Can Red Lions Evolve?

Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

—Charles Darwin
The Descent of Man, 1871

As is explained elsewhere, the Red Lion public house, Parkgate, Cheshire may one day go down in history as the birthplace of the Friends of Charles Darwin. Until then, we can but reflect on what a remarkably appropriate place it was for the Friends to form. Red lions may not have evolved in the natural world, but our own Red Lion is an excellent example of evolution in action.

Vestiges

If you enter the bar area of this wonderful pub and carefully examine the second-nearest window, you should just be able to make out the outline of the words CLONTARF CAFE etched faintly on to the glass.

The town of Clontarf is a suburb of Dublin; and, until the late nineteenth century, sailing ships regularly ferried passengers between Parkgate and Dublin. Indeed, George Frederick Handel sailed from Parkgate to Dublin to attend the world premier of his famous oratorio, Messiah. Presumably, the Clontarf Café catered for this trade, adopting the name of a Dublin suburb to emphasise Parkgate's links with the Emerald Isle.

A Change in the Environment

Unfortunately for the owners of the Clontarf Café, businessmen with interests elsewhere were very keen for the River Dee, upon whose estuary Parkgate sits, to run closer to the opposite, Welsh, bank. So they had the course of the river diverted. The Dee had always had a problem with silting, but its diversion accelerated the process at Parkgate. In no time at all, the waters of Parkgate had become marshes, the port had to close, and the Irish ferries sailed no more.

The Red Lion

The Red Lion, looking out over a changed environment.

Extinction and Adaptation

A café catering for a defunct trade clearly cannot survive unchanged. The Clontarf Café was assimilated into the adjacent building, becoming part of the Red Lion. The café had, in effect, been forced to evolve following a change in its environment.

The Real Evidence of Evolution

There is a danger of taking the analogy with Darwinian evolution too far. Pubs and cafés, unlike organisms, do not have offspring to inherit their genes - in fact, they don't even have genes. But the imperfection in the window glass of the Red Lion is clear proof that the pub was not always as it now is.

Likewise, in the natural world, it is the inherited imperfections in organisms which most clearly demonstrate that they have evolved, and were not divinely created. Why (mysterious ways notwithstanding) would an omnipotent creator choose to fashion flawed organisms, with their vestigial limbs, bad backs, blind spots, redundant appendixes, skewed faces, and so on? But evolution does not start with a clean slate, and makes no claims of perfection. No matter how well it may hone organisms to their environment, it can only make do and mend with what is already there - and this can only lead to imperfection.

This article was published in 1999.

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