Posted by: yashada | September 28, 2008

150 years since Darwin

On the 29th  and 30th of  August, Sophia’s Women’s College along with the Indian Academy of Sciences had organized an event celebrating 150 years since Darwin, marking a hundred and fifty years of the Origin of Species. This post is about the event and what I felt about it. (Since it was held about last month, the post is a bit over due, i know:)

The lecture-workshop comprised of talks by speakers from a varied biological fields. Dr. Shashidhara from IISER, Pune spoke briefly on evolution of insect wings and focused primarily on evolution in general and behavioral adaptations. The most memorable thing about his talk was the clips he showed of Drosophila flies learning to overcome obstacles.

There was a lecture by Dr. Satyajit Rath, from NII New Delhi. That was one superb lecture. Immunology is not really my strong point. I studied it briefly in my third year (TY) and haven’t touched it since. It didn’t really grab my attention in TY and I had not put much thought to it. He started off by asking some basic fundamental questions that I, even though I had a brief encounter with the subject in my TY had not bothered to ask myself or my teacher. The lecture gave some amazing insights into the evolution of immunocytes in general. He skillfully brought home certain points, he navigated through a sea of information, picked up just the right bits and strung them all together and presented it to us like a conjurer doing his favourite magic trick. At some point I half expected him to end his talk with a  “Woala!” .  For example, he asked, once an immunocyte recognizes a foreign body, does it do something about it, and if yes, how does it go about doing something about it? One of the answers is phagocytosis, an immunocyte ‘eats up’, in lay man’s terms the foreign body that has entered into you. Now he made us think about the phenomenon of phagocytosis itself. During development of an organism, that is, when the animal is inside an egg or a womb, there is a morula stage which is followed by the blastula stage: basic developmental biology. How does the blastula form from the morula? Answer – When some cells in the morula die, it eventually leads to the formation of a blastula. And what happens to the cells that die? They are eaten up by the neighbouring cells, in other words, they are phagocytosed. So you see, phagocytosis has a non-immune significance!! Woala!! I knew about blastula formation, I also knew about phogocytosis as an immunological function, but somehow, I had never put the 2 and 2 together, even though the evidence was right under my nose. Sitting at the back of room I imagined tiny light bulbs lighting above everyones’ heads.

I would have liked him to continue his lecture and elaborate further on the note with which he ended it. His statement that adaptive immune system is closely related to the success of the vertebrate body design made me raise my eyebrows and I think my jaws dropped too. It left me craving for more!

Dr Rath’s lecture gave me the same feeling I get when I look at  a start studded sky. A feeling of being tiny, even minuscule  compared to all the stuff that’s around me.

On day 2 there was a memorable lecture by Dr. Anindya Sinha from NIAS, Bangalore, titled ‘Monkey in the Mirror’. The kind of work they are doing is simply awesome! And I feel like doing something like that. His lecture focussed on the social behavior of Bonnet Macaques of the Bandipur National Park. I have a lot of interest in ethology but no practical experience, (unless you count going to national parks for trails or treks).  So I was hanging on to every word he uttered and tried to get as much out of the talk as I could.

One interesting thing I learnt was something called Lamarckian Inheritence System, where essentially inheritance of acquired characters is possible without genetics coming into the picture. Instantly I thought of Richard Dawkins and his Extended Phenotype and the concept of memes. I guessed there isn’t much of a difference between the two, and Dr. Sinha sort of confirmed that when I asked it later.

Throughout the lecture sessions we were continuously shifting gears as talks progressed from the micro level to the macro level. The talks were given by scientists working with development of nervous systems to wildlife biologists who work in the field. And throughout all these gear shifts, evolution did not budge from centre-stage. And that’s what I liked most about the event. How else could a lecture workshop that began with Dobzhansky’s famous words “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” be conducted anyway?

Also, there was a panel discussion on the plight of evolution in school and college text books. But there was something essentially wrong in the whole affair, according to me. We were a room full of people who agreed on the point that evolution is not given the respect it deserves in our textbooks, that it is side-lined by other biological fields that are actually meaningless without evolution in the first place. The fact that we had all signed up for this workshop I think, was proof enough that we had the same viewpoints on this issue. This only lead to a lot of ‘going around in circles’ and not reaching any specific conclusions or solutions. For there were no ‘solutions’ as such to be reached I suppose, we had already reached a consensus on this issue before the discussion actually began! If there was a representative from the Ministry of Education or someone who has actually written school text books, (though I do remember someone mentioning Dr. Rath used to write for CBSC texts) I guess the discussion would have had some direction. But anyway, it was simply great to know that I was in the company of people who have the same opinions as mine.

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Responses

  1. That’s an interestingly (more than)impressionistic take on 150 Yrs Since Darwin at the Sophias. Our idea is to bring evolution centre-stage which I am afraid, has never been the case in India, unlike in the west. That people, say, ultra darwinists/adatationists like Dawkins and variuos darwinists of different shades fight bitterly over the fine nuances of evolutionary explanations and implications, day in and day out, is evidence enough that we, in India, have to go a long way to be to open our score in Biology! That the problem with religion is only with the semetic ones also will not wash. The simple interpretation why we do not have any debates, even the less acrimonius ones in our country, is that we do not sit down to understand what evolution is and how it challenges our pet world views!

    That takes me to the last point you had mentioned regarding the 150 Yrs Since Darwin- Sophia program: the panel discussion on How to Make Evolutionary Thinking A Habit. Yes, it was a damp squib! But your assessment that this is because we who gathered there, all agree on issues of evolutionary world-view is far removed from reality. If you sit down to discuss with any one in the audience or with any resource pesons, you will realize that no two persons will see eye to eye on issues on evolution, ie. if they are serious about this marvellous paradigm-shift that had taken place 150 years ago. Sad to say that we, in India, largely, are not even in the state of mind of Darwin’s granfather’s era. We are terribly statusquoists ie. feudal in our daily life that it will be nothing short of a revolution even to accept that cahnge and variations as the truth as against hereditorily handed down ‘types’.
    Thank you for the engaged participation. It will be nice if we rope in more people to start a discussion/debate group. The idea of our yahoogroup is to that end.

    Arunan
    (Coordinator, 150 Yrs. Since Darwin Series)

    P.S. We had a two day session(26, 27 September)on “Evolution Since Darwin” organized by the TIFR based group called BASE at the Nehru Science Center, for School teachers.It was more interactive, perhaps, because of smaller number of participants. And more areas of disagreements emerged!


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