thanks to doing Dinosaurs in schools...