Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Evolution 2014: Overall Impressions

Posted 02 Jul 2014 / 0
Welcome to Greater Raleigh

Great organization of a great conference

I had a great Evolution 2014 conference, and that has a lot to do with how it was organized. Raleigh was a nice location for the conference: it has an intimate conference center, with enough food opportunities near that conference center. Although the transportation options getting to Raleigh are somewhat limited, once I arrived it was easy to get around the city (I even took an excursion on a public bus out to the ‘burbs, which went fine). Perhaps more important from a transportation perspective, the centrality of the meeting seemed to allow a lot of people to attend.

A lot of other aspects of the meeting were well-organized and therefore quite valued. I stayed in the cheap housing option — graduate student dorms at North Carolina State University — and was really happy with this arrangement. We were placed in new brand new dorms and getting to and from the conference center was easy and convenient thanks to a series of shuttle buses that ran on a surprisingly continuous schedule. Important and basic things that often turn out to be not so simple to obtain — most critically continual internet access — were available hassle-free at both NCSU and the conference center.

Back when I was a graduate student I was in charge of the Evolution 2006 schedule, so I know how hard it is to please everyone with session arrangements. The most critical thing is to avoid running concurrent sessions with a lot of overlapping interest. Based on my own navigation of the sessions, this balancing act of session arrangement was done well this year. I rarely found myself torn between two concurrent sessions, both of which I dearly wanted to attend (obviously there is way more that is of potential interest at the conference than any one person could attend, so I am mostly just happy not to miss out on talks I deemed of critical importance).

Although I like the sessions, my favorite parts of the meeting are always the interstitial events. There were three very lively poster sessions at this year’s meeting, fueled by great snacks and a moderate-but-generous drink ticket allocation to each meeting participant. In general the supply of food and refreshments was excellent: I never found myself going hungry or without coffee/tea, and on several days I skipped a meal out because the food was so abundant at breaks. The Evolution Film Festival was a real treat and a great opportunity to meet other folks outside of the usual meeting context.

To accept evolution, or just to understand it?

It is always interesting for me to hear how my colleagues deal with creationist dissent in their classrooms. For me, this is a total non-issue, but I realize this puts me in the minority among my fellow evolutionary biology faculty. A place like Pratt Institute is so culturally secular that I sometimes have to challenge my students’ over-simplistic representations of the creationist perspective; I have never had a student question evolutionary science, although I am sure that is in part due to some students not verbalizing their objections. Clearly the rest of the higher education world is not Pratt, and across the country evolution is under attack in classrooms. A lot of people at Evolution 2014 wanted to talk about this attack and what to do about it. I heard several talks aimed specifically at the question of how to reform and refute creationist thinking, and many more alluded to the “problem” of so few Americans accepting evolutionary science.

Perhaps my privileged position within a bubble of creationist-free cultural space has distorted my perspective, but I wonder whether we obsess a bit too much about this issue. In particular, I am not convinced that our goal ought to be to make a majority of Americans accept evolutionary theory. Instead, I would be plenty happy to help contribute to an increase in the number of Americans who understand evolutionary theory.

If you measure how many Americans accept evolution as a depiction of how the natural world came to be, you get some depressing numbers. As practicing biologists who are filled with wonder at how explanatory evolutionary theory can be, it is hard for us not to think that everyone ought to embrace this elegant explanation. But we need to be mindful of the consequences of so much focus on accepting evolution. For many people, to accept evolutionary theory is to supplant their cultural values, specifically those native to their religious culture. We can say “religion and evolution need not be at odds”, but this is only true for some versions of religiosity. For many Americans, the creationist stories of biotic genesis are fundamental to their religious practice, a practice we seek to dislodge by constantly seeking “acceptance”. We need to recognize that for many people, their religious practice has a much more beneficial impact on the quality of their lives than accepting evolution would yield. We act as if we are just asking people to “think rationally” in accepting evolution, but we are in fact asking many people to give up a significant source of security and social connection.

Perhaps a shift in focus is in order. Instead of focusing on “acceptance” — which is tantamount to “cultural conversion” — perhaps we should just focus on understanding. I would be perfectly happy to learn that more people can explain evolutionary reasoning; I do not care as much about how many people accept the truth of evolutionary reasoning. By focusing on fostering understanding, we present a pluralistic option: rather than relying on creating converts, we simply seek to expand the world view of the general population. Some will incorporate evolutionary understanding in a way that changes their religious beliefs and convictions, but some may also hold their understanding of evolution alongside belief in religious lore. Who am I to say that is a failure of our education system?

I recognize that it must be tough to teach evolutionary biology at a university in parts of Mississippi, or Alabama, or Kansas. It must feel pretty crappy to have your students reserve particular (and often irrational) skepticism for what you have spent your life studying. But let us keep our eyes on the prize: our goal is not conversion but exposure. Asking students about “how an evolutionary biologist would explain biotic change through time” rather than asking students what they deem as truth is one way to measure understanding without confounding it with acceptance. Regardless of whether your students accept what you present, we should acknowledge the sheer victory associated with having these students hear evolutionary ideas. In worrying about how effectively we convert students to acceptance of evolution, I think we lose sight of what ought to be the larger goal: to assure that more students actually get exposure to evolutionary theory.

Evolutionary biology is beginning to have more profound influences on our society. These influences emerge from the utility of evolutionary biology in medicine, agriculture, and environmental science. Whether we want to admit it or not, we enjoy some of the privileges of the elite: despite being considered anathema by the majority of the American population, we still enjoy significant and growing influence. Check out the new MCAT or the Next Generation Science Standards if you do not believe me! We are most definitely winning the culture wars, so the trick is to “win them right” by promoting a full understanding of how evolutionary theory accounts for the diversity of present life. If most Americans understand evolution, eventually greater acceptance will follow. But I question whether acceptance matters, especially if acceptance requires the abandonment of religious values and practices that serve a good proportion of our population quite well.

The state of evolution education and outreach

One of the most inspiring takeaways from Evolution 2014 for me was that the state of evolution education and outreach is very healthy these days. There is such a diversity of tools, media, outlets, and approaches being used to promote understanding of evolution! At the meeting I became familiar with the vibrancy and passion of so many evolution educators working in such a variety of contexts. If you believe that the science of evolutionary biology needs strong teaching and advocacy, there is so much reason for optimism these days.

A conference through tenured eyes

Academic conferences are interesting social phenomena. Every conference that I have ever been to is actually a collection of parallel conferences, and Evolution 2014 is no different. Although it is a smaller conference where you can find yourself mingling at the poster session with pretty much every kind of evolutionary biologist, the Evolution meeting definitely has its diversity of sub-disciplines. This starts with the fact that that meeting is the joint effort of three scientific societies with three somewhat-different scientific foci, but also extends to divisions that are demarcated within each of these societies. I gravitate towards two “tribes” at this meeting: the education people and the cooperation people. Because these are minor tribes when compared with major tribes such as the phylogeneticists or the population geneticists, it is easy to feel a bit “inferior” or “under-appreciated” at the meeting.

And then there is the larger social context of the meeting, which has a lot to do with employment. What makes these meetings awesome is that the majority of the presenters and attendees are graduate students. I enjoyed this aspect of the meetings when I was still a graduate student, and I enjoy this aspect of the meetings now, but boy has my perspective on meetings changed — especially now that I have earned tenure. I feel a lot of sympathy for the many dedicated graduate students who come to this meeting: they are striving to make a career in a field where good jobs are hard to come by. The meeting is a great place to make contacts and impress potential employers, but it is also a gut-wrenching arena within which one inevitably compares one’s own scientific work with the work of others. To put it simply, there is a competitive undertone to every scientific meeting.

What is interesting to me is how differently I approach this social component of the meeting now that I am tenured. I would be lying if I said that I no longer think about whether I am achieving enough scientifically, especially after hearing about so much great work. But whereas in the past my wonder at the genius of others might provoke competitive anxiety, I now attend the meetings with a very different perspective. I am looking for where I fit in, where I can contribute, because I no longer need to impress anyone or to pursue any particular scientific market that is out there. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to adopt this stance towards the social environment of the meeting.

Next year?

The Evolution 2015 meeting is going to be held in Brazil. Thanks to my parental responsibilities, my ability to get to these meetings is pretty limited these days… so Brazil is out of the question. I wonder whether others will be similarly constrained. I do not feel that going every year is either an entitlement or a necessity, so I am not offended by this choice of faraway venues. In fact, if the meeting is more accessible to scientists in South America, I think that is a nice “turn of privilege”. I just hope that the meeting can get the same kind of robust participation we saw this year, even if by a different set of people.

Evolution 2014!

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