POSTPONED - 'Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?' Non-Darwinian routes to the evolution of life’s complexity

7.00pm to 8.30pm, Tuesday 18 January

Theatre / Online

The Royal Institution of Great Britain GB United Kingdom W1S 4BS 21 Albemarle Street London

This event has already taken place

  • Dinoflagellates possess an unnecessarily complex gene expression mechanism.

    Credit: Jonathan Pettitt, adapted from Ernst Haekel, Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 14: Peridinea []


Standard £16


Concession £10


Ri Members and Ri Patrons £7


Livestream: Pay what you can

Event description

This event has been postponed. Ticket holders will be contacted shortly when a new date is confirmed. 

The 2020 Genetics Society JBS Haldane Lecturer is Jonathan Pettitt.

The standard view of evolution is that complex living things arise through gradual refinements of simpler precursors; each successive version becoming better adapted through natural selection, leading to exquisitely refined, complex mechanisms.

But there is another route for life to evolve complexity. Rather than being fine-tuned creations of natural selection, complex features can arise simply because biology is messy and noisy.

In this talk, Jonathan Pettitt will explain how living systems tend to make simple mechanisms more complicated than they need to be. He will show how such ‘unnecessary complexity’ can both restrict and expand an organism’s evolutionary potential.

The JBS Haldane Lecture recognises an individual for outstanding ability to communicate topical subjects in genetics research, widely interpreted, to an interested lay audience.  This speaker will have a flair for conveying the relevance and excitement of recent advances in genetics in an informative and engaging way. You can watch Giles Yeo, the 2019 JBS Haldane Lecturer, on the Ri YouTube channel here

Event type

This is a theatre event, where the speaker and audience in our theatre are joined by an online audience.

Tickets to attend in person or to watch the livestream are both available from this page.

At the moment we are encouraging all of our guests and staff to continue wearing a face covering if they are able to, and to maintain a social distance wherever possible. However, the decision is now at your discretion.

Thank you for being respectful of individual choices and for being considerate of everyone’s comfort and safety.

About the speaker

Jonathan Pettitt graduated from Imperial College with an upper second class degree in Biochemistry. He then carried out postgraduate research within the Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge, investigating the structure and expression of collagen genes in the parasitic nematode Ascaris suum. Whilst at Cambridge he was seduced by the many charms of the non-parasitic nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, and upon completing his PhD he went to Bill Wood’s lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder as an HFSPO long term postdoctoral fellow to study C. elegans development. In 1994, he obtained a two year EMBO fellowship to continue this work in the laboratory of Ronald Plasterk at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, and learn the reverse genetics techniques pioneered there. He moved to the University of Aberdeen in 1996 where he became group leader and Lecturer in genetics within the newly built Institute of Medical Sciences.


Doors to the theatre will open at 6.30pm. The event will begin at 7.00pm.

The livestream will go live at 6.55pm, and the introduction will begin at 7.00pm. If you register but miss the live stream, the video will be available to you via the same link for up to a week after the event date.


Our accessible public toilet is on the ground floor. The theatre is on the first floor and there is step-free access from the pavement, via a lift. There is space at floor level in the theatre for four wheelchair users.

Seating is usually unreserved for our events. If you and your group require seating reservations, please do let us know by email and we’ll be more than happy to help. Email:

Our theatre is equipped with an Audio Induction Loop. 

The closest underground station is Green Park, which is step-free. If you arrive by taxi and need step free access, ask to be dropped off round the corner on New Bond street. Here the curb is level with the road and the pavement follows round to the entrance of the Ri.

Carers can receive a free ticket to an event by emailing:

Become a member

Benefit from free and better than half-price tickets, special offers and access to the CHRISTMAS LECTURES ticket ballot.

Join todayGo