Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Evolution at the Botany 2013 Meetings

I am writing this entry at the Botany 2013 meetings in New Orleans. These meetings are a celebration of all aspects of plant biology, and nearly all of these aspects tie in with evolution.

One symposium focused directly on teaching evolution. It was a symposium entitled, “Yes, Bobby, Evolution is Real,” organized by Marsh Sundberg of Emporia State University in Kansas and Joe Armstrong at Illinois State University. The Bobby referred to in the title is Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, who signed into law a creationist education bill several years ago. One of the presenters was Barbara Forrest, a professor in Louisiana who talked about the creationist law and its consequences in Louisiana. She is one of the leading experts on creationism in America. Another presenter was Zack Kopplin, who was a high school student in Louisiana when the law was enacted, and who is now an undergraduate college student who is leading a campaign to get the law overturned. He has spoken to, and been the recipient of some incredibly illogical comments from, state legislators, which he has posted on YouTube.

I was also a speaker in this session. For my presentation “Confessions of an Oklahoma Evolutionist: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I told of some of my experiences in Oklahoma, and how religion can suppress scientific thinking but how, in some cases, religion can promote a desire to pursue an understanding of the natural world. My conclusion was that, since religion will always be with us, we should try to guide religious feelings that we have, or that we encounter in others, into a constructive direction, of desiring to learn about and to protect the natural world, rather than to continually engage in conflict. Not surprisingly, I wore my Darwin outfit for this presentation.

But nearly all the sessions incorporated evolution in some way. The most common presentations at the botany conference each year are about plant systematics, in which researchers present their phylogenetic analyses, often of DNA, by which they can reconstruct the evolutionary histories of and relationships among plant genera and families. Nearly every plant ecology paper has an evolutionary context also, for example about the coevolution of plants and the fungi that live in their roots. One of the economic botany sessions will have a presentation by Norm Ellstrand about how crops can sometimes evolve into weeds. Even the educational papers had an evolutionary context. Even though none of the papers directly concerned teaching evolution or the creationist controversies, the Teaching Section is planning a field trip for next year’s meeting (which will be in Boise, Idaho) to one of the most famous fossil sites in the world—Fossil Bowl, where visitors can dig up preserved 15-million-year-old leaves that look almost as fresh as if they had been buried yesterday.

I realize that some creationists think that scientists at meetings are plotting to suppress the truth in order to inflict evil upon the world. But the exact opposite is true: we let the facts speak for themselves, and they reveal a natural world in which evolution ties all the different fields of research together, from DNA to the whole history and ecology of the Earth; and we truly form a camaraderie of women and men who strongly desire to make the world a better place for everyone. We find creationism frustrating not only because it is wrong but because it creates such unnecessary conflict. We even find it to be, in some cases, hypocritical: in Louisiana, one of the biggest supporters of creationism and “family values” is none other than the famous client of prostitutes, Sen. David Vitter.

Not that we always agree on how to make the world better. The Botanical Society of America has accepted funding from Monsanto Corporation, and has been hesitant to bring any criticism against Monsanto for the way it aggressively markets its genetically altered plants. Nobody said much about this, and BSA seems to have slipped into a comfortable symbiosis with Monsanto. But one woman from West Africa, who is currently a professor in the United States, has directly observed the negative effects that some of Monsanto’s practices have had on African farmers. She plans to try to get the issue discussed in future meetings, perhaps by organizing a discussion session at next year’s meeting. I doubt that the Botanical Society can reach any consensus, but it may be the ideal place to discuss these issues. As the leading society devoted to the study and use of plants, we are neither an arm of agribusiness nor an anti-GMO activist organization. We are free to have such discussions and I hope we do so.

The collegiality with which evolutionary scientists work together stands in striking contrast with the paralyzing bitterness in Congress.

1 comment:

  1. Good coverage of the meetings! Your own presentation was well received by all accounts!