February 13, 2006

Teaching Evolution

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With issues such as nature vs. nurture and natural selection vs. intelligent design continuing to spark heated public debate, a panel of scientists from Cornell University and the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) offered their opinions and suggestions as to how evolutionary biology as a field can better extend its public reach and improve its controversial image.

As part of a weeklong series of events honoring Charles Darwin, the panelists discussed “Evolutionary Biology: Past, Present and Future,” Saturday evening in Uris Auditorium.

The events, held at locations throughout Cornell University and the surrounding community, marked Ithaca’s first official Darwin Day celebration. Celebrated internationally, the festivities are held to coincide with Darwin’s birthday yesterday. Several Cornell faculty members, representing a diverse range of departments, participated in the panel, moderated by Stephen Kresovich, vice provost for life sciences.

Prof. Warren Allmon, earth and atmospheric sciences, and PRI director, welcomed the audience with opening remarks, explaining that the idea of the panel was not only to celebrate Darwin’s birthday, but also to “explore the current status of evolutionary biology” and more importantly, answer the pertinent question, “So, what is evolutionary biology today and where is it going?”

As faculty members discussed their research and ideas with the audience, they reached a consensus that the field of evolutionary biology is becoming increasingly vital to the study of a diverse range of disciplines in biology.

Kresovich began the panel discussion by explaining how the study of evolutionary biology is one of “social importance” and can be used to answer questions about “the caring capacity of the ecosystem and world; breeding nutritional disease resistant crops; and preventing and correcting health related problems due to obesity.” At Cornell, Kresovich said that the field of evolutionary biology, with strengths across the college, “has developed theories and approaches to answering questions such as: how many species are there, do animals cooperate with each other” and, most importantly, “why are cultivated tomatoes so big, and can you make them tastier?”

Prof. Richard Harrison, ecology and evolutionary biology, emphasized that evolutionary theory is crucial in understanding such modern crises as pesticide and herbicide resistance incidence and HIV resistance to drugs in the lifetime of the infected individual. His current research focuses on examining the genetics of natural populations and the application of modern molecular genetic techniques to answer questions in evolutionary biology.

Prof. Amy McCune, ecology and evolutionary biology, who was trained as a paleontologist, recalled that when she began her career in the 1970s, the era was one of both “the slowest [with the] least innovation but also the beginning of the most interesting period” for evolutionary biology. McCune explained that the current challenge of evolutionary biology would be to examine the “similarities of development” between various, genetically related species, and to detect “changes in [the] genetic program responsible for differences in the structure and function” between them.

To emphasize the importance of evolutionary biological theory in all biological fields, Prof. Mariana Wolfner, molecular biology and genetics, even said that though she was trained as a geneticist and biochemist, she was “trying hard to become an evolutionary biologist as soon as I can; the thoughts, results and methods [of evolutionary biology] are crucial to the understanding of how genes [and] cells work.”

“Evolutionary thought and results revolutionalized and integrated with molecular fields,” Wolfner explained. “What we are left with is a unified biology that spans [many] areas.”

Where does evolutionary biology go from here? Prof. Hudson Kern Reeve, neurobiology and behavior, noted that “we as evolutionary biologists have not been good at publicizing results [and] stirring excitement and broader implications” in the public arena. Wolfner agreed, but added that such “unfortunate reasons” and circumstances such as HIV, antibiotic resistance and the avian flu have introduced evolutionary concepts to the general public. Wolfner also noted that it is important for the field to be recognized and integrated within many biological disciplines. With a hint of encouragement, she noted that the biology major at Cornell requires that students take an introductory course in Evolution, and hoped that this teaching will “train young scientists to take the evolutionary approach.”

Prof. Steven Tanksley, plant breeding and genetics, expressed his interest in learning how evolutionary thought can be used to understand spiritualism. “Spiritualism manifests [itself] far back in human society,” he explained. “[It is] a recurring theme in human evolution; [we] can’t put ourselves in opposition of a product of biology.” Tanksley emphasized that scientists “shouldn’t disprove spiritualism. We have not done a proper job if we don’t understand spiritualism and religion.”

Tanksley added that scientists should “open all channels of understanding in science in order to truly understand ourselves.”

Harrison noted that many critics of evolutionary biology target gaps in the current knowledge of modern evolutionary theory. “We freely admit that we do not have explanations [to all these questions],” he explained, but added that scientists should “not [be] ashamed of their ignorance, and should work hard to achieve knowledge.”

Archived article by Samira Chadwani
Sun Staff Writer