The insect champion

The Oxford Times: Dr George McGavin Dr George McGavin

Dr George McGavin was last seen on television with leaches hanging from his legs — after allowing himself to be bitten by mosquitos and fleas. He is currently the media’s expert of choice when it comes to championing the cause of insects.

If you heard Radio 4’s recent broadcast of the Earthwatch Irreplaceable debate from the Royal Geographical Society you will have experienced his persuasive powers at first hand. He championed bees, while other experts backed primates, fungi and plankton as the most important species for the health and wellbeing of our planet. Dr McGavin won the debate convincingly.

Despite being a sociable man, Dr McGavin (also recently seen on television emerging from a rotten tree in the BBC series The Lost Land of the Jaguar) may not feel as lonely marooned on a desert island as most of us. He is likely to be at ease with the millions of creatures sharing his new home — after all he has several insect species named after him.

I wondered how this entomologist’s view of the world would affect his choice of the object he would most like to see washed up on the beach?

Dr McGavin began our conversation by explaining why he is fascinated by the scarab beetle a fascination shared by ancient Egyptians.

“The beetle was a symbol of good luck and rebirth, the symbol of the sun god Khepri. It is even suggested that the process of mummification was modelled on the scarab. When Egyptian priests excavated the buried balls of scarab beetle dung and unravelled them they discovered pupae inside — the next life of the dung beetle.

Admiral Robert Fitzroy was captain of the Beagle on the voyage when Charles Darwin was a passenger. Darwin's observations on that voyage around the world led to The Origin of Species

“In the British Museum Egyptian galleries there is an incredible carving in granite of a scarab beetle from the Ptolemaic period circa 200 BC. It is not the size of a beetle — it is huge and heavy. To do it justice I would have to haul it to a high place on the island, and that might prove difficult!” Dr McGavin said.

Dr McGavin is particularly impressed by the antque globes at Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science.

“There are some beautiful globes on display,” he said. “I thought it could be interesting to have one and study the world as its maker visualised it at that time. But it could also make me feel sad, isolated and trapped on my desert island.

“I assume it is a tropical island with clear views of the stars. I am interested in astronomy, so I could take one of the museum’s exquisite astrolabes as I shall have plenty of time to figure out how it works, and it could be useful if I tried to escape.

“I am a social animal and I do enjoy an audience so I would miss people on this desert island, however interesting it is to explore. My next thought was to take a book because you are never alone if you have a good book. A copy of the complete works of Shakespeare or at least his sonnets would fit the bill. I could read and re-read those and still get a huge amount out of them.

“But I have decided my choice has to be something that would remind me of my time in Oxford, where I worked for 25 years at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in South Parks Road. For me, it is the most amazing building in the world. If I could take a special place it would be the whole thing, or at least the Huxley Room. The museum was built in 1860, at a time when the whole world was about to change.”

“I would like to take something that would remind me of the tremendous event that took place in the Huxley Room in the museum — almost while the paint was still drying on the walls.

“Before 1859, everyone in England believed that God created the earth in literally seven days. Late in that year, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and it shook those certainties to their foundations.

“The first and second print runs sold out in days, but his theory was met by expressions of shock and horror. The controversy over the book came to a head here in Oxford, on June 30, 1860, when the museum opened its doors, ornamented with carvings of creatures from the natural world, to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The association had invited Darwin to come and speak, but he was ill and unable to attend, recording in his diary that he was ‘utterly weary of life’. But the packed audience included many of his admirers including Thomas Henry Huxley, after whom the venue of the debate is now named. On the other side of the argument was the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce.

“If I could choose to return to one moment in time and be a fly on the wall, that is the event I would attend. We have reports of the excitement and ferocity of the debate, but no word-for-word accounts.

“The room has since been divided and the uppermost section houses part of Oxford’s insect collection. I looked after the Huxley Room for a quarter of a century. It was ground zero for the theory of evolution. But, as I can’t take it with me, I shall take something from the Museum of the History of Science which will remind me of someone who was, by chance, present that day.

“His name was Admiral Robert Fitzroy and he was captain of the Beagle on the voyage when Charles Darwin was a passenger. It was his observations on that voyage around the world which led to The Origin of Species.

“Admiral Fitzroy attended that meeting and paced up and down clutching a Bible and waving his fist yelling ‘Blasphemy, blasphemy’. On that warm afternoon, he realised that he had been responsible for taking Darwin, as he saw it, on that fateful journey. Some say it was a feeling of guilt that he had unwittingly caused the upheaval that led him to commit suicide a few years later. It was sad that a man who wanted to use science and engineering to save the lives of sailors should end his life that way.

“Fitzroy designed barometers and wanted every sailor to be able to predict the weather. He designed a storm barometer which bears his name. Each instrument gave clear instructions on how it could be read. The Museum of the History of Science has one. It is an object of beauty and could also be of use on my desert island. It would make me feel connected with my life and times in Oxford. It would remind me of Fitzroy, who clung to his beliefs because his somewhat closed mind wanted to fit the evidence to support them, and Darwin, who used that five-year voyage on the Beagle to analyse the evidence.

“There are Fitzroy barometers on the market, but I would like one which the Admiral handled so it would evoke that meeting 149 years ago when 700 people gathered in the Natural History Museum.

“Many years ago I helped the museum to obtain a grant from the Museums and Galleries Commission to restore The Huxley Room to its former glory, as it looked on June 30, 1860. Using Fitzroy’s storm barometer on the desert island I shall remember the inspiring times I have experienced in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.”

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