January 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 1)

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.
Theodosius Dobzhansky

This year marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species. Universities, academic centers, and other scientific organizations all over the globe have a plethora of events planned to honor Darwin’s contributions and legacy.

Think about it. If it weren’t for Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, there would probably be no biotechnology industry. On these two men’s shoulders was built the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, forever changing science and the world view of much of society.

Every life-science-related discipline is deeply grounded in evolutionary theory. This is particularly the case with genetics and molecular biology, two cornerstones of biotech research. In addition, evolutionary theory redefined Man’s Place in Nature, in the words of Thomas Henry Huxley, and clearly demonstrated that Homo sapiens was securely anchored in the web of life. Humans were no longer to be viewed as completely separate from other species as evolution teaches that all life descended from a common ancestor. Thus, all living beings, in one way or another, are related.

GEN will take part in the Darwin commemoration as well. Each month we will interview a leading researcher, philosopher, or theorist in evolutionary science, including many experts on Darwin. Their thoughts and insights will appear in the print version of GEN and online as podcasts. We will provide dozens of online links to articles, videos, podcasts, commentaries, and various events and conferences around the world celebrating Charles Darwin. We cordially invite you to our year-long Darwin party!

We begin our Darwin celebration with an interview with Sean Carroll, Ph.D. He is professor of molecular biology and genetics and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Carroll’s research has centered on the genes that control animal body patterns and play major roles in the evolution of animal diversity. This field of study has been dubbed “Evo Devo,” which stands for evolutionary developmental biology.

Dr. Carroll is the author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom; The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution; and the forthcoming Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species.

The entire interview with Dr. Carroll can he heard as a podcast by going to www.genengnews.com/genCasts.aspx?id=244.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

GEN: How would you describe Darwin’s main contribution to science:

Sean Carroll: He was the leader of one of the biggest revolutions in thought in the last 500 years. Much as Copernicus overturned our ideas on where the earth sat in the universe Darwin changed our perception of our relationship to every other living thing on the planet. It was a dramatic transformation in what people thought in the 18th century to how they viewed things post publication of the Origin of Species.

The idea that evolution might have happened and that things had changed over time was circulating in certain places and in some peoples’ minds prior to Darwin. What he came up with was increadibly well-organized and reasoned evidence for evolution.

Part of the admiration for the Origin of Species was that he also analyzed the counter arguments at the same time. He did a masterful job of weighing the evidence while asking, “do species change?” That was the first question up for grabs and he came to a resounding conclusion—yes!

And if they changed, the next question was how, and that was the idea of natural selection. His boldness was to extrapolate back in time to understend that all of life as he described it, descended from one or a few ancestors. He saw this process as connecting all living things in a long chain dating back to the earliest and simplest forms of life.

This tapestry that he wove depended on his grasp of geology. He had a sense of deep time that many other people did not. He also had a great sense of the diversity of life from his own first hand experiences on a voyage around the world.

All that came together to this persuasive picture that life does change over time and that this competive struggle in life is the driving force that has led to the most complex forms of life on earth.

GEN: You wrote that the title of the book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, captures the essence of Evo Devo, of which you are a leading researcher and proponent. Would you discuss Evo Devo in more detail?

Sean Carroll: The idea is pretty simple. Our form and the forms of other animals are built during the process of development. The diversity of form is a product of changes in that process. So as creatures are forming, doing things differently at certain times or places in the developing body will result in different appearances of animals.

If you want to understand the physical diversity of the animal kingdom you have to look at their development. You have to understand what is different about the development of a monkey and a mouse or a human and chimpanzee. Where do things differ? Where are there new programs? Where are other steps not taken?

Evo Devo is trying to track, at a very precise level, the changes taking place during development that account for differences in form and then track those changes to the different changes in the DNA that encode those instructions that vary between species. 

More from GEN’s Year of Darwin

GEN’s Interview with Dr. Francisco J. Ayala

GEN’s Podcast – Dr. Ashok Bhagwat: Human Antibodies Make Darwinian Leaps to Attack Microbial Infections

Related Links

Sean Carroll’s Website

Sean Carroll Answers NY Times’ Readers’ Questions on the Science of Evolution

Sean Carroll Video Presentation at Case Western Reserve University

New York Times Video Interview with Sean Carroll (video)

Sean Carroll reviews Darwinian critic Michael  Behe’s book, The Edge of Evolution – The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, in Science

Interview with Sean Carroll in PLoS Genetics

Interview in Discover with Sean Carroll on his book, The Making of the Fittest 

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Understanding Evolution: Evo-Devo, University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley

Reviews of Sean Carroll’s work and book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful:

New Yorker

U.S. News and World Report

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