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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.

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