Darwin/Chicago 2009: The Themes

darwin-1860We’re only a few hours away from the start of Darwin/Chicago 2009, 2+ days of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists discussing the past and future of the field. Come back to this space tonight at 6:00 pm Central time for live-blog coverage of the opening event at Rockefeller Chapel, and keep coming back all day Friday and Saturday for frequent updates from the conference.

Before things get into full swing, I wanted to play armchair Linnaeus and organize the conference’s 30-some talks into a few major themes. So much is packed into Friday and Saturday, with two simultaneous programs covering “biological sciences” and “history and philosophy,” I won’t be able to see everything, but the list also contains what I’m hoping to prioritize in order to get at least a representative sample of the event.

Evolution Goes to Church

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the looming gothic structure on the southeast side of campus where convocations and communion services are held, has been the site of Darwin discussion before – as mentioned yesterday, Sir Julian Huxley gave a speech predicting the end of religion at the 1959 conference. Thursday night’s trio of speakers both follows that agnostic tradition and nicely previews the main threads of the more tightly-packed Friday and Saturday schedules.

Addressing the renewed vigor of the evolution vs. religion debate, Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin will recap the historic path of these conflicts, emphasizing that the “young earth” element of today’s creationists is a relatively new development. Harvard’s Marc Hauser, meanwhile, will pull the rug out from under one of the main creationist arguments – that morality could not have developed under natural selection and must have been given to humans by a supernatural power. But lest you think evolutionary biologists are too distracted by the external debate to do the hard work in their own field, legendary geneticist Richard Lewontin will open the night’s proceedings talking about the challenges of directly determining how genes contribute to an organism’s fitness.

Lamarck Rehabilitated

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck always struck me as a tragic figure in biology history, a brilliant scientist whose pre-Darwin theory of evolution was close, but no cigar. Lamarck is best known for his ideas about inheritance of acquired characteristics – the concept that behaviors and physical features gained during an organism’s life are passed down to its offspring. Genetics scrambled this theory – organisms are born with all of the genes that they can hand down to their children, and changes from subsequent life experience cannot be inherited.

Or can they? Recent advances in epigenetics, alterations of gene expression in addition to the actual genetic code, suggest that changes acquired during life – obesity from an unhealthy diet, for example – may be passed on in some form to one’s children. As such, Lamarck is making something of a comeback, and at least two talks at the conference will pay respects to Darwin’s unfortunate predecessor – Richard Burkhardt from the University of Illinois and Pietro Corsi of the University of Oxford.

Who Was Darwin Anyway?

The Year of Darwin has brought us more than just a plethora of scientific conferences and magazine articles, it also begat a film about Darwin’s life: Creation, starring Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany. Unfortunately, Creation has yet to be released widely in the United States (I heard secondhand that the distributer doesn’t believe it has an audience in the U.S., sigh…) but reviews say the film focuses on Darwin’s angst over publishing a theory he knew would cause great controversy. I want to see it, but it also gives me a funny feeling – Darwin as a real person, not a scientific icon? Whuh?

Examining the man behind the theory – and how we perceive him two centuries after his birth – will also be the goal of several talks at Darwin/Chicago. Janet Browne, another visitor from Harvard, will analyze how different Darwin portraits have been used through history, while John Hedley Brooke from the University of Durham will address Darwin’s relationship with religion. But likely to be most provocative is the lecture by conference organizer Robert Richards, who will argue that modern Darwinists have superimposed some of their own beliefs upon their idol, focusing on the question of whether Darwin believed in the idea (widely rejected today) that natural selection operates with a purpose.

Darwin’s False Title

Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species displays an astonishing amount of insight that has yet to be disproved, even by scientists armed with technology and data the 19th century naturalist could never have imagined. But, it’s often been commented upon by evolution experts that Darwin did fail to do one thing in his landmark book – answer the challenge that’s right there in its title. The theory of natural selection does much to explain how species change over time when faced with environmental pressure, but it says little about “speciation,” the actual creation of an entirely new species.

Much has been learned about speciation since Darwin finally sat down to write Origin, and the topic is right in the wheelhouse of speakers Jerry Coyne and Peter & Rosemary Grant, who have both conducted extensive field studies of the phenomenon in fruit flies and finches. One intriguing angle, given the common thought that speciation is a rare event, will be raised by Frederick Cohan of Wesleyan University, who will discuss how speciation is actually “easy” in bacterial species


With all the genetic advances that have allowed for great advances in the study of evolution, there’s still nothing like finding an important fossil to throw the field into a tizzy. Neil Shubin’s Tiktaalik fish-with-legs is one of those discoveries, and I’m looking forward to hearing his lecture on how paleontology and molecular biology can be a two-way street of collaboration. Fossilized rock star Paul Sereno should also be a highlight, even if his lunchtime lecture on how the field of phylogenetics itself has evolved had to be moved out of his dinosaur lab due to high demand.

As I said, those are just a handful of examples of what’s in store for the next 2.5 days, so please stay tuned here – as well as at Pharyngula and Why Evolution is True – for constant updates from the conference!

About Rob Mitchum (525 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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