The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Theatre

Arcola Theatre: The Painter by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (until 12th February 2011)

The Arcola may have moved to new, grander premises in Dalston now but its commitment to new writing remains strong. Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play, based upon the life of J W Turner, is served admirably by Mehmet Ergen's subtle production, which contains a reportedly riveting performance from Tony Jones as Turner.

Film

The Portuguese Nun (ICA)

The American born, Paris based director Eugène Green's new film has garnered near universal five star reviews in the press. The complex drama, based upon the 17th century French novel The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, unfolds against the stunning backdrop of haute baroque Lisbon, with frequent diversions into superb musical set pieces of fado. In his review, the NS film critic Ryan Gilbey praised "the fairy-tale rhythm of the narrative" and judged the film to be "spellbinding."

Design

The Design Museum: John Pawson Plain Space (until 30th January 2011)

Last chance to get to this beautifully put together retrospective on the magisterial Minimalist architect. From the Cistercian Monastery of Our Lady of Nový Dvůr in the Czech Republic to the designs for the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue, most of the intruguing plans are here for your viewing pleasure.

Art

Royal Academy: Modern British Sculpture (22nd January until 7th April 2011)

Excitement has grown around this major exhibition of British sculpture from the late 19th century up to the present day. Bringing together influential works from Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Caro and Richard Long, this is probably one to get to early on.

Poetry

Royal Festival Hall: 2011 T S Eliot Prize Readings (7 PM, 23rd January 2011)

This is the Cannes of poetry, and whilst Southbank may not exactly be la Croisette, this year's line up is a deeply impressive one, with two Nobel laureates (Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney) amongst the nominees. This series of readings, which takes place a day before the award ceremony for the Prize, is not to be missed.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder