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A letter from a reader about A flood of evolutionary insights

April 20, 2006

Recent letters in PAW critiquing a landmark Romanes Lecture by President Tilgham (given Dec. 1, 2005) obscure the fact that her statements indeed reflect the majority opinion held by members of both fields she highlighted (cosmology and biology). In the field of biology, current friction in this country between scientists and theologians over biological phenomena does not reflect recent contradictory evidence to Darwin 's theory, as suggested by T.V. Gillman '49. Instead, it likely reflects the absolute flood of important evolutionary insights into fields having everyday importance to us, such as medicine and agriculture.

Evolutionary insights into medicine, for one, are impossible to ignore. These insights help us better understand and mitigate the effects of hereditary disease, traumatic injury, and of pathogens ranging from malaria to avian flu. As an example of the latter, the detectors used to defend our society against bio-weapons are implicitly designed upon specific, evolved traits of dangerous pathogens that are not shared by the millions of other bugs filling the air of airports and other public spaces. Should we ignore these traits because they were defined via evolutionary insights? While debate over the net benefits and costs of modern science to society is valid and welcome, it is another thing altogether to dismiss out of belief the primary intellectual tool of biology, Darwinian selection and shared origins.

President Tilghman is suitably proud of recent progress gained by her work and that of others in the fields of molecular genetics and genomics. As dozens and dozens of species have their genomes sequenced, mapped, and scrutinized, the evidence for both a shared history and the process of evolution by natural selection is seen on scales small and large. The publication of the chimpanzee genome sequence last year is one such example. The 99 percent identity between this species and our own for shared protein blocks that define our physical bodies not only indicates descent from a common ancestor, but shows that this descent has been a short trip so far. To many, the remarkable genetic similarity between humans, chimps, and other species is inspiration in itself. We can be thought of as the ultimate “can-do” species, able to co-opt many of the world's resources and to build beautiful, lasting societies, moral codes, arts, and other enquiries that are all the more remarkable given how little time we have had to reach that state.

Many scientists are fine with debates on the why and how of this fact, including whether these achievements reflect a divine spark, the teachings of great souls/fellow humans, or an inevitable quest by what turned out (this time) to be the smartest chimp on the block. More deeply troubling for scientists are calls to treat these mysteries on the same level as the utter and increasingly transparent fact that we represent but one branch on the beautiful, intertwined shrub of life.


Greenbelt , Md.

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