EvoDevo IGERT Symposium, Day 1

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[I'm at Indiana University, attending the 2009 IGERT symposium on evolution, development, and genomics.]

Tonight, we heard from Patrick Phillips and PZ Myers.

Patrick gave a broad overview of the past, present, and future of EvoDevo.  The central question of EvoDevo is: how do developmental systems evolve?  Conversely, we can ask: how does development shape the evolutionary process?  Although EvoDevo has witnessed big progress in the last decade, these central questions are unanswered.  Patrick consequently said, “[grad students], your future is secure!”

Patrick claims that EvoDevo lacks a central theory.  In other fields, there is a unit of study: chemistry examines atoms, biochemistry examines molecules, molecular biology examines DNA, population genetics examines DNA sequences, population biology examines individuals, and community ecology examines species.  For EvoDevo, Patrick asserts the unit of study should be (and is) the cell.

Finally, Patrick talked about experimental barriers for EvoDevo.  The most significant barrier is that the genotype-phenotype map is still not completely understood.  A large proportion of research is focused on simply finding genes, let alone understanding how they affect phenotype.  Patrick used Hopi Hoekstra’s work as an example of successful geneotype-phenotype mapping.  (Hopi’s lab revealed the genetic mechanisms controlling mouse coloration patterns).  Although Hopi’s work is seminal, but we still have a long ways to go towards understanding the genetic mechanisms that control complex phenotypes, such as behavior.

After Patrick’s introduction, PZ Myers gave a talk titled, “Repelled and Fascinated: Coping with the Public Response to Evolution.”  PZ Myers authors a famous (or infamous) blog about evolutionary biology, and has lately become a lightening rod for attacks from the creationist and intelligent design community.

PZ started by showing results from pew polls, suggesting that about 50% of the U.S. public does not believe in evolution.  Furthermore, about 16% of U.S. high school science teachers don’t believe in evolution [citation: Berkman et al, 2008, PLoS Bio].  Although these numbers are alarming, PZ thinks the public is only nominally creationist and confounded by the loud voices of creationists.

PZ next gave a “pocket guide to creationism” in which he explained the history of the creationist movement.  PZ traces creationism’s roots to Archbishop James Ussher, who calculated the age of the earth using dates from the bible.  Until the early 1900’s, most of U.S. public was willing to accept the bible as metaphor.  The *best* slide from PZ’s talk was a phylogeny expressing the history of creationism.  I include it here, but I’m sorry that it’s slightly blurry:

[Note to PZ: if you'd rather I don't share this photo, let me know]

PZ went on to discuss some significant events in the history of creationism: the Scopes trail in 1925, The Genesis Flood in 1961, Edwards vs. Aguillard in 1987, and Kitzmiller vs. Dover in 2005.  PZ claims that “scientific” creationism comes from Seventh Day Adventism, but is has been intellectually laundered to hide or sever it’s Seventh Day Adventist roots.  The most radical change in the creationist movement has been towards portraying evolutionary biologists as “evil.”

In response to the increasing fundamentalism of the creationist movement, PZ asserts that we (evolutionary biologists) should be more active with our outreach.  In particular, we should write blogs!

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