21 October 2009

Reading Week panel on Darwin

South Texas College Reading Week panelLast night, I had the fun of participating in a panel discussion at a local community college for their reading week. The organizer had picked evolution as the theme, because we are nearing the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

To my surprise and delight, the auditorium was packed.

This did cause us to start quite a bit late, as the organizer was fretting about the possibility of us violating a fire code, and set off to find more chairs. But spirits were so good! In his introduction, organizer Jerry Freeman mentioned some video on the net* where people were singing “Happy Birthday” on Darwin Day, and somebody started singing it, and the audience joined in for an impromptu birthday song to Charles Darwin.

I was the first speaker, and I talked a bit about all the fantastic transitional fossils that have been found in the last 150 years, how we’ve got a much better handle on genetics and heredity and DNA, and how we’ve developed methods to assemble and test phylogenetic trees, which have allowed us to make trees like this.

Because this was Reading Week, I was asked to read a little evolutionary writing, and I though reading something from Origin was too obvious. Instead, I picked a favourite paragraph from the last page of Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, about what evolutionary biology would be like if Darwin had not existed:

(W)e would have experienced the same biological revolution without the stunning clarity, illustrated by wonderfully apposite metaphors, of a complex central logic so brilliantly formulated, and so bristling with implications extending nearly forever outward, at least well past our current reckoning. In this alternate world, we would probably be honoring a different and far less compelling founder by occasional visits to a statue in a musty pantheon, and not by constant dialogue with a man whose ideas live, breath, challenge, taunt, and inspire us every day of our lives, more than a century after his bones came to rest on a cathedral floor at the foot of whatever persists in the material being of Isaac Newton.

I was followed by a talk on evolutionary thinking as related to human sex and aggression, and a philosophical one on how Darwin’s ideas had changed our sense of telos, or purpose.

The audience made it awesome on a stick. Awesome on a stick dipped in chocolate.

Thanks to all who attended.

* I think he might have been thinking of this one.

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