By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation
Last year, Jory Weintraub, assistant director for education and outreach at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, sent teams of scientists to America’s heartland to mark Charles Darwin’s birthday. The idea was to bring evolutionary science to schools that weren’t likely to have the same access to resources as their counterparts in large cities.
The outcome of their school visits in Virginia, Iowa, Nebraska and Montana was a positive one. This year, they are preparing to do it again. In just a couple of weeks, to honor Darwin’s 203rd birthday Feb. 12, the biologists will be hitting the road in a repeat performance, this time to Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia and Louisiana. The scientists will speak to students, teachers and the general public about their research, and talk about careers in evolutionary biology; most important, they will try to convey why evolutionary science is relevant to everyone.
“Our goal is not to talk about any kind of perceived concepts about evolution, religion or creationism, but to talk about the exciting things that are going on in evolutionary science,” says Allen Rodrigo, the director of the center. “We want to encourage students to think about being scientists, and being scientists interested in evolution.”
The Darwin Day Roadshow is only one of many activities of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, which began in 2004 and is jointly operated by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Currently, NSF supports the center with about $5 million annually.
The goal of the center is to address emerging or novel questions in evolutionary science and its applications by supporting research and education across disciplinary, institutional, geographic and demographic boundaries. “Evolution tells us stories about where we come from,” Rodrigo says.
Schools interested in hosting the visiting scientists for Darwin Day apply to the center, which takes great care in its advance preparations to avoid controversy. At the same time, the visiting teams strive to expose students to evolution information that is well-grounded in science.
“I did get a couple of questions based on common misperceptions, for example, ‘why did Darwin say we came from monkeys?’ (What he said, in fact, was that humans and monkeys shared a common ancestor),” Weintraub says. “In those instances, I simply responded to clarify the misconception, and the students seemed very responsive and accepting of the answer.”
The teachers were equally supportive, demonstrating “amazing initiative in planning activities for their students, colleagues and communities,” Weintraub says. “I was really blown away by the effort they put forth. One teacher took it upon himself to contact a local science center/museum, and set up an entire event, at which our scientists spoke, to which he invited science teachers from several surrounding counties, including one or two in a neighboring state.”
Several dozen science teachers from eastern Iowa and western Illinois listened to an evening of evolution, he says, adding: “The high school I visited in Virginia ordered a large birthday cake that read ‘Happy Birthday Darwin,’ and at the end of our presentations, we shared Darwin birthday cake with all of the students and teachers.”
Among its other education/outreach activities, center scientists travel to developing nations to teach evolution. “We see youngsters who have such potential, but don’t have the resources,” Rodrigo says. “That’s the saddest part, trying your best to energize and enthuse them about getting into science, but knowing that because of their circumstances, it will be difficult.”
Although center researchers are studying issues related to the natural sciences, they also are examining evolution and evolutionary processes as they apply to other areas, such as the social sciences, economics, and literature, to name a few.
“The idea that social systems can change over time is not anathema to the idea that things evolve,” Rodrigo says.
“There are certain fundamental principles that apply to living organisms that also apply to other systems. If we think about evolution as Darwin conceived it, we think about inheritance, populations of individuals, and survival in the next generation--competition and reproductive success--you can start to think about how these processes apply to other things.
“Take language, for example,” he adds. “We know language changes and exists in a number of different forms. We know its changes are inherited over time, and may potentially compete because some phrases and words will gain favor over others, so it’s natural to think about the evolution of language in the same way as we do biological organisms.”
In fact, evolutionary thinking is becoming so commonplace that it is starting to penetrate disciplines like literary criticism, Rodrigo says. For example, Tyler Curtain, associate professor of English and comparative literature at UNC Chapel Hill, studies evolutionary theories of language, linguistics, philosophy of language with center support.
“We welcome this,” Rodrigo says. “We have a place for people interested in understanding the processes of evolution. Also, biologists can see that evolution transcends the natural sciences.”
In the natural sciences, center researchers are involved in a number of research projects. One recently released study of 50 million year-old cricket and katydid fossils, for example, traced the evolution of the insect ear, showing how insects have evolved ears at least 17 times in different lineages. Another study found how drought-resistant grasses evolved using a unique way of harvesting energy from the sun that works more efficiently in hot, arid conditions. Another linked super-sized teeth in prehistoric predators to beefier arm bones. Still another examined the growing evidence that noise created by humans is bad for birds, and that some species are harder hit than others, in particular, bigger birds with low-frequency songs.
“There also have been studies that have come out of our working groups that have looked at aging, compared to other primates that show we aren’t that unique in the way we age in relation to other primates,” Rodrigo says. “It tells us where we are unique, and where we are similar--and establishes our place on the evolutionary tree of life.”
Some of the work has practical applications today, such as in conservation efforts. The study about birds and noise, for example, could have important environmental implications. “If you are, for example, putting in a sawmill, this kind of work can help you figure out what might happen to the biological community around it,” Rodrigo says.
Beyond new ways of analyzing data, center scientists also are seeking “new opportunities to elucidate new and interesting things,” Rodrigo adds. “Looking at data across the evolutionary tree of life allows us to make broad statements about processes taking place in the natural world, and potentially, in other worlds as well.”