FROM THE PRESIDENT
Evolution in Ecuador
For five weeks in 1835, the Englishmen of the Beagle
explored the Galápagos archipelago. One hundred seventy years
later, and 200 meters from the site of Charles Darwin's landing on
San Cristóbal Island, an "Evolution Summit" was
held June 9-12. An unprecedented group of scientists from 19
countries (including Australia, China, Russia and France) assembled
at GAIAS to review the theory launched by Darwin.
GAIAS, the Galápagos Academic Institute for the Arts and
Sciences, is a recent thrust of the University of San Francisco at
Quito (USFQ). The meteoric rise of this new university, complete
with classes in gourmet cooking, undergirds the best scientific
meeting I have been privileged to attend. Founded by Ecuadorian
physicists (Santiago Gangotena, Bruce Hoeneisen and Carlos
Montúfar—all three received Ph.D.'s at U.S.
institutions), USFQ now accommodates 2,800 students on the main
campus at Cumbayá. A resolutely private institution in a
beautiful valley half an hour from Quito's center, it also boasts
the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the Amazon basin, where field
research is conducted in collaboration with Thomas Kunz of Boston
University. Two new scientific programs are slated to begin next
year: archaeological research at Rio Bamba and a collaboration on
evolutionary themes with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The irrepressible, diligent and generous founders of USFQ invented
this meeting. Philosophically oriented educators on a continent
nearly devoid of our peculiarly North American institutions display
unbounded enthusiasm toward the liberal arts college. They planned
"the World Summit on Evolution [as] the most important
scientific meeting about evolution since Darwin's visit to
Galápagos … hosting ... the world's leading scientists
to discuss the major advances of the theory." Production of a
short documentary commissioned by the organizers on the reality of
evolution, especially for science teachers and students, is under way.
The gathering was distinguished by the breadth of its research
concerns and the depth of the wisdom of the practitioners. Rosemary
and Peter Grant of Princeton shared their 31 seasons of experience
in the study of Darwin's finches on the volcanic cone, the tiny
island of Daphne. One species has become vampiric, now prone to
scratch the neck of a blue-footed booby victim until it bleeds.
Perched on the back of the large booby, the small finch then sucks
its blood. Peter Gogarten of the University of Connecticut, using
examples of the sequence of amino acid residues in ATPase enzymes,
illustrated lateral gene transfer: Organisms that share the same
environment are more similar to each other than those that don't. He
questioned the conventional use of "family tree" topology
to represent life's reticulate evolution. Biodiversity was
gorgeously documented by great paleontologists (e.g., J.
William Schopf, Sun Weiguo, Richard Fortey, Mikhail Fedonkin, Niles
Eldredge) and by graduate students: Excellent fossils are preserved
in the worldwide record over the last 3 billion years.
This is not a meeting report. The lesson is clear: USFQ's
planet-wide new science of evolution, as exemplified by the work on
display in this giant-tortoise, iguana-, sea lion- and
people-studded world, would have delighted Charles Darwin.
Evolution, a science that has nothing to do with "cost-benefit
analysis," extends far beyond restrictive neodarwinian
evolutionary biology and population genetics. Evolution is
not a subfield of biology. Rather, many arbitrarily
isolated "disciplines"—geology, micro-biology,
paleoclimatology, atmospheric chemistry and geochemistry—are
intrinsic to knowledge of life's history.
Our action item is to acknowledge the Ecuadorian leadership in research
science and education by immediate help to establish a USFQ chapter of
Sigma Xi in Quito.