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Evolution given a closer look at second Darwin Day celebration

Dodos, eugenics, fossils, the human brain and even literary criticism were topics of discussion during Ithaca's second annual Darwin Day celebration held at the Paleontological Research Institution's (PRI) Museum of the Earth and Cornell, Feb. 8-12.

The Darwin Day celebration last year focused largely on the cultural debate around the theory of evolution, creationism and "intelligent design," with a review of research in evolutionary biology. This year's celebration of Charles Darwin's Feb. 12 birthday -- his 198th -- delved deeper into evolution with explorations of how the theory remains cutting-edge science and maintains its influence on various scientific disciplines.

Evolution and the study of natural selection have themselves evolved since the publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" almost 150 years ago. The first panel, "Why Evolution Is Science," held at the Museum of the Earth, Feb. 8, covered general aspects of the theory of evolution. William Provine, the Charles A. Alexander Professor of Biological Sciences at Cornell, discussed the emergence of neo-Darwinism in the 1930s, which he described as "Darwinism with a gloss of genetics."

Today's evolutionary biologists "construct very detailed case histories of model systems and try to generalize from them on how things work," explained Richard Harrison, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Allen MacNeill, senior lecturer in biology at Cornell, countered creationist arguments that "Darwinism" -- which he called a code word for creationists' viewpoint of what evolutionary theory is -- isn't falsifiable.

Laurel Southard, who teaches undergraduate biology at Cornell, noted that some students believe evolutionary theory does not apply to humans. "We're in trouble," she said, because nationwide, students are turned off science, and they arrive at college unprepared to grapple with real problems.

Sheila Dean, visiting scholar in science and technology studies and an editor on the Darwin Correspondence Project, and Myra Shulman, senior research associate in ecology and evolutionary biology, also participated in the panel, which was moderated by Robert Ross, PRI's director of education.

The second panel, held at PRI Feb. 9, investigated the field of evolutionary psychology, which panelist MacNeill defined as "the empirical analysis of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective."

Wendy Jones, senior lecturer in English at Cornell, discussed cognitive literary criticism, which applies the principles of evolutionary psychology to literature. An example, she said, is Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," which can be viewed as a chronicle of mating rituals. Language is an adaptive mechanism and a filtering device that evolved to allow humans to express abstract thought, she said.

H. Kern Reeve, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, described research into how genes influence animal behavior. Provine introduced a dose of skepticism about applying evolutionary psychology to human behavior since careful breeding experiments that could control for hereditary factors ethically cannot be done on humans. "Hereditary factors are always tied to cultural factors in humans," he said.

At another event on Feb.9, held in the Statler Auditorium, a panel debated eugenics, controlled breeding to improve a species. Provine noted that eugenics is definitely not an idea relegated to the past. "Whether it is designer babies or genetic counseling ... it will be extraordinarily difficult to avoid positive eugenics," he said.

The panel found it impossible to ignore the dual nature of eugenics as a scientific discipline and as a social philosophy. On the one hand, it aims to create a more "intelligent" human society; on the other, it has often been discredited for using science to justify coercive state-sponsored discrimination and human rights violations, the panelists noted.

The discussion also touched upon eugenics as an academic discipline at Cornell. A recent graduate, Brian Kaviar, whose thesis concentrated on the history of eugenics research at Cornell, noted that Professor Herbert Webber of the College of Agriculture formed the first eugenics club in 1912.

Other Darwin Day events included a lecture by David Sloan Wilson, professor of evolutionary biology at Binghamton University and author of "Darwin's Cathedral," and a reading from the play "Inherit the Wind." Family Day, Feb. 10, at the Museum of the Earth offered activities for children and a lecture by paleoartist John Gurche on "What the Fossil Record Can Tell Us About Human Nature." The documentary film "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus" was screened twice at Cornell Cinema, and a birthday party at the Museum of the Earth Feb. 10 featured a performance of "Darwin Live" by Richard Milner.

A workshop for teachers Feb. 12, co-sponsored by Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES at the museum, advised K-12 teachers how to approach the topic of evolution in the classroom.

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