Summer 2008: Of Note

Evolution Revolution: Science Changing Life

Get a Life

Emory symposium to explore the origins of life and the future of evolution

Evolution Revolution

Emory University

October 23 - 24, 2008

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

A century and a half ago marked the start of a revolution in human knowledge. This summer is the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the presentation of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the main driver of evolution; February 12, 2009, will be the bicentennial of his birth. And the celebration of these watershed moments, already begun in the scientific community, promises to reach party animals around the world.

Emory will kick off its own version this fall, Evolution Revolution: Science Changing Life, a public symposium sponsored by the Computational and Life Sciences strategic initiative. In addition to Emory and Georgia Tech faculty, the event will feature biologist E. O. Wilson, Harvard professor emeritus and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for his renowned research and writings on nature. Also scheduled to speak is Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and New York Times columnist who won critical acclaim in 2003 for her book Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation.

E. O. Wilson

Olivia Judson

David Lynn

While it will pay tribute to discoveries of the past, the symposium will pay greater attention to pioneering new research and its profound potential for the century ahead. “We will consider the future of evolution as a process and a theory, and learn about current research that may transform our lives,” says Thomas Jenkins, executive director of the Provost’s Office of Academic and Strategic Partnerships, which is helping to organize the symposium. “There is extraordinary excitement in the life sciences that we may be on the verge of major breakthroughs equivalent to what physics underwent in the early twentieth century.”

Open to everyone, Evolution Revolution is expected to draw a diverse group of scientists, scholars in the humanities and the arts, educators, students, the media, and interested alumni and visitors. The event will spin off several related activities, such as an art exhibition commissioned by Emory’s Center for Creativity and Arts, and the creation of a secondary school model curriculum in evolution and the life sciences.

The symposium will explore evolution across disciplines. David Lynn, Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology, and Georgia Tech Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Nicholas Hud will present on their National Science Foundation–supported Chemical Bonding Center for research on the chemical origins of life. With Ichiro Matsumura, director of the Emory/Georgia Tech Center for Fundamental and Applied Molecular Evolution (FAME), they also will report new findings on directing evolutionary processes at the biochemical level. Potential applications include the engineering of new life forms, such as biofactories that could produce renewable energy and consume pollution.

Frans de Waal, Candler Professor of Psychology and director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, will share what we have learned from our closest genetic cousins—nonhuman primates—about traits we consider most distinctly human; Associate Research Professor Todd Preuss will speak on the differences in brain function of humans and our primate relatives. And Carol Worthman, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology; Leslie Real, Candler Professor of Biology; and Michelle Lampl, Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, will show how evolutionary dynamics between genes and environment are shattering old notions of nature vs. nurture and offering new insights on every aspect of health, from individual growth in the womb to epidemics that threaten entire populations.

“Standing 150 years after the revolution, we can ask, what is it to be human?” says Lynn, who is cochair of the Computational and Life Sciences strategic initiative. “We know life when we see it, but more than two thousand years of thought and debate have yet to define it. We will realize that definition and understand those limits within the next decade.

“It may be hard to imagine how technological advances will change our lives, our religions, and our place in the universe,” Lynn adds, “but we must now search for those answers.”

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Summer 2008

Of Note