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Evolutionary biology seen as key to understanding life, say panelists feting Darwin's memory

How evolutionary biology shapes our understanding of other areas of science, including genomics, was just one of the themes of a public panel discussion Feb. 10 associated with Ithaca's Darwin Day to celebrate Charles Darwin's birthday on Feb. 12.

Other themes were finding "common ground" between fundamental religion and science, and the dangers of studying human behavior in light of evolutionary theory

The panel discussion, "Evolutionary Biology: Present and Future," held at Uris Hall, was, like other Darwin Day activities, a collaboration of Cornell University, the Paleontological Research Institution and Ithaca College. The Darwin Day celebration ran from Feb. 9 to 13.

Moderator and Cornell Vice Provost for Life Sciences Stephen Kresovich began the discussion by commenting on the relevance of evolutionary biology to understanding a vast range of topics, including gauging the carrying capacity of the planet, why there is sex and whether humans might ever live 150 productive years.

Given the subject's breadth, panelists commented on how biology itself is becoming unified as evolutionary biology informs molecular and cell biology and genomics, and how those subjects are part of evolutionary studies.

"Already we are starting to see the incorporation of evolutionary biology in all other biological science," said H. Kern Reeve, Cornell professor of neurobiology and behavior. And Richard Harrison, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said evolutionary biology has become increasingly important for understanding everything from "communities to cells."

And vice versa, said Steven Tanksley, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics: "It is really hard to discuss the future of evolutionary biology unless you look at biology in general," he said. To his mind, the "greatest event in biology post Darwin has been large-scale genome sequencing."

Humans, he said, were humbled to learn that "we basically have not only the same number of genes" as rats, mice and chimpanzees, but that we "basically have the same genes," with almost 99 percent similarity among these mammals. One of the big questions, he observed, is how there can be so much difference in outcomes while sharing so many genes.

Researchers need to integrate disciplines to make sense of all the new information from genomics, said Mariana Wolfner, Cornell professor of molecular biology and genetics. She added that four-footed animals, fish and sharks all share myelinated (sheathed) neurons, jaws and antibodies, while "lampreys have none of these traits." A comparative genomics approach, in which a lamprey's genome might be compared with a shark's, may help researchers zero in on genes that are important, she said.

The discussion also touched upon ethical issues. Speaking about dichotomies between science and religion, Tanksley said that all people share common ground in "seeking the truth" and "sharing the planet." Amy McCune, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, pointed to a recent news report of 86 prominent evangelicals who urged the White House to curb greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change.

Panelists also weighed in on the dangers of studying human behavior in light of evolutionary theory, which might be used to compare populations, groups or races and use data to claim one is superior to another.

"Evolutionary biologists that study human behavior focus much more on commonalities," said Reeve.

Harrison noted that there should be a distinction between seeking truth by discovering data and the decisions that are made based on those data. Wolfner added that within any category, actual genetic differences between peoples are minor, usually by a percent or less. She also commented that people who employ new services that trace genetic heritage are often surprised by the results, which reveals that assumptions are questionable in the end.

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