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Sino Biological
Sino Biological

Miami International Airport

I am sitting on the floor at Miami International Airport, laptop plugged into a post, scoping out the people waiting at the gate. Who are the other biologists in the crowd? Not the best or worst dressed, but probably the casual few with laptops perched atop well-worn jeans. We are headed to the Galapagos Islands for a four-day ?World Summit on Evolution?, hosted by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. There will be 150 of us, all that San Cristobal can handle ? with accommodations de

By | June 9, 2005

I am sitting on the floor at Miami International Airport, laptop plugged into a post, scoping out the people waiting at the gate. Who are the other biologists in the crowd? Not the best or worst dressed, but probably the casual few with laptops perched atop well-worn jeans. We are headed to the Galapagos Islands for a four-day ?World Summit on Evolution?, hosted by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. There will be 150 of us, all that San Cristobal can handle ? with accommodations described as ?primitive? yet, oddly, with promised Internet access. Also known as Chatham Island, San Cristobal is the easternmost of the Galapagos chain, and it is where the Beagle first docked on September 16, 1835. As others before him had concluded, young naturalist Charles Darwin was at first fooled by the seemingly lifeless expanse of shattered shards of black lava that greeted the visitors at the northwest part of the island. But unlike the others, mostly Spanish explorers who interpreted what they saw through the lens of presumed divine creation, Darwin observed in a different, more comparative way. As the small crew cruised, Darwin he first focused on the geography and signs of volcanic activity on the various islands, noting that the older the rock, the more robust the coating of life. As he collected more specimens, Darwin began to notice that each island had a similar peculiar subset of species, the same basic type of organism differing slightly on each island. Mammals were noticeably absent in the rosters, but reptiles and birds thrived, and were apparently unafraid of humans. In the space of five weeks, young Darwin amassed the data that would, after two decades of percolating in his mind, emerge as the theory of evolution by natural selection. That is, the island-specific variants of each type of organism descended from a common ancestor on the mainland, and as they dispersed to the ever-so-slightly different island environments, over time, they diversified as individuals with certain inherited variants had a reproductive advantage. But that is largely hindsight. I reviewed this brief history on the plane to Miami in the book Evolution?s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands, by Edward J. Larson. But I soon became airsick, reading the chapter on the opposition to Darwin?s theory. Back in the nineteenth century, alternate explanations at least made a certain sense, if one accepted certain premises ? divine creation of different species in different places, in no apparent pattern, just for the heck of it; theistic evolution that posited a supreme being putting all those tortoises and finches and iguanas on the islands; and orthogenesis, the idea of a vague ?vital force? directing the drama of life. The arguments, at least how Larson presents them, seemed more intellectual than antagonistic, as they are today. I started to feel ill at the realization that in terms of the public understanding of evolution in the United States, we have not only reverted to nineteenth century thinking, but we?ve gone in an entirely different and dishonest direction, disguising divine creation as science. I am sheltered from the insidious insertion of religion cloaked as science because I write university life science textbooks, where a form of economic natural selection is at work in that if I mention a creator, no instructor will use the book. But I fear that young students being taught in states that choose to give equal time in the science classroom to religion will be lost when they encounter a biology textbook that reflects the field ? that is, a science. I am looking forward to hearing from the conference attendees about how their nations? educational systems teach evolution ? but I won?t dwell on that here. There?s simply too much research news to report and digest. Like any biologist, when I heard about this conference, I had an instant Pavlovian reaction. I had to go. Not for the reason evoked in a recent Time magazine cover story that cited a trip to the Galapagos with buying a sports car and having an affair as signs of an impending midlife crisis in a human female, but simply because it is every biologist?s dream to see the land that literally gave birth to the idea that underlies all of biology. The speaker list reads like a Who?s Who of evolutionary biology. If indeed the promised primitive conditions include Internet access, I will duly report the happenings here, from Thursday?s sessions on ?Evolution: From the Origins of Life to Humans? through Friday?s ?Evidence and Mechanisms of Evolution? to Sunday?s ?What is Evolution?? Saturday is field trip day, and we?re off to see tortoises and the rare red-footed boobies of San Cristobal.
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