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November 11, 2008

Evolution Revolution: "We haven't scratched the surface"

Posted: 01:29 PM ET

Galapagos tortoises and finches may be the first creatures that come to mind when we think of evolution. But as intriguing as Charles Darwin’s discoveries were, he didn’t write the only book on evolution. In fact, a lot of books on the subject haven’t even been written yet.

New understanding of evolutionary concepts could help humans understand contemporary problems, from renewable energy to health care. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Scientists have only discovered and named about ten percent of the plant and animal species on earth.

“There’s a huge amount to learn, we have not scratched the surface,” said Professor David Lynn, chair of the chemistry department at Emory University.

Lynn was among organizers of an Emory workshop, “Evolution Revolution: Science Changing Life.” It was aimed at high school teachers trying to rev up their students’ interest in how evolution is changing our world now.

The gathering is getting a head start on celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday next year. It’s also the 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of the Species,” Darwin’s pioneering research on one of the most important concepts in science.

Darwin described natural selection, the concept that individuals who are better adapted to their current environment have an advantage over those not so well adapted. "Survival of the fittest" is sometimes used to describe natural selection. But it's not always the biggest and toughest who win in the long run. Evolutionary fitness sometimes involves cooperation with other organisms and the ability to reproduce and pass those genes on. Researchers in scores of different fields are constantly updating this elegant idea.

“Technology moves very quickly, and even scientists have a hard time keeping up,” said Lynn, professor of biomolecular chemistry. That’s why the evolution workshop reached out to the community, and to people in the arts as well as science.

Understanding evolution today could help with contemporary challenges, from harnessing new biofuels to understanding communicable diseases to developing new strategies for health care.

(And before you ask, yes, the Emory scientists did discuss with teachers how to answer questions about creationism and “intelligent design.” But no, that wasn’t the focus of their meetings. )

Mostly, said Lynn, “Teachers were interested in the best way to teach this marvelous discovery, with questions like, ‘How do I explain this concept to my tenth graders in a digestible, artistic way?’”
Hundreds of people, from students to tweedy professors to plenty of locals packed Emory’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium to hear Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s address on “Darwin and the Future of Biology.”

Wilson is known as the “father of biodiversity” (as well as the guy who is so passionate about ants he wrote a 700+ page book about their behavior that earned him the Pulitzer prize for literature).

Wilson provided a glimpse into Darwin’s life, including his five- year journey on H.M.S. Beagle, from 1831-1836.

“He was a 21 year old, newly escaped from Cambridge University, on a five year journey with no TV, no radio, no newspapers,” said Wilson.

The world, Wilson said, was Charles Darwin’s to possess. And perhaps, during his six weeks in the Galapagos Islands, came his “aha” moment. The captain pointed out that the turtles, and the finches, were different from island to island. Which got Darwin thinking, “Maybe they’re changing?”

By 1838 Darwin had conceived of evolution by natural selection. In 1871 he published “The Descent of Man,” applying the theory directly to human beings. But members of Victorian society were limited in their embrace of scientific theory. Most folks were okay with plants and other animals evolving. But, said Wilson, “They were scandalized by apes as OUR ancestors.”

But the reason Darwin’s work holds up today, said Wilson, was because he was the epitome of a disciplined scientist.

“This man was irritatingly accurate. He was very careful.”

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • Birds • Politics • Religion • Scientists • teachers

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Tony   November 18th, 2008 1:14 pm ET

I suppose you missed the sarcasm in the second to last paragraph of my previous post....

If you go back, I never claimed evolution to be a fact. Actually, I made the argument that it would likely only ever exist as a theory.

The Big Bang is also conjecture. The current state of the universe is such that it appears to be expanding. The implication there is that the universe would have been smaller in the past. Also, we have yet to witness a solar system form, but can make educated guesses on their formation. The most likely being that at some point in the past the solar system was a cloud of spinning dust versus the more ordered large-mass planets we have now.

Anyway, my original problem was with you short-sighted view of what constitutes a "species." To bring up the dog-wolf comparison again: take the donkey and the horse (or any two of the "big cats"). These species' breeding populations have been separated longer than the dog and wolf breeding populations. They are now at the point where they can produce offspring, but their offspring is sterile. So the lines between species is generally put here. But since the dog and wolf breeding populations can still be re-joined, a hard line cannot be drawn. And the question will become, "when can this line be drawn?" Since the genetic makeup of each individual will be different, it is likely that some individuals will be able to interbreed when other individuals will not.

Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Just because scientists want to classify things doesn't mean these classifications are perfect.

Steve   November 18th, 2008 2:11 pm ET

Kevin, if you don't believe that species can change then what DO you believe? Do you subscribe to the theory that an invisible, supernatural being in the sky "poofed" everyting into existence as-is?

Steve   November 18th, 2008 2:15 pm ET

Species change. That's been proven over and over. Archeopterix is a good example, a birdlike dinosaur with feathers. They've found a lot of them different stages of evolution, it's just so obvious. No you won't see one species magically change into another in your lifetime or even several lifetimes, but a few hundred thousand to a few million years? Of course. The skinks that I mentioned before, you can actually see them in the process of changeing from a lizard to a snake-like species. Depending on which species of skink you look at, you can see different stages along the way. A snake is not a lizard and can't breed with a lizard but it evolved from a lizard. It's ancestors had legs at one time.

Kevin   November 18th, 2008 4:01 pm ET

I understand what both of you are saying, and not once did I say that I did not believe in evolution. But you are missing my point. Oh and thank you tony, I forgot who I was originally complaining about. (also I was hoping you would not bring up the horse and the donkey, that occured to me too.)
Its not the evolution does not exist, its that the theory does not hold up completely. There is too much that can still not be explained by evolution. Until there is evidence that evolution (not just adaption) can take place on the genetic level, people have no right to trash those who decide to believe something else.
No steve I do not believe a supernatural being poofed creatures into existence, but honestly, if I did, what right would you have to try and destroy my faith? See? this is what I'm talking about. Since you dont see any other way that organisms could have come into existance, you attack other peoples beliefs.
So what I was doing was pointing out the holes in your own narrow minded assault. There is too much we do not know. I point out that there is no genetic possibility for evolution to occur, and you throw physically similar (but not genetically similar) animals at my feet. When you look at skinks, yes they may be losing limbs, but do you know what it takes genetically for that kind of change? The suppression (not the removal) of maybe four genes, during the embryonic stage. That is well within normal genetic diversity of any animal. All that has been proven is species similarities, not species change.

Im not trying to be rude, and I dont have the alternative answer.. but the theory of evolution, from the information we have today, does not work. Might we get new information later on? Yes. but not now.

Kevin   November 18th, 2008 4:10 pm ET

Oh sorry tony, I didn't finish my thought on the horse and the donkey. The horse and the donkey are two different species. The requirements that make organisms belong to a certain species is that they are able to produce offspring which can reproduce as well.
I was thinking this one over and I will have to get back to you . The only good non-evolutionary argument I can come up with is very creationist... and i cant quite stomach that radical of a viewpoint,

Tony   November 18th, 2008 4:22 pm ET

You stated that the evolutionists and creationists are "ignorant of the other side's arguments." Simply put, creationists have NO scientific basis for their arguments. They build their case on false premeses and draw false conclusions. Evolutionists use science to build their case. Fortunately they also allow their claims to change as the science changes.

This is typically where the discussion is. The problem being that creationists want creationism taught in science classes as being rooted in science when their claims are actually rooted in a dogmatic religion with no proof or even a shadow of evidence. Evolution DOES have a shadow of evidence, even if not fully understood.

Evolutionists are NOT ignorant of the creationists' arguments. In fact, their arguments have been debunked. Creationists are, however, blind to the evolutionists' arguments.

One last note on irreducible complexity: no matter how complex the creation made by an intelligent designer, a simpler creation CAN be shown to exist in that design. So even if a "god" created a very complex design, he COULD create one less complex. Ergo, irreducible complexity doesn't exist.

Kevin   November 18th, 2008 4:58 pm ET

Now we fall into the inner complexities of creationism and evolution. Most creationists do not believe that everything poofed into existance as it is. Most believe that micro evolution occurs (intraspecies) but on a grand scale it does not. Even as an evolutionist, and knowing the how its possible for a single cell to become a complex organism, I find it hard to believe that even in the 3.9 billion years of evolution, that everything originated from a single cell organism.

Most creationists will meet about half way... though, the few that we got on this blog were extremely radical. I have to admit though, I dont really understand your argument concerning irreducible complexity. Can you expand on that one. Im not sure what your saying.. sorry.

Tony   November 18th, 2008 5:00 pm ET

Here we go, I knew I came across this before:

The Larus genus of birds. They create something called a "ring species" where various neighboring breeding populations can interbreed, but non-neighboring breeding populations CANNOT. Look into this and you will understand that the term "species" is ill-defined.

Tony   November 18th, 2008 5:06 pm ET

Irreducible complexity claims that certain structures in the cell are "irreducibly complex." First off, all examples by creationists have already been debunked.

My point was this. It is IMPOSSIBLE for a design to be irreducilby complex. No matter how intelligent the designer is, any aspect of a complex design can be reduced to a more simple one. So the notion that irreducible complexity exists is fundamentally unsound.

As an example, come up with the most complex design imaginable. Then simplify one aspect. All designs, all of statics and mechanics can be reduced into simple forms.

Tony   November 18th, 2008 5:11 pm ET

Another ring species is the Greenish Warbler, which it looks like is a more interesting study.

Kevin   November 18th, 2008 5:16 pm ET

Oh, yea irreducible complexity doesn't make since, every complex organ we have, has a simpler form in many other organisms.

I do admit though, the arguments for creationism are all made though the flaws of evolution, and I dont know of any arguments that have evidence of their own to support creationism. So I must concede

Steve   November 19th, 2008 10:31 am ET

We don't know all of the details of evolution. But it does happen on the genetic and molecular level. You haven't studied it enough Kevin. There is plenty of evidence and good explanations of the process. You've fallen into the trap that creationists fall into (not saying you're a creationist, just that you've fallen into a similar line of thinking). You haven't examined all of the evidence so you jump to conclusions that are not valid.

Evolution is just so utterly obvious. And species change on ANY level, macro, micro, genetic, chromosomal, molecular, or whatever is quite obvious as well. The evidence is there. Sorry I don't have links right at hand but a little searching will produce plenty of results

The scientific community overwhelmingly supports evolutionary theory. Only a tiny minority question it's most basic tenets. There are some very minor details of how evolution occurs that are still debated but they are trivial. The basic concept isn't questioned by scientists. A few crackpots who don't even have degrees in any scientific field try to proclaim all kinds of nonsense. They're just creationists and ID'ers although some don't like to admit it. Of course none of them have any credible alternative except for: "God did it".

So forgive me if I question your motives Kevin. You seemingly are questioning the validity of well over a century of research by thousands of scientists with high IQ's and advanced degrees in science. I'm sorry but maybe you can see how that looks to some people. I don't say people shouldn't question things, but evolution is a well established and well documented science. I don't think all those thousands and thousands of scientists just made it all up or that they're stupid.

Dan   November 22nd, 2008 10:40 am ET

Oh, yeah. I forgot.

The article for this blog with ~113 posts:

The celebration birthday party for DARWIN!

Bring out the party hats and b.cake with candles for our High Schoolers!

Ostracize and shame (as a stupid creationist, whether that is acurate or not) any who do not join in!

This reminds me of some very bad times (Germany AND U.S.) back in the 1930's and 40's.

Steve? your turn....

Tony   November 24th, 2008 2:41 pm ET

Actually, Dan, you chose to chime in and ridicule before any of the evolutionists.

How does this remind you of Germany and the US?

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