Darwin/Chicago 2009 – The Digest

rockefeller-darwinDarwin/Chicago 2009 was a bit like two conferences in one. In the movie theater of Ida Noyes Hall, evolutionary biologists sorted through the hard details of how evolution happens beneath wide-screen Powerpoint slides. Three floors above, in a long room with hand-painted walls, historians and philosophers of science synthesized decades of reading and scholarship into half-hour lessons. One session gazed forward at future promise, one session made sure the previous steps and missteps weren’t forgotten. After two days of running back and forth from one theater to the other, I felt I got a three-dimensional portrait of Charles Darwin and his elegant theory – the decades of thoughts, influences and experiences that went into the writing of On the Origin of Species, the multitude of new and exciting examples still being found that prove the truth of evolution.

Because my dispatches from the conference turned into two very long posts, here’s a menu to jump to the highlights of the conference.


The conference kicked off in the Gothic setting of Rockefeller Chapel with a trio of talks (Richard Lewontin, Ronald Numbers, Marc Hauser) that set the tone for a gathering that would approach Darwin and his work from every possible angle.


Pietro Corsi reminded the room that Darwin (and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) weren’t the only scientists pondering evolution in the 19th century.

The finches that bear Darwin’s name remain one of the best species for studying rapid natural selection in nature, as Peter and Rosemary Grant explained.

Robert Richards got provocative with his argument that Darwin believed in a purpose behind evolution when he was crafting his famous theory.

Famous fossil hunter Paul Sereno outlined his proposal for a common language of morphology while the second-oldest bird ever discovered lay beside him.

The University of Chicago’s Jerry Coyne threw down the gauntlet on the debate over how species have formed over Earth’s history.

Eric Lander, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, primed the audience on how that data and the sequences of other organisms have changed assumptions about genetics.

Perhaps Darwin’s most lasting metaphor, the Tree of Life has been dramatically altered by the flood of genetic data, and Philip Ward explained how that has changed biologists’ knowledge of how species are related.


Thomas Schoener kicked us off with a discussion of how evolution and ecology are finally working together…and David Jablonski made a similar pitch for cooperation between evolutionary biologists and paleontologists.

The study of animal behavior helped Darwin craft his theory, but it took more than a century for it to gain steam as a scientific discipline, said Richard Burkhardt.

Neil Shubin used his discovery of Tiktaalik – and the ensuing lab experiments on the genetics of limb structure – to illustrate how evolution can build a bridge between two very different kinds of science.

To answer the question of whether being a “Darwinist” still has meaning in the modern world, Michael Ruse gave an inspiring and very funny explanation of how Darwin’s hypothesis was built to last.

How the oldfield mouse has adapted to beach living made for a perfect cap to the weekend, the research of Hopi Hoekstra an delightfully simple demonstration of natural selection at work.


I was quite impressed with the instantaneous insight PZ Myers of Pharyngula posted all weekend from the front row of the conference; it was like reading over the shoulder of a truly excellent note-taker.

Skip Evans, of The Panda’s Thumb blog, was on hand representing Wisconsin Citizens for Science and photographing evolutionary biology superstars with his stuffed penguin, Flightless Frank.

As if conference organizer Robert Richards wasn’t busy enough, he also gave radio interviews to WMFT and WGN (the latter with science historian Ronald Numbers).

Jerry Coyne has posted some pictures from the conference to his blog, Why Evolution is True.

Finally: the entire conference was videotaped, and the organizers hope to have it online soon. Rest assured, when they are accessible, I’ll point you to them from here.

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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