Friday, August 21, 2009

The Shadow of Darwin in Humanity Today

Day Four
Thursday afternoon, July 9th

This was another great session, it was given by some of the leading names in evolutionary anthropology. It was chaired and organized by the rather amusing Robert Foley, who has the impressive title of Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and Leverhulme Professor of Human Evolution at the University of Cambridge. He opened with a comparison between evolutionary biologists and the forces fighting WWI, if Dawkins and Dennett are the generals directing the battles from on high, then the speakers for this session were the evolutionary soldiers actually in the trenches, the "people with the lice and malaria".

First up was Richard Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. Richard gave a wonderfully clear and persuasive talk on What Makes Humans Different: the Impact of Fire in Human Evolution. Darwin himself believed that, excepting language, fire was the greatest discovery ever made by man. He gave evidence of how humans are adapted to eating cooked food and how a cooked evening meal is culturally universal. Humans have a small gut adapted to low fibre diets and small teeth. Cooking increases the digestibility of food and the amount of available calories in a food goes up when cooked, this is true for everything from eggs, to bananas, to wheat. Richard outlined the effects triggered by the switch to a cooked diet in human ancestors: large energy budget, short birth intervals, early weaning, bigger brains and sexual division of labor. He gave the beautifully simple quote of "Life is a search for energy to make bits of you into more bits of you."


Next was Kristen Hawkes from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Utah speaking on Darwin's Children: How Reproductive Strategies Shape Our Evolution. This talk was focused on Kirsten's Grandmother Hypothesis, which is an explanation of why human women live past reproductive age but chimpanzees, our closest ancestors, do not tend to outlive their fertility. This was a very interesting talk, which was unfortunately hampered by bad use of the microphone and very distracting use of a laser pointer. Some of her conclusions were that there is selection on infants to be engaging to both mothers and other relatives, shared care of young creates a deepened empathy, and most importantly that Grandmothers shape mortality, fertility and more of human groups.


Daniel Nettle, from the University of Newcastle, gave a talk called Darwin in Mind. He addressed how to reach many of the academics in the social sciences that are against the idea that natural selection has shaped the human mind. He stressed the importance of both the commonality of the human brain due to similar genetics, but also the extreme flexibility of behaviour. Daniel believes the best way to convince these doubters of the explanatory power of Darwinian natural selection on human behaviour is with hard data that can help explain otherwise difficult problems.


Chris Stringer, is a Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor at the Natural History Museum of London and one of Britain's foremost experts on human origins. Chris is also one of the leading proponents of the recent single-origin hypothesis or "Out of Africa" theory. He addressed Darwin's Intuition: Africa and the Fossil Record of Human Evolution, which was a fantastic summary of human macro-evolution. He discussed the possible origins of bipedalism and how this interacted with tool use, smaller canine teeth and the expansion of the brain. Chris addressed such fascinating questions as: Was neanderthalensis a separate species? (Possibly, it depends on the definition, they were a distinct lineage of homins for sure) Did defining human behaviours turn on fast or gradually? (A mixture of both, behaviour comes in pieces then is assembled quickly, humans had the modern package about 50,000 years ago, but elements were there earlier) Where does human variation come from (Founder effects, drift, natural selection AND sexual selection, all could play an important role). Over all this was a great talk, with tons of info from a very knowledgeable and engaging speaker.


Marta Mirazon Lahr, University of Cambridge Lecturer in Biological Anthropology, gave a talk called Darwin's People: How Did Human Diversity Evolve? She discussed how human diversity is the product of population movements, cultural processes, and environmental change and adaptation. This talk was an overview of these ideas, but without a lot of detail, explanations or examples, with the exception of a brief discussion of lactose intolerance and how it has evolved twice in humans in the past 10,000 years.


Jaume Bertranpetit, from the University of Pompeu Fabra, Spain, spoke about The Tangled Tree: Discovering Genetics and Selection in Humans. Jaume and his collaborators have been comparing the neutral and functional regions of genomes both within humans and between humans and chimpanzees to investigate the selective forces that shaped their genes. He discussed how incredibly complex the biology of phenotypes is and gave examples of work ranging from hair and skin colour in Neanderthals, resistance to malaria, and the greatly discussed FOXP2 gene, which is thought to be linked to language. During the Q&A Jaume stated that human evolution is both faster and slower than other species. It moves at about the same rate of any other mammal, maybe a little slower, but specific adaptations can be very rapid.

Next up: Thursday evening finds Angie and I dining in the fanciest pizza place ever (William Pitt the Younger's Club's library! With live jazz pianist!!) then going to see the play Re:Design, about the correspondence of Darwin and Asa Gray, which I discussed in an earlier post.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Darwin's rooms at Christ's College

Day Four
Thursday morning, July 9th

I visited Christ's College at the University of Cambridge to view the rooms where Charles Darwin stayed as a student. They have recently undergone an amazing restoration to their nineteenth-century appearance. (Click on the pictures to make them larger)

Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Post cards and a pamphlet on sale at the College

The College grounds

A list of the students and their rooms (as they existed in about 1828)

The restoration process of the room as it looked in early 2009,
in preparation for the bicentennial year

Darwin's room, photographed when I visited in July, 2009

A rather modest bedroom

The desk where Darwin looked over his collections

A much fancier living/dining room

A plaque on the wall

A view of the gardens

Earlier I posted a picture of myself with this newly created
bronze statue of a young Darwin the student on the grounds of Christ's.

My lovely fiancee Angie (now wife), posing with the statue

Some information about the connections between Darwin and Christ's

And good news for those who are interested in seeing some of the talks I've been been describing! From the Darwin Festival website:

"We have made recordings of all the day-time sessions and we also have over 24 hours worth of interviews with speakers and delegates. Once this has been edited, which may take some time, this resouce will be made available via the Festival website as well as a number of other channels.

We are also putting a Festival photo gallery together which will be accessible online soon."

I'll let you all know when the photos and videos are on the site!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Universal Darwinism

Day Three
Wednesday afternoon, July 8th

After seeing the first half of Darwin on Stage and in Poetry, I headed over to the Universal Darwinism for part two of the session, which was mostly about memetics. It was sort of a pro and con view.

First up was Professor of Philosophy of Science Kim Sterelny, who holds professorships in both Australia and New Zealand speaking on 'Information Sharing and the Challenge of Novelty'. Sterelny's lecture was not only interesting and far-ranging, but also quite entertaining in his use of colourful language ("[attempts to model cognitive psychology] turn out to be f-ing hard!" "We can handle new risks and that sh*thole LAX!"). Regardless he had a lot of interesting things to say about how the human mind developed and the evolution of culture. He believes that the human "Information market" has a high profit/cost ratio, there was often a low risk of deception or defection in directly teaching new technologies and that an important element is social learning by doing, for example the apprentice to an early human stone shaper. I got the impression that his mind works much faster than his mouth can keep up, which lead to far too many "you know"s cropping up in his speech.

Next up was Professor and Director of the International Cognition and Culture Institute Dan Sperber from the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris. His talk was called Evolutionary approaches to culture: Three challenges and solutions, and put forth the overall position of Yes to Darwinism, but No to memetics. Much of his talk was developing his idea of Cognative Casual Chains, for example a meaning in someones mind leading to an utterance, leading to an interpretation in someone else's mind. I found his definition of imitation a little odd, Sperber believes that a person can imitate the sound of a word, but can not imitate the meaning, since it is not visible. Thus leading to his conclusion that the fidelity of cultural ideas is too low for culture to be Darwinian. He didn't seem to be a strong opponent to the usefulness of memes, but was just looking at the same questions from a different perspective. Dan Dennett (who obviously is a huge proponent of memetics) said afterwards that Sperber's position did not differ strongly from his own. As in many differences in philosophy, it seems to come down to slight differences in definition or meaning.

Next up: Day four brings The Shadow of Darwin in Humanity Today, a session of mostly evolutionary anthropology featuring Richard Wrangham and Chris Stringer among others.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Punting on the Cam

A punt is a small wooden flat-bottomed boat that is used for navigating small rivers and shallow water. They are propelled by use of a long pole that is used to push off against the river bed. Navigating the river on one of these boats is called "punting", and there was no way I was visiting Cambridge without giving it a try!

"Punting is not as easy as it looks. As in rowing, you soon learn how to get along and handle the craft, but it takes long practice before you can do this with dignity and without getting the water all up your sleeve." – Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)

The view under the bridges of Cambridge

King's College Chapel from the river Cam

I'd love to know who is reading this blog. It would be much appreciated if you could take a minute and add a comment (just click on the word "comments" below this post) to just tell me who you are and where you are reading this from. Thanks so much! -Greg

Friday, July 17, 2009

Darwin on Stage

Day Three
Wednesday afternoon, July 8th

This was quite a change of pace! Rather than focusing on the science, this session was all about theatre. Oxford lecturer and author Kirsten Shepherd-Barr did an excellent job examining the influence of Darwin in the world of Drama. She discussed this subject with two playwrights: Craig Baxter, who wrote the excellent "Re:Design", a dramatization of the correspondence between Charles Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray, and Peter Parnell who wrote the play "Trumpery" about the effect of Alfred Russel Wallace's letter on Darwin. Joining them was Professor Stuart Firestein, a former dramatist turned neurobiologist, who had some interesting insights on both the theatre and science side of the equation. The main reason I was interested in this session was because I have an extensive background in theatre (I've been involved with acting for the past 28 years) and have even written my own Charles Darwin monologue, which I have performed over a dozen times around Vancouver (you can click on the links to see examples).

Craig's play "Re:Design" was commissioned by the Darwin Correspondence Project and he sifted through about 282 letters between Darwin and Gray to create his script. It was fascinating to me to hear how he had to search for a narrative thread in their correspondance, find the music and repeats in their relationship. Darwin's "voice" came very strongly to Craig while reading his letters, charming with self-deprecating humour, always questioning and cajoling Gray into helping him. The two men formed a life-long friendship and Asa Gray was Darwin's staunchest supporter in America. It was really neat to hear about the process that went into crafting this play, which I then attended the next evening (which I will cover in a future blog post).

I'm not sure what to say about Peter Parnell's (one of the producers of the TV show The West Wing) play "Trumpery" since I've never seen it, but wasn't very impressed with the description he gave us. It sounds like it plays too fast and loose with reality for my tastes, adding characters that didn't appear (Darwin's daughter Annie is a character, even though she had died four years earlier), combining historical figures (Lyell and Hooker) and condensing 7 years into two weekends. The Darwin in Parnell's play is driven by Oedipal guilt, worried that his theory is going to kill God/Father. His vomiting is a metaphor for Darwin's pent-up secrets. Wallace shows up to conduct a séance to contact Annie. I suppose I shouldn't judge it based just on the description, but well...

I was also happy to learn of other Darwin related plays out there: After Darwin (1998, Darwin and Fitzroy appear in a play within a play), Darwin Variations (2006) and This View of Life (2009, a one man show about Huxley).

I had to skip the second half of this session (Darwin in Poetry) so I could catch the second half of Universal Darwinism, which was a pro and con approach to using memetics to explain culture.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Human Nature and Belief, Part 2

Day Three
Wednesday morning, July 8th

Continuing right after Dan Dennett's talk was one more main speaker, Oxford Professor John Hedley Brooke, President of the International Society for Science and Religion. His lecture was Darwinism and the Survival of Religion, dealing mainly with the History of Science and Religion in Victorian England. He began with a cute story of a sign on the front of a church in Jerusalem: "No Explanations in the Church". What this actually meant was tour guides were requested to be quiet when in the church, but he used it as a funny way of discussing the benefits of religion other than trying to explain the same things that science does.

Without a doubt the best quote of the talk was "Describing religion as a failed attempt to explain life is like calling ballet a botched attempt to run for the bus". Over all Prof. Brooke believes that nature leaves room for supernatural interpretation (which was in marked contrast to Dennett's air-guitar comment).

Next up were three panellists with shorter talks. Philip Kitcher, a Philosopher of Science from Columbia University, spoke on Religion and Human Nature: What Does Darwin Teach Us? In attempting to understand life as a series of historical processes, Prof. Kitcher suggested that perhaps religion originally began as an "Ethical Project", where an early human tribe decided on a set of useful rules that could assist "human compliance in the norms of a group". To my ear, he seemed to be suggesting that human behaviour was all "culture", and thus there was no need for a "biological explanation". Hmmm...

Robert Richards is from the University of Chicago (you could tell from his black t-shirt, black leather jacket and very thick midwestern accent) where he is a Professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy and Psychology. He threw out a wall of rapid words that mostly flew right over my head. There was something about "adopting the language of final causality" and a "moral sense that can be an advantage to the bearer", but that's as much as I was able to capture. In my notes I wrote "lots of words, not sure the meaning of most".

Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics and head of the Biology Department at University College London, was a familiar name to me because I really enjoyed his book Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated (also known as Almost Like a Whale). Prof. Jones was quite witty and tossed off many seemingly practiced bon mots. My favorite was when he was asked to speak at Saint Paul's Cathedral on the subject of "Why are we here?" and began with "I don't know why we are here, but I know why I am here - you couldn't get Richard Dawkins". I was rather disappointed with his talk since he mostly trashed sociobiology, saying that only in the most general terms can evolution be useful in explaining culture. He also felt that evolution was bad at explaining how we became human since all of the traits that define us are unique. I guess he's not too up on comparative primatology and doesn't know any good cultural or physical anthropologists.

Given that most of these speakers were either pro-religion or anti-sociobiology/memetics, it seemed like a bit of a set up against Dan Dennett. This became painfully obvious when Professor of Divinity, Sarah Coakley, the chair (and presumably organizer) of the session, kept making snide little asides to Dennett: "Meme's might be all made up" and later "You can't see memes either". So much for impartiality of a moderator.

The best thing to come out of the session (besides of course Dan Dennett's much applauded, rousing talk) was when during the Q&A the panel was asked why biology seems so obsessed with Charles Darwin. Steve Jones put it beautifully when he said that the science was worth obsessing over for it's own sake, but Darwin is worth praising for being such "a nice scientist" which is rather rare, but also for being the best biologist to have lived.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dan Dennett Lecture

Dan Dennett makes a philosophical point.

He has a slightly different view of creation.

Also a slightly different version of The Ascent of Man.

Human Nature and Belief, Part 1

Day Three
Wednesday morning, July 8th

What a great way to start my birthday! The morning session was started by Daniel Dennett, philosopher at Tufts University and author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves, and Breaking the Spell. Dan also has been one of my favorite thinkers and writers ever since I was a grad student at Stonybrook University and George Williams passed on his advanced review copy of Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

I've seen Dan speak three times now, and I think this was my favorite of the bunch. When I ran into Dan on the first day of the festival, I asked him if I could have a picture taken with him . He graciously posed with me (see above) then commented, "I bet you didn't expect Darwin himself to be here." He must have thought that was the only reason I was asking for a picture, but I assured him that I knew who he was, and it was Dennett I wanted a picture with, not Darwin.

Dan's talk was entitled Darwin and the Evolution of Why: The Evolution of Reasons. He began by talking about the pre-Darwin "trickle-down theory of creation" and the replacement with Darwin's "bubble-up theory" which was in the words of a Darwin critic a "strange inversion of reasoning", where understanding is actually the effect, not the cause.

He gave some really cool examples of natural artifacts that show this inversion: Difflugia coronata is an amoeba that builds a beautiful shell out of sand; also the caddisfly larva that builds an ingenious food sieve that looks just like a human-made lobster trap; and the behaviour of a cuckoo chick that pushes out the nest the true offspring of its adoptive parents: "competence without comprehension".

He went on to discuss viruses ("nucleic acid with attitude"), glossogenetic trees of language, and Richard Dawkins' theory of memes. He concluded that we humans are the "first intelligent designers in the tree of life". Originally God was supposed to have created everything, but ever since Darwin's theory of natural selection, there has been less and less need for the direct role of a god in actual creation. According to Dan, since God's role has continually been diminished, all that is left is "a God that plays air guitar...and that's lame".

Some other choice quotes that came up during the question and answer period: "religion can gracefully retreat from science". When asked about religion's freedom to "make things up", Dan replied "it makes things up...and also makes them down". He also compared theologians to Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, when their reasons and explanations keep disappearing, all that is finally left "is a comforting smile".

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Baba Brinkman at the Opening Event

Baba Brinkman performing excepts from his Rap Guide to Evolution at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, which was founded by Darwin's mentor, John Stevens Henslow. This was the opening night champagne event for the Festival. You can see video of the event here! And a video of his performace before the gala dinner here.

The Changing Views of Evolution

Day Two
Tuesday afternoon, July 7th

Here’s a summary of the afternoon session on Changing Views of Evolution:

Greg Radick – talked about Darwin’s development of natural selection in relation to artificial selection. He then ran through four major criticisms of the term “natural selection” at the time and how Darwin responded to them.

Hanna Kokko – Covered my personal favorite evolutionary topic of sexual selection (I did my Ph.D. on the role of sexual selection in the speciation of fireflies) but only in a rather general overview. I don’t think she did such a good job at explaining the interest and fascination inherent in the theory. I can only remember one interesting example that she used (there are SO many!) of the Xiphophorus, the genus of swordtail fishes, that can have a spot on their tail which makes them sexy to females. Unfortunately if they get a black cancerous growth on their tail, then that is still seen as sexy by the female and so sexual selection can actually spread the growth of cancer in this genus!

Peter Grant – If you know anything about evolution, you’ve most likely heard of Rosemary and Peter Grant and their three decades of work on Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos Islands. Peter talked about how divergent selection on feeding has lead to speciation in Darwin’s finches. He also told of a finch behaviour I’ve never heard of before (I’ve seen him speak twice recently here in Vancouver) which is small beaked finches showing a “parasitic” behaviour of stealing seeds from big-beaked finches once they have cracked open hard to open seeds.

Kevin Laland – Talked about niche construction, which is when organisms modify their environment, changing their ecological niche. Think beaver dams or bower birds. He pointed out that the modeling he and his collaborators have done have turned up some interesting features of this phenomenon, such as how populations can continue to evolve even after selection has stopped because of the influence of their niche construction.

Konstantin Anokhin – To be honest I’m not quite sure what this talk was about. He had a rather thick Russian accent and was talking about the genetic assimilation of learning. Something about how physiology and neuroscience will benefit greatly from applying principals from evolutionary biology. It was very hard to follow.

Eva Jablonka – Gave a very cool and rather impassioned talk on Epigenetic Inheritance in evolution. That is the transmission of phenotypic variation though means other than DNA inheritance. Examples include transposable elements in maize, temperature induced changes in peas. The best understood examples seem to have to do with DNA methylation patterns. A very interesting, but not yet fully understood area of evolution.

Scott Gilbert – This was my favorite talk of this afternoon session (mainly because I was already familiar with Peter Grant’s research) dealing with Developmental Symbiosis and phenotype combination (“It’s not just lichen any more folks!”). The upshot is that humans, and many other or possibly species, develop and evolve not as singular organisms, but as whole communities of organisms. The best known examples are symbiotic fungi (eg. mycorrhizal) and bacteria (eg. gut bacteria or insect Wolbachia symbionts).

The Eagle Pub

That evening we had dinner at The Eagle Pub, where James Watson and Francis Crick used to eat 6 nights a week while unraveling the structure of DNA. Supposedly when the finally figured it out, they went to the Eagle and announced “We’ve just discovered the secret to life!” and wanted to buy a round of drinks for the house, but they were unable to because they had already run up such a huge tab!

We also went to go see Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Evolution, which was amazing. He had a very keen audience of about 80 or so in a really cool teaching room in the Anthropology department, the whole back wall was lined with the skulls of human ancestors, genetic abnormalities and the subjects of trepanation! Baba did another great performance and was really excited to have David Sloan Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone) in the audience, a major proponent of multi-level selection, which Baba spends an entire section of his performance on. After the show a bunch of us joined Baba for drinks at The Eagle and a great time was had by all.

Me enjoying a pint at the Eagle Pub

Angie, Me and Baba at the Eagle, sitting at Watson and Crick's table

Tomorrow: Human Nature and Belief (where I will explain why Dan Dennett compares God to an air-guitarist and why that’s “lame”)

Richard Dawkins at the Darwin Festival

Richard Dawkins speaking on "Darwin's Universal Impact", the development of the concept of Natural Selection and modern day "digital Darwinism".

Monday, July 13, 2009

Me and Darwin

Here's a picture of me and Charles Darwin the student. The bronze of Darwin, depicted as a student at Christ's College before he set off on the Beagle, was sculpted by Anthony Smith.

As soon as I recover from my jet lag, I'll be posting a lot more about the conference, including tons of pictures.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Back in Canada

We made it back after an amazing week. I'm sorry I didn't get any more time to blog more while over there, but not to worry...I'll be posting tons more over the next few weeks, including lots of pictures!

Sunday was really special, with a pilgrimage to the home of Charles and Emma Darwin which is called Down House. It wasn't easy to get to, but very much worth it. I'll have the whole story for you soon.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More on the Festival...

As I write this, I am sitting in a internet cafe on Regent Street after a wonderful performance of a play called Re:Design about the friendship and correspondace of Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist who was Darwin's greatest American supporter. But I will get back to that in due time. I still need to catch up on the next few days. I'll try and give a brief summary, but also need my sleep tonight for tomorrow (in my time line, not the order I'm summarizing) is the last day of an incredibly amazing Festival/Conference.

Aside: today I had the strangest feeling as I was standing talking to philosopher Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea) and author Matt Ridley (The Red Queen, Nature Via Nurture). Two towering presences in evolutionary biology, and they were literally towering over me (I'm 6 foot tall, and they are both huge!) it was a great moment having a conversation with them. I got a picture with Dan and Matt was kind enough to personalize a book for me. All told I ended up with three evolutionary biology/Darwin books signed by the authors! (stay tuned to find out who)

Yikes! The cafe is closing and I barely got anything posted. More to come when I can get access to a computer. I promise!

(punting on the Cam was brilliant, not to mention Darwin hiphop dancing at the Zoological Museum)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Darwin: Society and Health

Day Two
Tuesday, July 7th

My favorite session so far! Possibly because it was organized by the excellent science author Matt Ridley (Red Queen, Nature Via Nurture) who acted as a very witty session chair. He first introduced psychiatrist Randy Nesse, co-author of Darwinian Medicine, who gave a very engaging, funny, and fascinating talk on that very subject. He expressed an overview of how evolution can shed light on medical issues ranging from fever, infection, disease, aging on to the subject of the evolution of pro-social behaviours like altruism and kindess. The noted primatologist and sociobiologist Sarah Hrdy then continued that theme using examples from monkeys, apes, and hominins (direct, extinct human ancestors) to examine the question of why humans make use of alloparents, group members that help to rear children.

Panelists (who gave shorter presentations after the two main speakers, but sat on the panel answering questions and debating points) included Evelyn Fox Keller (history of science) talking about the reconceptualization of Darwin with new factors of inheritance including epigenetics and cultural transmission, Sir Paul Nurse (Nobel Prize winner for cell cycle work and yeast genetics) addressed the natural selection of cells and its applications for adaptive immunity and understanding cancer. Then I was thrilled to see one of the most daring, brave and engaging talks by Nobel winner Sir John Sulston (won for determining the fate of every single cell in a developing worm called C. elegans). Professor Sulston gave an impassioned and ringing call for scientific knowledge to be used to fix global social problems of justice and economics. He also stressed how science is to be shared and not horded by corporations or private interests.

Next up – The Changing Views of Evolution, dinner and drinks at the famous pub The Eagle, where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of the secret of life, and hanging out with Baba Brinkman, the Canadian creator of the Rap Guide to Evolution. And tomorrow my 40th birthday! (which is right now, while I blog this, but there’s a day lag with my posts since I’m summarizing the previous day)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On the Origin of Species: Speciation Studies Now

Day One
Monday afternoon, July 6th

From left to right: Knapp, Mallet, Rieseberg, John Parker, Kohn, Baulcombe

David Kohn from the Darwin Correspondence Project explored Darwin’s mental development of his species concept from the period of his Voyage up to the writing of The Origin. Jim Mallet argued with data from hybridization that the textbook view of biological species is much messier in nature, and that Darwin had a better concept of a species than that of primary members of the modern synthesis during the 1950s and 60s (personally, I'm not so sure about this conclusion, but I haven't read any of Mallet's findings). Loren Rieseberg, from the University of British Columbia, the same school where I teach (in fact I recently moved into his old office), continued the theme of hybridization and its role in creating new species in plants, with many examples from his own research in sunflowers. Sandra Knapp from the Natural History Museum of London is a plant taxonomist who shared a real–world view of species from her work with genus that includes tomatoes and potatoes and discussed the importance of world-wide biodiversity inventories. David Baulcombe from Cambridge described his work on RNA virus induced epimutations in plants, or non-genetic heritable evolution. Overall we learned the concept of species was well understood my Darwin, but is still very complex and shifting as we learn more about the natural world.

After the conference events of the day Angie and I grabbed a quick but very tasty dinner at a Persian restaurant called Shiraz and then met up with an old friend of mine who happens to live and work in Cambridge for an evening of swing dancing. Our brains felt full and so we needed to have a few pints and exercise our bodies for a change. It was a great evening and we slept VERY soundly after a few hours of dancing the Charleston!

Day Two will bring a morning session of Society and Health and an afternoon of The Changing Views of Evolution.

Darwin's Universal Impact

Day One
Monday Morning, July 6th:

At the start of each morning session, a quote from Charles Darwin's writing was presented by actor Terry Malloy, who plays Darwin in the theatre production Re:Design (more on the later). It did a really great job of setting the mood for talking about Darwin's work.

From left to right: Beer, Dawkins, Hodge, Sober, David Read, Patrick Bateson, Jordanova

The festival proper was started in great style by a series of talks on the Universal Impact of Darwin. Both the arts and sciences were represented by Dame Gillian Beer, an esteemed author and literary critic and Richard Dawkins, the author of the classic book The Selfish Gene and one of the 100 most influential people in the world according to Time Magazine. Since I’m finding I don’t have adequate time to do lots of writing AND enjoy a very packed festival, I am forced to simply briefly summarize each session and event, and will write up a more detailed description after I return home to Vancouver. (I'm typing away during the coffee break, which here in Cambridge England is of course "taking tea", of the afternoon session on day 2, there will be a bit of a time lag in my summaries)

Dame Beer very eloquently focused on Charles Darwin’s curiosity, powers of observation and use of language, particularly analogy and concluded that his “stretching of boundaries” was the source of his universal impact.

Prof. Dawkins described some of Darwin’s predecessors in thinking about evolution and natural selection and then went on to look at the modern era of “digital Darwinism”, which doesn’t have to do with computers, but rather the all or none digital aspect of genes. “An idea that would have seemed strange to Darwin, but I think he would have come to love it.”

(I was thrilled to get Dawkins to sign a copy of his Selfish Gene for me, the book that first got me interested in Evolutionary Biology!)

The panel presentations started with philosopher Elliot Sober commenting on the Metaphysical aspects of Darwin’s theory and if science has the power to postulate the existence of God. Historian Jonathan Hodge examined why Darwin took the route of a world-changing scientist rather than an unknown humble Parson Naturalist. Finally Ludmilla Jordanova talked about the impact of images of Darwin and how they effected public perceptions. The spirited question and answer session touched upon creationism, contemporary fiction, the importance of chance and Richard Dawkins’ croc-a-duck tie!

Coming up: an afternoon session on Speciation and then in the evening Swing Dancing!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Grand Opening Event

Last night Angie and I attended the opening event at the Botanic Gardens, which was a great place to hold them coinsidering the gardens were first started by John Stevens Henslow, Darwin's mentor at Cambridge and the man responsible for him getting the position of Naturalist on the Beagle. We walked down a beautiful path through the gardens and past greenhouses full of a diverse group of plants to arrive at the event. It was a lovely event, with the champagne flowing freely.

We were welcomed by the Vice-Chancellor of the University and the editor-in-chief of Science magazine. There was yummy food and entertainment by some students doing spoken word performance and three raps by Baba Brinkman! We chatted with Baba and met up with Joan Sharp, from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. I'd also like to welcome Joan's students from Bisc 316, Vertebrate Biology. She's asked all of them to follow our adventures at the Festival and she will hopefully be writing up some of her own observations later in the week.

I have to go now, to continue to listen to the talks. I'm not sure when I'll have time to do all the blogging, because there's so much to do and experience here! But I'll try my best to fit blogging in when I can, but might have to suppliment my posts this week after I get back home and have more time.

Next up: I'll write up this morning's introductory talks by Dame Gillian Beer, Richard Dawkins and a fascinating panel on Darwin's Impact as well as this afternoon's set of 5 talks on speciation, historical and modern views.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Arrival in Cambridge

I've made it to Cambridge after two really fun and busy days in London. Didn't get to see many Darwin related things while in London, but am very eager to start exploring Cambridge itself.

The city is really fantastic! I wasn't really prepared for how busy it would be with tourists and was also suprised how indistinguishable the city and the university are, there is no single campus, but the entire city is dotted with various colleges. There is Trinity College, founded by Henry VIII in 1546, King's College, which is famous for it's chapel where Darwin used to listen to concerts, and of course Christ's College (be sure the click on the link for more information), where Darwin was a student.

I must be off to get dressed for the Grand Opening Event at the University Botanic Garden which starts in less than an hour! From the Festival site:

"The Festival will be opened by Alison Richard, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. There will also be presentations from Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine and Stephen Bourne, Chairman and CEO of Cambridge University Press. Canada's rap artist, Baba Brinkman and Evolving Words will make cameo appearances with their own special brand of performance."

I can't wait to see Baba Brinkman's rap performance again. He was a friend I made when he performed at UBC, and I strongly supported his addition to the festival.

I'll report back tomorrow about tonight's opening event and tomorrow's morning lecture:
"Introduction: Darwin’s Universal Impact"
Speakers will include Dame Gillian Beer and Professor Richard Dawkins on Darwin’s impact on culture, history, philosophy of science and evolutionary theory.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Leaving for England tomorrow

Hello and welcome to my Darwin Festival blog! Tomorrow (July 2nd) my fiancee, Angie O'Neill, and I leave for England. We'll be staying in London for a few days and then heading to the University of Cambridge on Sunday, July 5th, for the start of the 2009 Darwin Anniversary Festival.

I'll start blogging in earnest on Saturday, reporting on any Darwin related things we see in London, then I'll start writing about the Festival when I arrive.

I'll be attending talks all week by presenters such as Sir David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Dame Gillian Beer, Harold Varmus (scientific advisor to the Obama administration), Sarah Hrdy, Lord John Krebs, Lord Robert May, Steve Jones, Matt Ridley and many more.

I will also be writing about the various exhibitions, tours and workshops at University sites, museums and the Botanic Garden, including Darwin's rooms in Christ's College; Beagle manuscripts at the University Library; and Endless Forms at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

I hope you will enjoy joining me on my journey!