February 13, 2008

Creationism Discussion Kicks Off Darwin Days

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Yesterday marked the beginning of Darwin Days, a six-day series of events relating to Charles Darwin’s studies. To kick off the events, Prof. Richard Harrison, Chair of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, delivered a lecture in Kaufman Auditorium last night concerning Darwin’s study of evolutionary biology and its implications in the 21st Century.
The week’s festivities are being held in honor of the 199th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday. Students, faculty, and members of the Ithaca community gathered to learn about Darwin’s ideas and how present-day scientists have used them to further scientific understanding of evolutionary biology.
Harrison highlighted Darwin’s influence on science, explaining how the scientist differed from other famous scientists. [img_assist|nid=27705|title=Darwin doings|desc=Prof. Richard Harrison, ecology and evolutionary biology, delivers a lecture about evolution to a large audience in Kaufmann Auditorium yesterday. His lecture is part of a Darwin Days series celebrating the scientist’s 199th birthday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“The history of science is populated by individuals, but few have become the single image and single figure that dominates a specific field of science in the way that Darwin has,” Harrison said. “Darwin outlined basic principles of evolutionary biology and, 150 years later, these basic principles remained unchanged.”
Harrison also discussed Darwin’s findings by introducing Darwin’s basic principles of evolution.
“Darwin found that there is variation in time and space, that variation is heritable, that descent occurs with modification, and that natural selection determines which modifications persist and which do not,” Harrison said.
When relating these ideas to present-day research in the field of evolutionary biology, Harrison found that the original theories needed only to be amended, not altered.
“Details and mechanisms of the evolutionary process have unfolded since the ideas of Darwin were first proposed. The pace of discovery is increasing exponentially … The basic principles are not being changed; instead, they are being fleshed out,” Harrison said.
Besides explaining Darwin’s findings as well as further development in present-day science, Harrison also elucidated to his audience the importance of evolutionary biology.
To illustrate the role of evolutionary biology in science, Harrison quoted Theodosius Dobzshansky, who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
“I am not so arrogant to say that evolution illuminates all of the other scientific disciplines. However, there is a reciprocal illumination in which evolutionary biology and other fields of science shed light on each other. Understanding is an iterative process,” Harrison said.
Harrison clarified evolutionary biology’s integral role in the greater field of biology by explaining the fundamental questions of biology.
“There are three questions that biologists ask,” Harrison said. “What is it and how does it work? How do structure [and] function vary among taxa? And how did it come to be the way it is? Evolutionary biology attempts to answer the third question.”
In looking to the future, Harrison recognized two challenges that the field of evolutionary biology faces.
“The main questions that we must answer are how should evolutionary biology be taught and should all students of biology need to understand the basic principles,” Harrison said. “Furthermore, should evolutionary biology be the first course taught when entering school, acting as a foundation course, or should it be the last course to bring together everything a student has learned.”
When Harrison opened the lecture to questions, creationism became the topic of discussion. Harrison commented that it has been the failure of the academic community to educate the rest of America on their fact-based findings.
“We have failed miserably to educate the rest of America about evolutionary biology,” Harrison said. “Maybe because we have been so busy furthering our research we have not taken the necessary time with the rest of society. Cornell Institute of Biology Teachers is trying to educate high school teachers about evolution so that they can bring that into their schools.”
Harrison understood and commented on the variance of the audience’s previous knowledge of the field.
“The extremes of the spectrum of knowledge will have a difficult time with this lecture. I hope everyone can take away something from this lecture,” Harrison said.
“The majority of the information discussed I have already learned about. However, I found it interesting that the professor discussed when to plan the class. In addition, I also enjoyed his philosophy on the interrelationship of evolutionary biology and the other sciences,” said Emily Nash ’10.
Prof. William Provine, ecology and evolutionary biology, explained that this was just one of the many upcoming events in celebration of Darwin Days.
“The celebration of Charles Darwin is just beginning. We have the pleasure of having Dr. Lynn Margulis, who is our out of school speaker, come and speak with us tomorrow. It is surprising that her work has not been awarded a Nobel Prize already,” Provine said.
Harrison’s lecture is the beginning of what may be an intellectually stimulating week on Cornell’s campus. On Friday, a panel of experts will discuss the possible implications of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for future evolutionary change