As I’ve already mentioned, I was off in Philadelphia this past weekend, participating in a symposium entitled “Understanding Darwin: The legacy of evolution”. I was a bit amazed to be there, since this was primarily a history and philosophy event with several big names in those fields, and I’m an itty-bitty biologist with more of a popular following than an academic one, but I was also glad to be involved and learned quite a bit, hob-nobbing with the big shots. Here’s a short summary of the content of the talks.
John Beatty talked about Natural Selection of & Versus Chance Variation. He began with a discussion of Gould’s classic metaphor of ‘rewinding life’s tape’ and asking what would happen on replay. Recently, everyone thinks of Lenski’s experiments with bacteria in this context, and Beatty discussed those, but he also pointed out that Darwin’s studies of orchid morphology are also beautiful examples of developmental contingencies, of diversity by chance. That stuff is going to end up in one of my Seed columns soon, I think.
Rasmus Winther gave an overview of systems thinking in a talk titled Systemic Darwinism. He made the case that there are three different kinds of evolutionary thinking: evolutionary genetics, where we’re concerned with gene frequencies over time, cladistics, which is all about changes in character state distributions over time, and self-organization, or change in the organization of parts over time (that last, I thought, was a rather peculiar definition). Darwin, while lacking the specifics of modern fields like genetics, seems to have been a good systems thinker, who tried to address different modes of thought in his own work.
This guy PZ Myers rambled on about Haeckel, embryos, and the phylotypic stage. He tried to make the self-evident case that there are some simple facts, observations of embryo similarities, and that there are interpretations of those facts, which ranged from Haeckel’s recapitulation to von Baer’s differentiation from the general to the specific to more modern models of global gene regulation, and that we have to be careful not to let models overwhelm the data (Winther phrased it succinctly: watch out for the reification of abstractions). I contrasted the errors and excess of zeal of someone like Haeckel with modern creationist mangling, which is malicious and unscholarly, and tries to deny the observations.
Jane Maienschein discussed Embryos in Evolution and History. I had already run roughshod over a chunk of her talk—we both talked a fair bit about Ernst Haeckel—but she had much more breadth to her story, since she also brought in Entwicklungsmechanik and 20th century embryologists and developmental biologists. Rather than railing against the affront of creationism in contemporary science, she focused on stem cell research, and how it is changing earlier preconceptions about the nature of differentiation.
And now for something completely different — Janet Browne talked about Charles Darwin and the Natural Economy of Households. She has this wealth of information about Darwin, one of the best documented figures in modern history, and she was intrigued by one peculiar observation. Francis Galton had sent out a questionnaire to many prominent people, surveying attitudes and backgrounds, and one question asked the respondents to list their special talents. Darwin’s answer was surprising. He said he had none, except for business! He regarded himself as an extremely successful businessman, first of all. It actually was true: all of Darwin’s account books are extant, and he was a guy who wrote down everything, from the purchase of a toothbrush to major railroad investments, and it’s all there.
At his wedding, the Darwin family financial seed was £10,000 granted to Charles and £10,000 to Emma. From this grew a fortune that, in the year before his death, was about £282,000. That’s a lot of money: Darwin’s expedition on the Beagle cost his father about £5,000, which was enough to buy a very nice house in those days, so Darwin was the equivalent of a modern multi-millionaire.
Browne argued that this talent was put to good use in his science. Like his accounts, he was a meticulous observer, noting everything. Further, accountancy taught him important principles of organization and abstraction. He kept day-to-day books of all expenses, which he then transcribed to books organized by category of expenses, which were further abstracted into yearly account books that summarized the totals. This is the same kind of methodology he used in tracking observations in natural history. She also noted that his diligence also reflected a common Malthusian sentiment of the times, that virtue was found in the proper management of money and resources.
I wondered whether this gradual and seemingly inevitable accumulation of wealth might also have colored Darwin’s perception of how evolution might work, but Browne was careful to say that she was only focusing on the application of Darwin’s business skills to his scientific methodology, and wasn’t saying anything about it’s application to his theory.
It was a great and stimulating meeting, and special appreciation has to go to Michael Weisberg of the University of Pennsylvania, who organized it all. At least 4 of the 5 talks were excellent. And really, people, tune in to your local universities — these kinds of events are going on all the time, and they’re often open to the public — you can get a marvelous education for free just by watching for the public seminars that university departments put on. We’re the opposite of elitist, we welcome everyone who wants to learn.