At bicentennial Darwin symposium, topics adapted to the times

“This conference will display the current status of evolutionary theory today,” Richards said.

By Tiffany Young

Academics and researchers are sharing their insights into the biological, historical, and philosophical implications of evolution this weekend in celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.

Thirty-five speakers and over 600 attendees will come to campus for Darwin Chicago 2009, a symposium celebrating evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. The conference hearkens back to the prestige and spirit of the University’s 1959 Darwin symposium, in honor of The Origin of Species’ centennial. The celebration was a grand affair, boasting the leading evolutionary biologists of the day, as well as invitations extended to Prince Philip of England, members of Darwin’s family, and John Scopes of Monkey Trial fame.

This year will see the convergence of the field’s academic community in celebration and acknowledgment of Darwin’s accomplishments. But the world of evolution studies has changed in 50 years, and new philosophical and historical considerations have been derived from the study of evolutionary biology. “Science can be undermining of standard ways in which humans think about themselves,” President Robert Zimmer said in a welcoming address in Rockefeller yesterday.

Marc Hauser, a professor at Harvard, spoke about the evolutionary implications of euthanasia and self-control during his lecture “Where Do Morals Come From? NOT Religion!”

HiPS chair and professor Robert Richards and ecology professor Jerry Coyne began recruiting speakers two years ago and are the hosts of the second largest known celebration of Darwin in the world, rivaled only by a Darwin festival at Cambridge University in England.

“This conference will display the current status of evolutionary theory today,” Richards said.

The challenge for Coyne was not only to find good scientists, but also a talented and diverse cast of speakers. Most have a professional interest in the study of evolution, but Coyne sought to foster discourse that appeals to a wider audience.

“I’ll learn a lot of biology, but there’s a theatrical element as well, to be entertained. Hopefully, not only will the science be presented clearly, but in an engaging and absorbing way,” Coyne said.

The most exciting prospect for Richards and Coyne, both of whom will deliver speeches today, is interacting with their peers. “These next few days will bring out the dissenters. Seen from the outside, it looks like all of us evolutionary biologists are toeing the same line, but from the inside that’s really not the case—we’re always engaged in argument and discussion,” Richards said.

For those who have studied him the most, the fascination with Darwin endures. “Darwin is one of those interesting historical figures that still plays a role in the science he invented,” Richards said. “Today, we still marvel at the accuracy and insightfulness with which he worked. He really was an intuitive genius.”