Emory Report
November 3, 2008
Volume 61, Number 10



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November 3
, 2008
‘Evolution Revolution’ marks Darwin’s influence


Charles Darwin was a 21-year-old student when he set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831, launching his curious, young mind — and the world of science — into whole new realms of discovery. For five years he explored great rainforests and isolated islands, collecting specimens and recording his observations for history.

“The world was Charles Darwin’s to possess. And that’s the way a young person should see the world, at least once in his or her life,” said E. O. Wilson, in the keynote for “Evolution Revolution: Science Changing Life.”

The Emory conference kicked off events anticipated for the 150th anniversary in 2009 of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” The groundbreaking treatise established evolution by natural selection as the basis for the diversification of nature.

“What Darwin proposed turned everything upside down,” said Wilson, an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus at Harvard University.

Darwin scandalized Victorian society with the idea of apes as human ancestors. And he posited his theory that man originated in Africa and then spread around the Earth long before fossil evidence could back him up.

“The man was irritatingly accurate. He seldom made a mistake,” Wilson said. “I guess he was lucky. Well, he was also very careful.”

Darwin’s theories are no less relevant today, Wilson stressed, noting that an understanding of evolutionary processes is key to preserving our species — and our planet.

Wilson, who has been called the heir to Darwin, has discovered hundreds of new species during his career, and is a passionate advocate for considering the many more species that remain undiscovered.

Science of seduction
Just as organisms have evolved myriad ways to seduce one another and pass on their genes, there are many ways to seduce the public into a greater understanding of science, said Olivia Judson, who opened the second day of the conference.

“I didn’t like biology very much in high school. It seemed like an exercise in brute-force memorization,” said Judson, an evolutionary biologist and columnist for the New York Times. It wasn’t until she entered college that she discovered how evolution — the major concept of biology — connected all the random details of life.

“I began to understand that you can see patterns in nature, and that you can make predictions,” Judson said. Evolution offers “an incredibly optimistic view of the world,” she added, since it gives you a method to make sense of it.

Evolution in action
The conference brought together panels of leading scientists working at the forefront of evolutionary concepts.

Frans de Waal, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology, and Todd Preuss, associate professor of neuroscience, discussed human similarities and differences with our closest genetic cousins, non-human primates.

Leslie Real, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Biology, described how evolutionary principles allow researchers to track the rise of new diseases such as HIV, SARS and Ebola.

Michelle Lampl, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, talked about how birth weight predicts adult health, and the critical bearing of fetal health on an individual’s future health.

David Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry, and Georgia Tech biochemistry professor Nicholas Hud discussed how understanding the evolution of molecules could lead to new drugs, energy sources and even the fabrication of tissues and organs.

Robin Tricoles contributed to this story.