Stamford Raffles lecture

The Stamford Raffles Lecture is the foremost event in our annual programme of Science and Conservation Events. Established in 1995, the lectures have been given by eminent speakers on a wide range of zoological topics.


2019 - The role of zoos in conservation, taking captive breeding techniques into the field

Professor Carl G. Jones MBE, Chief Scientist, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Tuesday 11 June 2019

Many of the most successful efforts to conserve endangered species have been driven by zoos, and occur at the interface between captive and wild populations. In this talk, Carl Jones will demonstrate how the conservation role of zoos is changing and how the most effective approach has often been the application of captive management and breeding techniques to free-living populations. Carl will illustrate his talk with examples taken from work that he has been involved with in Mauritius and elsewhere, and will make the case that Zoos have yet to wake up to the powerful range of techniques that they possess, or could develop, that could be applied to the conservation of world’s most endangered species.   


2018 - Collaborators and con-artists: coevolution as an engine of biodiversity

Claire Spottiswoode, University of Cape Town and University of Cambridge
Tuesday 12 June 2018

Ever since Darwin’s wonderful image of a tangled bank of life, we’ve known that interactions between different species are a powerful force in evolution. Coevolution – the process through which two or more species influence each other’s evolution – continually drives evolutionary change as interacting species reciprocally influence one another. This talk used African birds as a window into coevolution, showing how it can generate beautiful adaptations and help power the diversification of life. First, it considered how parasitic interactions between nesting birds and their enemies – cuckoo-like birds that exploit other species to raise their young – can drive parasites to trick hosts by evolving eggs and chicks that beautifully mimic their hosts. But hosts are not just passive victims, and their counter-defences can drive an evolutionary race between new host signatures and new cuckoo forgeries. The talk then considered mutually beneficial interactions between species, focussing on the cooperative interactions between people and honeyguides, wax-eating birds which lead human honey-hunters to bees’ nests. It showed how human culture drives matching variation in honeyguide behaviour, in those parts of Africa where this part of our own evolutionary history still thrives. 


2017 - How animals shape habitats, ecosystems and the global biosphere

Professor Yadvinder Malhi FRS, University of Oxford
Tuesday 20 June 2017

Ecologists have long been aware that animals are not mere passive recipients of the nutritious bounty that plants provide them, that they can shape the ecosystems around them through food webs and by altering the nature of the habitat around them. However, until recently such thinking has rarely been scaled up to our understanding of how the function of whole ecosystems and biomes are shaped by animals. Our models of the global biosphere still entirely ignore animals.

In this lecture Yadvinder Malhi explored a variety of ways in which animals can influence ecosystem structure, biomass, fire regimes and even climate, drawing on evidence from the Pleistocene to modern times, looking at scales from termites to mammoths, and drawing on ongoing experiments and “rewilding” projects around the world. An appreciation of animal influence on ecosystem function leads to awareness of how many even apparently low disturbance ecosystems may carry the legacy of past extinctions. In a world of increasing human pressure and shifting climates, animals can have an important role in maintaining resilient ecosystems.

2016 - Climate change, habitat loss and biodiversity

Professor Jane K Hill, University of York
Tuesday 21 June 2016

The global climate is changing and many species are responding by shifting their distributions to track climate changes. Thus species are expanding northwards as new areas become suitable, but disappearing from other locations that become too hot and dry. The fascination of the general public for recording animals and plants in Britain has provided a wealth of detailed information that we can exploit. This information helps us to understand the variety of species’ responses, and to explore factors responsible for this variation. In this talk, Jane Hill described recent patterns of climate-driven range changes among species, focusing particularly on British butterflies and moths for which we have especially good historical information. She explained how this knowledge is being used to inform conservation, for example improving habitat connectivity to help species reach new areas, and habitat management to prevent climate-driven extinctions, thereby helping to reduce biodiversity losses.


2015 - Health research in the context of rapidly emerging public-health threats

Professor Jeremy Farrar OBE, Director of the Wellcome Trust
Tuesday 16 June 2015

The recent Ebola outbreak highlights the serious threat that emerging infectious diseases can pose to global public health. Despite years of apparent preparations for a devastating pandemic, responses to outbreaks are cumbersome and delayed, and opportunities to save lives are missed. Over the past 15 years, the failure to systematically collect and share clinical data during epidemics, including zoonotic viruses such as SARS, H5N1, Nipah, and MERSCoV, has been a recurring problem. Understanding the interrelationships between human behaviour, animal health and the environment is essential for mobilising successful responses to future spillover events. Drawing on his experience as Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam, Professor Farrar discusses the need for comparable data across the broad health agenda. In the context of rapidly emerging public health threats, a new paradigm for health governance and health research is needed to bring epidemics to a faster conclusion; one that is appropriate for the challenges we face in the 21st century.

2014 - The past and future of life in UK seas

Professor Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation, University of York
Tuesday 17 June 2014

We are fortunate in the UK to be surrounded by some of the most productive seas on the planet. They have nourished us and promoted our wellbeing for thousands of years. However, in the last two centuries, the expansion and industrialisation of fishing has triggered a transformation of the environment that has accelerated towards the present. Worrying trends include decreased abundance and variety of life, collapse of fisheries and loss of biodiversity, including the disappearance of large species like skates, angel sharks, bluefin tuna and wolffish. This is happening as the oceans change under the influence of other forces, including development, greenhouse gas emissions and discharge of other pollutants. Despite growing recognition that our seas need better management, current policy falls far short, affording too little protection and failing to address the major causes of harm. In this talk, Callum Roberts will describe how our seas once were, what they have become and what it will take to recover the richness, vitality and spectacle that they are losing.


2013 - A very dangerous experiment with our planet

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London
Tuesday 18 June 2013

The climate of the Earth enables it to support a wide variety of life. This Lecture will explore the overall workings of the climate system, and the interactions of its component systems, including the biosphere. There are numerous global environmental problems related to human activity and Sir Brian Hoskins will describe why, in particular, the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is a very dangerous experiment to perform with our planet. The scientific basis for the concern over climate change and observational evidence for the changes taking place will be described. The way in which projections of future climate change are made and the confidence that can be had in these projections will be discussed. Finally, the likely implications of climate change, for both the natural world and human species, will be explored and comments made on the possible responses to climate change of countries, states and individuals.


2012 - Darwin, Sex and Sexual Selection

Tim Birkhead, Professor of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield
Tuesday 19th June 2012

Darwin's concept of sexual selection transformed our understanding of animal behaviour. Although Darwin knew that the males of many species are promiscuous, he assumed females to be monogamous. Didn't he know it takes two to tango? Darwin missed a trick. We now know that promiscuity is common among females and knowing this has changed our view of many aspects of reproduction and helps to explain the remarkable diversity in copulatory behaviour, anatomy and physiology.


2011 - Possible Creatures: an evolutionary vision

Armand Marie Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College London

The beating heart of the theory of evolution is Darwin’s great idea, Natural Selection. It’s the explanation for the design that creatures show – or at least the only rational one going. Today evolutionary theory is a magnificent edifice – far more sophisticated than anything Darwin himself could have dreamt of. And yet it is also inadequate. That is because we know so little about how creatures actually build themselves, and so how they shape their own evolutionary futures. The task of 21st century biology, then, is to compute the creature: to find the rules that lie between a genome and a living, breathing, mating, reproducing thing. And then our task will be to compute all possible creatures – and perhaps even predict the future of life.


2010 - The new biology of ageing

Professor Linda Partridge, Director of the UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing

Research into ageing has been rejuvenated by the discovery of mutations in single genes that extend the lifespan of laboratory animals. Furthermore, at least some of the signalling pathways involved, particularly the insulin/Igf-like pathway, have effects on lifespan that are conserved over the large evolutionary distances between nematode worms, fruit flies and mice. An environmental intervention, dietary restriction, also prolongs life in diverse organisms. In all cases there is a prolongation of healthy lifespan, with a broad-spectrum improvement in function during middle and old age, together with delay or amelioration of a range of ageing-related diseases. These findings have led to an intensive wave of research directed at understanding the mechanisms at work.


2009 - Biodiversity and ecosystems in a changing world

Professor John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser

The challenges we face in providing enough safe, clean and affordable energy, water and food for our growing global population, which is moving into cities, are intimately linked to the challenge of mitigating and adapting to climate change. It is clear that any effective way to solve these challenges should continue to recognise the importance of maintaining our rich ecosystems. Scientists are increasing their understanding of the benefits that well-functioning ecosystems provide 'behind the scenes'; for example, in sequestering our carbon, purifying our water and pollinating our crops. It is vital that we continue to bring these issues to the attention of policy-makers. Biodiversity and supporting ecosystems should not be neglected when decisions are made, both nationally and internationally.


2008 - Common wealth: economics for a crowded planet

Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University

At the 2008 Stamford Raffles Lecture, Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs will discuss the challenges of sustainable development in the 21st century. He will outline an approach to achieve four global goals by 2050:

  • Sustainable systems of energy, land and resource use
  • Stabilization of the world’s population at eight billion or below
  • The end of extreme poverty by 2025
  • A new approach to global problem solving

He brings to these issues his experience as the Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General, former Director of the UN Millennium Project, economic advisor to developing countries around the world and President of the Millennium Promise Alliance.


2007 - Is man just another animal?

Steve Jones, PhD, Professor of Genetics at University College London

The completion of the human and chimpanzee genome sequences was a triumph of comparative anatomy. It proved (as if any biologist doubted it) Darwin's contention in The Descent of Man that "Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin". I will talk about the similarities - and the differences - between our own DNA and that of our relatives and about what that tells us about our own taxonomic position as medium-sized mammals.

More importantly, I will try to go beyond comparative anatomy to ask whether that science helps us to understand what we are as human beings, rather than merely as rather unspecialised primates. Gilbert and Sullivan once claimed that "Darwinian man, though well behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved". I will ask how right, or otherwise, they may have been.


2006 - Biodiversity, climate change and unsustainable development

Professor Sir John Lawton, CBE, FRS, Chair of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and former Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council

Life on planet Earth is now facing the sixth mass extinction. Conservation biologists are in the front line trying to stem the tide, and the lecture will explore the mechanisms they have put in place, or plan to develop, to achieve the target of slowing down and if possible halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010. But the problem is not simply a biological one. The looming mass extinction goes to the heart of the sustainable development debate, made worse by the threat of human-induced climate change. Put starkly, the accelerating loss of biodiversity points to the unsustainability of the human enterprise in its present form, and the long-term solutions lie well outside the realms of conservation biology, in a socially fairer world that seeks to massively reduce human use of the planet's resources.


2005 - Stuffed, mummified and pickled: the work of some outstanding early naturalists

Adam Hart-Davis

Throughout history animals have stimulated inspiration and curiosity. The ancient Egyptians worshipped and mummified cats, Aristotle made extraordinary observations on the development of chicken embryos, and Wild Bill Buckland, Reader in Geology at the University of Oxford, boasted that he had eaten his way through most of the animal kingdom.

In this talk, writer, photographer and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis will serve up an eclectic dish of animal enthusiasts, from 17th century microscopists Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to 18th century proto-environmentalists Gilbert White and Charles Waterton, the man who wrestled with a crocodile and shared a house with a colony of vampire bats. Dr Hart-Davis will unravel the reasons why Wild Bill Buckland strutted about during his lectures at Oxford and crawled around in mud in a cave in Yorkshire. He will tell of Charles Darwin's discovery that earthworms are intelligent despite being deaf to the bassoon, and of John Stringfellow's and George Cayley's respective studies of rooks and crows. He will also explain why the world has beaten a path to the door of Colin Pullinger, Clerk to the Selsey Sparrow Club.


2004 - Bird artists and artist birds: plumes and bowers in New Guinea

Sir David Attenborough CH. FRS

When the first specimens of birds of paradise reached Europe in the sixteenth century, the plumes seemed so extraordinary that scholars readily believed the stories that the birds lived in paradise and only fell to earth when they died. As skins of more species became known, so ornithological illustrators struggled to picture the living birds, sometimes with very strange results. It was not until the end of the last century that the extraordinary displays of many of these wonderful species became known to science. But why should this amazing varied family have evolved such an unparalleled range and extravagance of courtship behaviour? Another group of birds in New Guinea, the bowerbirds, may suggest an answer.


2003 - The contemporary experience of wild nature and its implications for conservation

Steven Sanderson, President & Chief Executive Officer Wildlife Conservation Society, USA

Most of the world does not experience wild nature directly. Cultural institutions, including both zoological gardens and wildlife parks, mediate that experience and shape the way we view and value nature in the new millennium. Our ability to connect the well-being of living collections of animals with global wildlife conservation is critical to the survival of wild nature and to its cultural value to our world. Shaping the future of a progressive zoo-conservation connection is the subject of this lecture.


2002 - The natural history of trilobites

Professor Richard A. Fortey, FRS The Natural History Museum and Oxford University

Although they have been extinct for 250 million years we know a surprising amount about how these 'beetles of the Palaeozoic' lived in the ancient oceans. We know how they saw through their eyes made of rock crystal. We know that some giant eyed species lived as part of the plankton, while others were hunters or filter feeders living on the sea floor. We know how they bred and grew from larvae to adults. We can infer how they related to the geography of continents which were arranged quite differently from those of today. This lecture will explore the ways that palaeontololgists can bring long dead animals 'back to life'.


2001 - Embryonic development - from the egg to five fingers

Professor Lewis Wolpert, CBE, FRS Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, University College London

How a single cell can develop into an animal is the triumph of developmental biology. Genes control how the cells in the embryo behave by putting proteins in the right cells at the right time. One key process involves pattern formation in which the cells acquire a sense of their position which determines how they behave. These processes are remarkably similar in flies and humans.


2000 - Chemicals and consciousness - how the brain generates consciousness

Professor Susan Greenfield, Director, The Royal Institution of Great Britain

Consciousness is now attracting the attention of scientists as well as philosophers. Although many physicists and mathematicians anxious to model consciousness in artificial systems have been quite vociferous, there is a need to understand consciousness in a way that caters for the diverse range of chemicals operating in the brain; how else might one explain the various mood modifying and consciousness changing effects of specific drugs?


1999 - The BSE crisis and the emerging epidemic of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease

Roy Anderson, FRS Linacre Professor of Zoology and Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease, University of Oxford


1998 - The diversity of life on earth: past, present and likely future

Professor Sir Robert May, FRS


1997 - Animals as models of their world

Professor Richard Dawkins


1996 - Gaia & Noah's ark: human responsibilities in nature

Sir Crispin Tickell


1995 - What future for nature?

Sir Martin Holdgate


Sir Stamford Raffles
Sir Stamford Raffles