For most people, Evolution 2011 got off to a start tonight with the opening reception at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH).* Upon arrival, we met long registration lines which threatened to spill out the building into the 100°F (38°C) outdoors. Luckily, since we had registered early, we were directed past the lines directly into the main hall. It’s a familiar space where I’ve attended many receptions and seen many distinguished speakers. In his portion of the welcome address, College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Paul Bell, reminisced about the opening of the museum 11 years ago, when Stephen Jay Gould stood and spoke on the very spot where Bell was now speaking. Bell raised an issue that came up many times in conversation tonight – the importance of science education and the embattled status of evolution in the state of Oklahoma today.
It is, of course a very valid concern. Several anti-evolution bills lost or died in committee this session through the hard work of groups like the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. Sure, there’s a religious and political basis for much of the hostility to evolution in Oklahoma, but there’s also an element of ignorance as to what evolutionary biology is. What, someone asked, do evolutionary biologists do? This isn’t really an evolution-specific question. Few members of the general public could answer what any specific sub-field of knowledge actually studies. But creationists have done a good job of exploiting this particular hole in ‘common knowledge’. All evolution does is look at fossils and guess at how the fossils evolved, right? And it’s not really a science because you can’t do any experiments. A little ignorance, reinforced by a few creationist memes, and suddenly people “know” that evolution is not a science. So why are all these people here in Oklahoma – to engage in socialist plots against God-fearing Americans?
The real answer, of course, is fairly easy to find. But would the public be able to deduce anything from it? The first set of talks, spread across eight concurrent sessions include
- Introduction to models of character state-dependent diversification
- Variable environments, fluctuating selection and the stability of breeding partnerships in birds
- Rapid adaptation to anthropogenic environments via hybridization?: Invasive hybrid watermilfoil genotypes are more common than parental genotypes in herbicide-treated lakes
- Wedge effects: the shape of dispersal barriers and spatial population genetics
- The evolutionary tale of the largest C4 eudicot lineage: North American desert origin, highly reticulated evolution and extraordinary Hawaiian Island radiation in the Chamaesyce clade of Euphorbia (Euphorbiaceae)
- The genetic architecture of a difference in male genital morphology between Drosophila mauritiana and D. sechellia
- Evidence of a resident species of Plasmodium in the Galapagos avifauna
- Evolutionary genomics of biofilm adaptation and diversification
While I’m sure the average person might have a hard time figuring out what the practical applications of any of this might be, a few things are evidence – no dinosaurs, no fossils.
I find myself wondering – would that really help? Would the public be any more positively inclined to the study of evolution if you could show them that it’s not just a group of people trying to disprove the existence of God.Or would the conversation simply switch to “wasteful spending”?
The opening reception was pretty good. I met Carl Zimmer, one of the best science writers out there. Wine and beer were available at the reception, but only with a drink ticket. Since there were only spaces for tonight, attendees were limited to two alcoholic drinks. I’m sure there are a lot of good reasons, but when I jokingly said something about it to one of the people behind the bar, he replied “well it is a museum”. That led to a rather hilarious image of crowds of drunken evolutionary biologists rampaging through the museum and reclassifying things based on rival phylogenetic hypotheses.
*Try saying S-N-O-M-N-H. The first challenge is the difficulty in remembering the acronym. Usually it works the other way – you remember AMNH, and use that to remind yourself ‘American Museum of Natural History’. Here though, you need to remember “Sam Noble Museum of Natural History”, and cross-check that with the sequence of letters that’s coming out of your mouth. Already, mnemonic fail. But there’s also the sequence of letters. Sure, AMNH has the same sequence, but with only four letters you say each one separately. Here though, you end up with words; ess’no em’naitch. Funny-sounding words.