Thursday, November 26, 2009

Charles Darwin Has Been Sighted In Pune

Its been 150 years - November 24th 1859 - that Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published.

The British Library on Fergusson College Road, Pune, has a poster exhibit on the theory of evolution. There are 14 poster boards encompassing the gamut of thinking on evolution beginning with Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos to his subsequent theories of common descent and natural selection to current understanding on topics like speciation, group selection, the evolution of attributes like musical ability  - which provides food for thought on whether every feature can be explained as an adaptation or whether some traits originate as spandrels or byproducts of the evolution of some other general feature - to recent thinking on the genome and the importance of mechanisms like epigenetics and gene regulation.

Source: British Council

Earlier on November 12th, biologist Madhav Gadgil gave quite a good talk on the relative roles of cooperation and competition in evolution. He spent quite a bit of time clarifying some common misconceptions about evolution, most notably the (mis)concept of an ideal type. That there is an ideal type or a narrow collection of attributes defining species and populations can be traced to essentialist thinking prevalent since...well since recorded philosophy of thought. One consequence of this thinking is that any individual of that group who exhibits variation outside that "ideal" or narrow range is considered an aberration of nature, a degenerate. Madhav Gadgil very eloquently dispelled that notion and stressed that variation is the norm of life, the fuel which drives evolution.

The sizable crowd which had gathered for the talk asked some thought provoking and challenging questions. There were more technical questions -  does the theory of the selfish gene underlie co-operation?...I don't quite remember Dr. Gadgil's answer but here is my take on this.  In his book The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins argues that you can think of natural selection as acting on genes and not the individual. All genes are selfish since their "goal" is to replicate themselves at the expense of their alternative version. Can this explain co-operation?  Yes a very general sense if one is thinking of evolution in terms of gene selectionism then co-operation like any other attribute spreads through the spread of selfish genes.

There were also discussions on social Darwinism and how a clearer understanding of evolution - by removing misconceptions like racial purity and group superiority - can help us become a better society...never is local and ever changing and variation is everything....

A few canards were repeated during the talk and discussion, most notably how Hitler was directly influenced by Darwin. He wasn't.  He had not read Darwin and had no understanding of evolution and neither did his coterie. Maybe there were a few people throwing around phrases like survival of the fittest but really a heady mix of a radical Christian sense of racial superiority and extreme nationalism more convincingly explain his conversion to arch fascist. Check out this article and this one for a humorous but informative take on the subject.

If you are in town go stop by the British Library. The exhibition runs until November 29th.

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