The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibition

The Courtauld Gallery, London, WC2: Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery, 14 June – 9 September

This new exhibition draws from The Courtauld’s archives, spanning over 500 years of art historical drawings with an emphasis on both the “great masterpieces” and “rarely seen” works from artist like Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Matisse. The Courtauld Gallery is home to one of the most important and extensive drawings collections in Britain, with over 20,000 pieces ranging from the Renaissance through to the 20th century. This is an unparalleled opportunity to view 60 of the finest in the flesh, as well as attended a related program of tours, talks and events held throughout the summer.

Music

Snape Malting Hall, Aldeburgh: Aldeburgh Music Festival, 7 – 24 June

The town of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast is home the “vast skies” and “moody seas” that inspired Benjamin Britten, in 1948, to found the eponymous Aldeburgh Festival of classical music.  Reclaiming and converting old malting buildings, Britten and fellow musician Peter Pears laid the foundations for what was to become a flourishing performance space. It’s been called “arguably the best musical event in Britain” (the Guardian, 2009), and last year’s festival won the coveted Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award. Early highlight from this year’s 65th annual festival will include the Where the Wild Things Are opera, Sea Change – a unique musical adventure from guitarist James Boyd – and special performance from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Literature

Kings Place, London, N1: Poetry & Sport, Monday 11 June, 7:00 pm

This special “Olympic inspired” literary event rejoices in the oft under-acknowledged union of the poetic and the athletic. Poetry readings on the subject of sporting achievements and feats of human strength will offered by an eclectic mix of writers and athletes, including award-winning sports journalist Clare Balding, former Romanian fencing champion Laura Badea, and Britain’s most medalled Paralympic swimmer Chris Holmes MBE. With accompanying jazz music from The Denys Baptiste Quartet, this event promises to be “the perfect warm up to this year’s Olympic summer”.

Theatre

Jacksons Lane, London, N6: Postcard Festival, 7 – 30 June

The Postcard Festival will be a draw for warm weather revellers in search of a thrill. Postcard offers a platform for the best new talent from the world of circus, cabaret and visual performance – showcasing exciting, original and unexpected work. Expect their roster of enthusiastically named shows, including Boom!, Domestic Burlesque, Pop Magic!,  Lab Time: Experiments in Circus, Death Row Diva and Party Piece to knock your socks off. This is experimental, contemporary vaudeville at is most exhilarating.

Ideas

Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham: Cheltenham Science Festival, 12 – 17 June

Cheltenham is the Gloucestershire town lauded for its impressive yearly calendar of brain-stimulating festivals, including jazz, literature and global music. Next week the town gives itself over to the realm of science, with over 300 thinkers, scientists, comedians and writers converging in a meeting of minds that celebrates and explores all things scientific. Saturated with familiar faces (Brian Cox, Marcus Brigstocke) and groundbreaking talks from botanists, evolutionists, geneticists, astronomers and others, the festival tackles though-provoking themes such as: Space and the Universe, Engineering and Technology, Politics and Ethics, and Being Human.

"Study for La Grande Odalisque" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, featured in the Courtauld Gallery's new exhibition. (Photo: The Courtald Gallery)
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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