February 12, 2009

Have an extra special Darwin Day!

Today February 12 marks the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and as usual biologists and fans all over the world take the opportunity to celebrate the legacy of the man who changed the way we perceive ourselves and nature forever. That's reason enough to celebrate every year, but 2009 is special since it marks not only the bicentennial of Darwin's birth but also the sesquicentennial of the publication of 'On the Origin of Species'. It's a great year for evolutionary science!

There will be a special Darwin symposium at the Swedish Museum of Natural History on the 19th and 20th of May that I will be attending. If you are in the Stockholm area I encourage you to go as well. Click on the banner for more information and a registration form (it's free). The opening lecturer will be none other than Edward O. Wilson, "father" of sociobiology and the man that probably knows the most about ants and ant societies. Later in the year there will also be an event at the Royal Academy of Sciences that I'll most definitely go to.

So what have I done for the actual Darwin Day? Actually I'm home sick with a cold today, but I had the (mostly) pleasure of opening our local student newspaper Ergo to find my name in their Darwin day spread. You can read the article (in Swedish) here. Essentially I talk a little bit about our research and about how the age of genomics and the study of genomes is contributing to evolutionary science and expanding on Darwin's original idea of how we're all, as living organisms or Earth, interconnected through common descent. Here's a translated quote:

'Comparative analyses of different species' genomes makes us able to "read" evolution quite readily. Only during the past decade our evolutionary knowledge has increased almost exponentially, a lot of it due to the possibility of sequencing entire genomes.'

A number of species have already been sequenced and the process is faster today than ever before. Daniel Ocampo Daza says that this development shows no signs of slowing down.

'It's an incredible development, not just for biology. It's part of the line of questioning that we all have as humans. Where do we come from? How did we get where we are? Our place in the great evolutionary tree, which we share with all living beings, is becoming clearer. I think it's fascinating that we can approach these questions through the study of our genomes and I really want to push for this kind of basic research. What seems simple can hide an incredible complexity. I don't think we will be able to understand ourselves without understanding the context of which we're a part.'

But it's not all well and good. Just next to the piece where I participate there is a piece about eugenics and social Darwinism ("race hygiene"). In itself it's balanced and harmless, but within the context of a spread about Darwin and evolution it does nothing else but create unnecessary and unjustified associations between what the theory of evolution really is and peripheral aberrations that granted, were prevalent and considered scientific by some people at the time, but that don't reflect neither Darwin's legacy nor modern evolutionary theory. It's really unfortunate that these associations are perpetuated time and time again. I have some big problems with the introductory piece as well, but I'm saving my comments on that one for the letter to the editor that I most certainly will be writing.

Finally I can recommend some picks from the rich harvest of Darwiniana that understandably has come out during this week:

- The National Geographic video series with Richard Dawkins is brief and excellent.

- Scientific American's Darwin bicentennial special, in particular the article A Skeptics Take on the Public Misunderstanding of Darwin.

- This week's Nature podcast and the Nature's Darwin bicentennial special (requires subscription), especially the article Humanity and Evolution:

When he circled the world in the 1830s, Darwin's delight at our planet's natural riches was repeatedly poisoned by the cruelties he saw meted out to slaves. "I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country," he wrote at the end of the Voyage of the Beagle.

A new historical study, Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, seeks to unite Darwin's revulsion at slavery with his scientific work. It was common at the time to believe that the different races of men had been created separate and unequal. But the abolitionist beliefs that Darwin derived from his family, friends and social setting strongly disposed him to the idea that all men — Englishman and Hottentot, freeman and slave — were brothers united in shared ancestry. The ability to see that unity-in-variety was, Desmond and Moore argue, one of the things that allowed him to perceive something similar in the natural world as a whole.

- And finally some polemics, Darwin is already dead, and we know it - courtesy of PZ Myers.

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  1. About Ergo and the articles "celebrating" Darwin's birthday: I had the same feeling about them. So unnecessary to focus on so many negative aspects.

    Good idea about the letter to the editor!

    /Student at EBC

  2. The letter has been sent in and should be up on the next issue.


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