Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It is a tremendous honor to join you tonight, and it is a tremendous honor to host this very special annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Molecular Biology and Evolution. On behalf of The University of Iowa, I welcome you to our institution, to our community, to our state, and, for many of you, to our country.

Hosting the SMBE meeting in any year would be a great privilege.This year, we at the UI are especially honored to do so during the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.

It seems entirely fitting to me that the theme of this conference is “Darwin to the Next Generation.” The aim of science is a progressively deeper understanding of our universe, and our legacy as scientists is to pass on to future generations the tools and ideas that will advance the discovery of knowledge. The concept of evolution is a revolutionary and fundamental scientific tool that has been passed down now for a number of generations, and it is imperative that we continue to pass “Darwin to the Next Generation.”

This past winter, The University of Iowa was privileged to welcome renowned Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson for our annual Distinguished Lecture. Through good fortune, his lecture was the day before Darwin’s birthday, and Professor Wilson also delivered a special “Darwin Day” address on that special occasion—February 12. E. O. Wilson is known for his work in bridging the gaps we sometimes find between science and the culture at large. The flashpoint for many of those gaps is Darwin and evolution. Wilson’s project is often one of reconciliation—we can see that in the title of his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Yet he is also entirely unapologetic about the scientific integrity and authority—as well as influence—of Charles Darwin. Wilson even uses superlatives when talking about Darwin: In his Norton edition of Darwin’s four greatest books, he calls On the Origin of Species “the greatest scientific book of all time.” When he was here at Iowa in February, he touted Darwin as the most important person of all time. Even within scientific circles, these statements would certainly be open to debate. My point is that, even with one of our most important ambassadors to the public debate on evolution, the scientific integrity of evolution remains inviolable.

It is not news to anyone in this room that Darwinian evolution—and many other scientific concepts and activities—have been challenged, even attacked, in the public realm. In a 2005 Pew Research Center survey, 42 percent of Americans believed that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Sixty-four percent said that they would accept creationism being taught in the public schools alongside evolution.

Here in Iowa, just this past year, legislation was introduced in the state House of Representatives called the “Evolution Academic Freedom Act.” The Act, intended to allow creationism and intelligent design in science classrooms, stated, “Current law does not expressly protect the right of instructors to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.” The bill died in committee and never came to a vote. But it did reveal the persistent misunderstanding among much of the American public over the nature of “scientific information.”

We all know that the core of academic freedom is debate—the free exploration of ideas. But we also know that academic debate—which forms the foundation of our classrooms as well as our labs, meetings, and journals—must begin from ideas that meet the intellectual integrity of our disciplines. In the biological sciences, evolution has met the intellectual integrity of our discipline for generations. We can disagree within our discipline as to how evolution occurred and continues to occur. But in our science classrooms, we should not have to argue whether evolution exists or not. Even the great humanistic/scientific reconciler E. O. Wilson knows—and advocates—that. And even during the days of the previous administration, George W. Bush’s science advisor John Marburger III told the New York Times, in clarifying some remarks of the then-President, “Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology,” and “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”

One can debate whether concepts like intelligent design have their place in certain classrooms or not. But when we teach science, they have no place.

At The University of Iowa, scientific work—and the scientists who conduct it—are central to our vision and our identity. Our academic tradition here includes the pioneering work of legendary physics and astronomy professor James Van Allen and historic breakthroughs in human medicine. Today, we continue that tradition within our scientific disciplines, including biology.

One great example is the work of UI biologist Debashish Bhattacharya, faculty member in the Roy J. Carver Center for Comparative Genomics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology. He and his colleagues are working on a study of organisms from two isolated groups of the genus Micromonas, which thrive in ecosystems ranging from tropical to polar. These organisms look the same, but they have evolved to contain different gene pools. Through studying these organisms, according to Professor Bhattacharya, we can come closer to answering the question, “How do photosynthetic cells in the world's oceans recognize and adapt to their ever-changing environment, and how will their latent abilities allow them to respond to climate change that will result in increased stratification and lower nutrient levels in the upper productive zone in oceans?”

Now that’s a question that has both great scientific and social importance. It is a question that addresses one of the most urgent issues of our time: climate change. And it does so through the assumption of evolution as a basic truth.

At Iowa, we have built the past successes and present innovations of our scientific enterprise on respecting the principles of scientific thought, supporting the integrity of the scientific method, and protecting the academic freedom of scientists themselves. I am confident that is the case at all of your institutions. Our jobs as academics are to discover knowledge, to push the horizons of understanding ever forward, and to pass the tools to do so onto the next generations. Our job as an institution of higher learning is to make sure that you can do yourjobs.

As an administrator and biologist myself, then, I share the mission of this annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Molecular Biology and Evolution: I, too, “recognize the human creativity and technological innovations that are revolutionizing our understanding of the evolution of genes, genomes, and organisms.”

Through our work as biologists, we seek to unfold a world of greater knowledge and scientific understanding for people today and for generations into the future. The discovery of knowledge in and of itself is evolutionary. The discovery of biological knowledge is premised on evolution. In other words, evolution is inescapable. We must do all we can to preserve, enhance, and pass on that reality into the future.

In an 1852 letter, Charles Darwin wrote, “How paramount the future is to the present when one is surrounded by children.” I highly doubt there are any children here in the audience today. But in your work, I hope you do feel how paramount the future really is. We don’t necessarily need to surround ourselves by children. But we must always surround ourselves by at least the imperative sense of their future in order to protect the knowledge we have gained and the possibilities we wish to leave for those who come after us.

I know you are doing that as molecular and evolutionary biologists, and I know that is your intent for this meeting. “Darwin to the Next Generation” indeed.

Once again, welcome to Iowa, and best wishes for what I know will be an exciting and enlightening meeting.