The first full day of the World Summit on Evolution: Galapagos 2005, on the island of San Cristobal, opened to a refreshed group of 150 biologists, representing 19 nations, just emerged from a travel-induced stupor. The talks went from the origin of life to human evolution, with various speakers calculating their rate of coverage at about 100 million years per minute. Only a year in planning, the meeting is the brainchild of a handful of people, spearheaded by Carlos Montufar, president of t
Jun 10, 2005
The first full day of the World Summit on Evolution: Galapagos 2005, on the island of San Cristobal, opened to a refreshed group of 150 biologists, representing 19 nations, just emerged from a travel-induced stupor. The talks went from the origin of life to human evolution, with various speakers calculating their rate of coverage at about 100 million years per minute. Only a year in planning, the meeting is the brainchild of a handful of people, spearheaded by Carlos Montufar, president of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito?s Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences. News of the event spread at first by word of mouth, but after initial invitations inexplicably did not bring a huge response, Michael Shermer, one of the organizers, mentioned it in his Skeptics Society e-newsletter for a short time. The announcement seemed too good to be true ? at least one graduate student initially thought it was spam.But the newsletter announcement attracted great interest, and a mysterious selection system then amassed a diverse and complementing group of researchers, ranging from microbiologists to molecular biologists to paleontologists and historians of science. Arrival details were kept under wraps, said one organizer, lest the Creationist community get wind of the fact that so many evolutionary luminaries would be on the same plane to the island. We are dispersed among a half dozen tiny hotels a short walk from a conference center completed only 3 weeks ago, and from the campus, which is basically one building that offers, in the midst of the town?s obvious poverty, intermittent wireless Internet service. The townspeople are very excited to have us here, which, frankly, is a nice break from the way that scientists are sometimes regarded back home. Fortunately I met a parasitologist the first night, who instructed us on how to avoid the microbial colonization that some have suffered from drinking the water or eating salad. But perhaps to compensate for my gastronomic luck so far, I lost in the hotel room stakes. I share my cubicle with a diverse representation of phylum Arthropoda. Like life itself, everyone at the conference seems related to everyone else, either through academic lineages, or friends. We are simply stunned to be here. ?To all of us, being in the Galapagos is a dream come true,? said Antonio Lazcano, from the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico. He gave the first talk, on prebiotic simulations ? Oparin, Urey, Miller and more. The audience listened to the familiar tale, rapt, like children hearing the retelling of a favorite story. The meeting is, in effect, summer camp for evolutionary biologists. We?re divided into color-coded groups for meals, we have our group leaders, we are taking group photos, and in three days going on a field trip. Will the final party include Color War? Some attendees took cruises before or will take them after the meeting.The talks have been cleverly paired, fact-filled presentations followed by shorter commentaries that border on the philosophical. After Lazcano?s origins talk, for example, William Schopf, of UCLA, led a discussion of the state of our knowledge about evolution inspired by the recent utterings of Donald Rumsfeld : ?There are things that we now know; things that we know we now do not know; and things that we do not now know that we now do not know.? Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the group, the talks are more overview, synthesis, and connections than new minutiae. And there is a concerted effort to avoid jargon and acronyms, so that the fossil hunters and genome sequencers speak the same language.Lurking beneath the jovial atmosphere is a palpable derisive undercurrent, with a prokaryotic lobby emerging. It began when Stefan Bengtson, a paleontologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, disparaged prokaryotes by omission. ?About 2 billion years ago we get these first eukaryotic looking fossils. After that, almost nothing happened. The ensuing period has been called then most boring period in the history of life on earth.?Peg Riley, director of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, could barely contain herself in defending her microbial friends. ?The time when nothing was happening was actually when all of biology was happening and creating what we have today. When you don?t think evolution is happening, the microbes are busy metabolizing and munching away. I think there?s been a bias in thinking of this planet as eukaryotic and non microbial, when in fact it is a microbial planet.? Cheers followed. Some stood up and clapped. Abashed, the offending Bengtson apologized, ?I stand here as billions of microbes and one human,? said he.The day ended with a paleontologist?s (Berkeley?s Tim White) and molecular geneticist?s (University of Cambridge?s Peter Forster) view of what White called ?a bizarre tiny clade? ? us. Tomorrow?s agenda: the evidence and mechanisms of evolution ? but after I photograph the sea lions that carpet the nearby shore.