Sean Carroll got the Evolution 2010 meeting going with the Stephen J. Gould Award lecture on Friday night. His talk was called “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species”, and basically outlined sections of his new book of the same title. A large and enthusiastic crowd was on hand to hear Dr. Carroll speak.
Stephen J. Gould was perhaps most famous for his popularizing of evolutionary biology, and the Gould Award is a prize aimed at recognizing those who follow in his footsteps. Carroll is an accomplished evolutionary biologist who was at the forefront of the evo-devo revolution recognizing the importance of regulatory elements in modifying animal body plans, but of late he has also turned his attention to the public communication of science. In particular, he is focused on telling the great stories of evolutionary biology. I have not read Remarkable Creatures, but it seems to follow some of the same story lines as his earlier work Into the Jungle, which I reviewed for the Quarterly Review of Biology.
One of Carroll’s missions seems to be to bring a few other prominent scientists onto the stage and into the spotlight next to Charles Darwin. In this lecture, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates took their place alongside Darwin. Although it seems that the “remarkable creatures” referenced by Carroll are meant to be the species encountered by Darwin, Bates, and Wallace in the course of their prodigious travel, the creatures whose behavior most fascinates Carroll seem to be the scientists themselves. In particular Carroll does a great job of bringing his audience into the psychological headspace of each man, all of whom had their trials and tribulations on the way to giving birth to our field. In particular he brings into dramatic terms the historical accidents which so slowed the progress of Bates and Wallace’s work. While these two men endured the indignities of the jungle and the high seas, Darwin sat at home comfortably dithering on his already well-developed theory. In his commentary on the relationship between Wallace and Darwin, Carroll makes it clear that it was the convergent brilliance of both men that founded the field of evolutionary biology. In the end it was the breadth and comprehensive nature of The Origin of Species that got Darwin all the popular historical credit.
Carroll is deserving of the Gould Award. He brings the history of evolutionary biology to life in a manner that still manages to teach about the fundamental science of evolution. He has a humble but authoritative tone that’s enjoyable to both read and listen to. If there was one nit to pick with his talk, it was a few humorous comments about the atheistic nature of the evolutionary biologists, which came off as both elitist and defensive. I am always amazed by how referential evolutionary biologists can be to the extreme religious factions which question evolution’s validity. It is pathetic that we give such credence to creationists, and sad that we miss the diversity of religious views by always appealing to the extreme stereotype. Although a lot of us are atheists or agnostics, there are a fair number of religious evolutionary biologists, and sometimes these jokes about religion come off like many of the heteronormative comments made by people who assume that no one in their large audience could possibly be gay.
I was able to attend this meeting thanks in part to funding from the Pratt Institute Faculty Development Fund. Conferences, Evolution, Society for the Study of Evolution