Darwin/Chicago 2009: Why Now (Besides the Obvious)

darwin-youngmanThere has certainly been no shortage of attention on Charles Darwin this year. With the dual landmarks of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, virtually every scientific publication, museum, conference and institution has taken the opportunity to pay tribute to the life and work of the man who gave us the theory of evolution. But now that the celebrations are (mostly) over, it’s time for the field of evolutionary biology to move forward, capitalizing on new technologies and discoveries that were only a dream when Darwin drew upon decades of observation and thought to craft his revolutionary book.

That same challenge faced evolutionary biologists in 1959, when they gathered at the University of Chicago to observe the 150th and 100th birthdays of Darwin and his book. Brought together were many of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers on the subject of evolution, including legendary biologists Julian Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Ernst Mayr, Darwin’s grandson Charles Galton Darwin, and John Scopes of Scopes Monkey Trial fame. And according to Robert Richards, professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Chicago, the discussions that took place at that conference helped solidify what we now think of as the “modern synthesis” of evolutionary theory, the merging of Darwin’s ideas about the gradual effects of natural selection with the then-new field of genetics.

Darwin/Chicago 2009, which begins Thursday night at the University of Chicago, will try to recapture that spirit and make a similar impact upon the path of evolutionary biology. Once again bringing the field’s brightest lights to Hyde Park for an exchange of ideas, Richards and the conference’s other organizers hope that the event will do more than merely acknowledge a triple anniversary, but will instead re-evaluate evolution science in light of a world much different from the 19th century environment that shaped Darwin’s thoughts. Here, with Richards’ assistance, are three reasons why now is a great time to talk about Charles Darwin and evolution.

1) New technologies

The 1959 conference took place only six years after James D. Watson and Francis Crick published their landmark paper on the double-helix structure of DNA. And it wasn’t until 1957 that the “central dogma” of biology – that DNA encodes for RNA which encodes for proteins – was enunciated by Crick. So the ’59 conference took place at the dawning of the genetic age, when the biological substrate that Darwin’s natural selection acts upon was finally understood.

Today, we not only know the significance of DNA, we have full genetic sequences for several organisms, from tiny phytoplankton species up through us humans. That knowledge has opened up a whole new field of phylogenetics, which uses information shared across species to create new trees of life – maps of how evolution has given Earth the “endless forms most beautiful” Darwin wrote about in The Origin of Species. Scientific advances have also given scientists the tools to manipulate those genes to test out the basic tenets of Darwin’s theory. Jerry Coyne (who will speak at the conference on Friday) describes in his book Why Evolution is True an elegant experiment by Barry Hall at the University of Rochester where the deletion of a gene from the bacteria E. coli prompted rapid evolution in the species.

If Darwin were alive and attending the conference this weekend, he’d likely be amazed by the technology at the disposal of scientists today, Richards said.

“I think he would be interested in new technologies,” Richards said. “Perhaps he wouldn’t have been trained in them, but he would have been interested in their development and what they could tell us about evolution of organisms.”

2) New fossils

For all the information that genetics provides to evolutionary biologists, the field still thrives on the discovery of important fossils, glimpses at the Earth’s past that are priceless puzzle pieces to fill in gaps in the story. The timing of Darwin/Chicago 2009 late in the year of celebrations will allow attendees to ponder two highly visible fossil discoveries announced in recent months that offer insight into the lengthy history of how humans came to be.

The first is “Ardi,” the 4.4-million-year-old partial skeleton described earlier this month in the journal Science 15 years after its discovery in Ethiopa by University of California at Berkeley researchers. Though not the oldest human ancestor on record, Ardipithecus ramidus is the oldest partial skeleton of a human-like species (predating the famous Lucy by about 1.2 million years), and tells us a lot about the early evolutionary steps after we split off from our closest relatives, the chimpanzee. Scientists analyzed Ardi’s feet, skull, teeth and pelvis to conclude (not without controversy) that some of what we guessed about human predecessors was wrong – 4.4 million years ago, our ancestors were living in woodlands, not grassy fields and walked upright, not with their knuckles dragging on the ground.

Also new to the fossil world, and attracting far more controversy, is Ida, the Darwinius masillae fossil announced to the world with much pomp and circumstance back in May. A kind of early lemur, Ida was proposed by its discoverers to fit into the story of human evolution long before Ardi or other primates as the common ancestor of all anthropoids. Humbly, those discoverers announced the fossil (coincident with a book and TV show about Darwinius) as “the most significant discovery of recent times.” But many paleontologists dispute the placement of Darwinius at the top of an evolutionary tree that leads to humans and apes, and a paper published in Nature just last week by Jonathan Perry of Midwestern University argued that Ida was an evolutionary dead-end, rather than a critical great-grandparent of primate evolution.

The fossil crew will be ably represented by University of Chicago paleontologists Paul Sereno, Neil Shubin and David Jablonski at the conference, so expect to see more on this topic over the weekend.

3) New challenges

Employing his extensive experience as a naturalist observing the physical characteristics of plants and animals around the world, Darwin mostly stuck to physical features when discussing how natural selection shapes an organism. But studies have shown that behavior is also subject to evolutionary pressure, and new tools for detecting the origins of behavior in the brain have brought these traits into the realm of evolutionary biology. One of the more intriguing lecture titles on the docket for Darwin/Chicago 2009 is from Marc Hauser of Harvard’s Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, who will give a talk entitled “From Where do Morals Come? NOT Religion!” in the ironically reverent setting of Rockefeller Chapel.

Richards said that Darwin would be equally entranced by the application of his ideas to the study of behavior, a research area that has also been assisted by technological advances in surveying methods and brain imaging.

“He was very interested in cultural evolution and moral evolution. He devoted at least two large chapters in The Descent of Man to talk about human moral evolution,” Richards said. “He would have been excited to see that there are now efforts at empirically studying human moral decisions. We have a deeper understanding of the nature of human morality, at least as depicted in our behavior and its roots in animal behavior.”

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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