Unforgettable Galapagos, a Summit, and Why Evolution Matters

Unforgettable Galapagos, a Summit, and Why Evolution Matters

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Evolution Literacy © 2013

     There is no place on Earth like the Galapagos Islands and no better destination to discuss the reality of evolution. Charles Darwin visited this volcanic archipelago in 1835; the rest is 180 years of science’s history after a major paradigm shift from creationism –including all its modern forms: theistic evolution, creation science, young-earth creationism, Intelligent Design, BioLogos— to evolution.

     Evolution is true regardless of our awareness of it. The evolutionary processes preceded the emergence of our ape consciousness –which is only about 150,000 years old. Evolution itself is indifferent to our level of understanding of it, although we must admit that proper education leads to accepting evolution and admiring one of the most magnificent phenomena ever discovered, that of organisms’ transformations by means of natural selection as described by Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859).

     “Why Does Evolution Matter” was the theme of the III World Evolution Summit which just adjourned in San Cristobal Island, Galapagos, after a fascinating scientific gathering (June 1-5, 2013) organized by University San Francisco of Quito (USFQ) and its Galapagos Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS), Ecuador. Twelve international keynote speakers rationalized over evolution at the microscopic and organismic levels, the applications of evolutionary principles for the conservation of endangered species and their environments and, of course, for the relevance of evolution to human health. 

Above: Galapagos Center for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS) of University San Francisco of Quito (USFQ), San Cristobal Island, Ecuador. Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.
Above: Galapagos Science Center of University San Francisco of Quito (USFQ), San Cristobal Island, in partnership with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA. Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

     USFQ and GAIAS shinned big: they led us to ‘dream’ about evolution… Yes, one can dream about reality, feel the joy of understanding the facts about life’s origins, from the tinniest molecules like RNA (an evolutionary precursor of DNA) to intriguing viruses who rely on RNA or DNA to infest each other or replicate inside cells and thus fuel unfolding biological complexity… and to the emergence of bacteria and archaea (prokaryotes, cells without a nucleus) and of nucleated unicellular organisms (eukaryotes), like amoeba, which reside freely in ponds or in the guts of reptiles and other creatures… and to the magnificent Galapagos hawks, penguins inhabiting the cold waters of this equatorial archipelago –away from their ancestral home in the South Pole— and sea lions resting on the shores occasionally awakening to hikers’ traffic. Indeed, uniquely amazing, beautiful, unforgettable.

Above: Galapagos Hawk. Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.
Above: Galapagos Sea Lions. Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

     The keynote researchers shared their scholarly stories with two hundred attendees to the Summit. I have never seen so many high school Ecuadorian kids and college undergraduates twitting science, reporting in situ the outcomes of each talk, interviewing the speakers, making science part of their youthful experiences, unafraid of asking the simplest, yet most important question: Why is evolution the foundation of all? Well, I replied, evolution offers the only naturalistic explanation about biological phenomena; it relies on empiricism and rationalism, on facts and scientific observations of rigor. Evolution is a reality that can be tested and replicated and, if us, humans, understand and embrace it, it offers the foundation of all scientific thinking. Evolution is not only about natural history, it is about appreciating our place in the universe and securing our descendants’ future existence in healthy, evolving ecosystems.

     The Summit was also about launching the Lynn Margulis Center for Evolutionary Biology, affiliated with USFQ, in celebration of a genuine seeker of nature’s deep mysteries. Margulis (1938-2011) provoked fascinating controversies over the origin and evolution of cells, their nuclei and organelles, via symbiotic relationships among ancient life forms that apparently merged during the Earth’s early past. Lynn co-proposed the hypothesis of GAIA (no relation to GAIAS) which suggested that the complex associations of all organisms in the planet engender a homeostatic balance, a harmonic coexistence responsible for life’s perpetuity over eons. Lynn lived by this principle of fruitful association and influenced the academic careers of hundreds of naturalists; she was best friend to many, perhaps to most.

     Chemistry Nobel Laureate (2009) Ada Yonath, Israel, delivered a brilliant talk on the evolution of ribosomes, organelles responsible for the assemblage of amino acids and, therefore, of proteins, the essence of Earthy life. Her charisma on stage paralleled the profound evolutionary relevance of the research. An exuberant journey inside the intimate confinements of molecules brought us, the audience, to imagine infinitude at the micro scale, where atoms harmonize with each other, where chemical properties and magnetic interactions resemble the delicate balance invoked by GAIA at the macro scale. I felt inner ‘enlightment’ when reassured by Ada that evolution is within us, in every particle of matter that makes who we are.

     In my own talk, I addressed Evolution, Science, Pseudo Science and the Public’s Perception of Reality; in essence, my concerns about the current patterns of low acceptance of evolution worldwide and the conflict between the belief in supernatural causation and the reality of scientific rationalism/empiricism. I concluded that coexistence between faith and science is illusory due to their inherent incompatibility and that the controversy over acceptance of evolution will continue, indefinitely, via alternating mild and intense antagonism [download PDF of scientific article about the Incompatibility Hypothesis]. And while writing this piece, my research co-author and collaborator, Avelina Espinosa, alerted me about the upcoming debate The Origin and Evolution of Life: Is Galapagos a Detour? between Michael Denton, from the Center for Science and Culture (branch of the Discovery Institute –sponsor of the late doctrine of Intelligent Design) and Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine. The duel is part of the Las Vegas gathering freedomfesta “festival –July, 2013— where free minds meet to celebrate great books, great ideas, and great thinkers...” I hope Shermer delivers the greatness of Galapagos to honor the reality of evolution and puts to rest Denton’s efforts to smuggle the fictitious into science. — © 2013 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

Above: Galapagos Tortoise. Photo © 2013 Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

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