Sunday, June 26, 2011

Evolution 2011: The Altruism-Fest, part one

I recently returned from the Evolution 2011 meetings in Norman, Oklahoma. I previously described the excitement of learning about new research into evolutionary science. I now want to analyze the meeting as an example of altruism.

The papers and posters that were presented at the meeting were important, but the information in these presentations can be obtained from journals and online sources. There is no need for scientists and students to gather from all over the world just to get information. What is most important at meetings such as this is that evolutionary scientists get together to discuss one another’s work and benefit from one another’s criticism and encouragement.

In some meetings, scientists like to criticize one another’s papers; in particular, they like to criticize the papers presented by grad students and postdocs of their rivals. My sense is that this has become less common in recent years, and I saw none of it at the Evolution 2011 meetings. The entire atmosphere was encouragement and dialogue. I did not witness any verbal attacks, even when some of the presentations were clearly amateurish projects. Those projects will never get published, but we all considered it important to encourage the young investigators who did them. I think it is safe to say that all of the young graduate (and undergraduate) students who presented their work went away with encouragement for their dedication and intelligence. I made a special effort to praise instances of particularly good work by graduate students.

In other words, Evolution 2011 was not so much a gathering of competitors as it was an altruism-fest. Altruism is when animals do nice things for other animals in the same species, and benefit as a result of it. An altruism-fest is quite different from what critics of evolution might expect an evolution meeting to be. Creationist critics consider evolution to result from bloody fights and the law of the jungle, and they openly declare (as I showed in my March blog entries) that evolution leads to slavery and holocaust. If you can judge people by what they do more than by what they say, then it is clear that altruism is a prominent feature of modern evolutionary science. Evolutionary scientists freely share ideas, and develop bonds of friendship, even when these bonds offer no immediate promise of reciprocal benefit.

Of course, it was not all altruism. It was also a chance for graduate students to increase their visibility in the job market. All of the presentations used PowerPoint and most of them had clever illustrations that made their main points easily understandable. Many were humorous and many had imbedded video footage. The sessions functioned like leks, which are gatherings of male animals showing off while females walk around and check them out. Only in this case, the showing off was not reproductive but intellectual, and the presenters and observers were equally men and women. I do not get the sense that evolutionary biology has very much male bias anymore.

Not only is evolutionary science alive and well, but so is altruism. And where do you find it? As much at a meeting of evolutionary scientists as at a meeting of preachers, perhaps more so; and certainly more than at a meeting of businessmen and women or diplomats.

I did not stay for the banquet. Altruistically, I gave away my banquet ticket to a postdoc from Siberia. I expected nothing in return, but I believe I live in a better world in which I contribute to the general ocean of altruism. While everyone else was having their banquet in Norman, I was eating breaded frog legs at a Chinese buffet in Okmulgee. Frog legs at a Chinese buffet? Only in Oklahoma.

And, as described in the next blog entry, not all of the altruism at these meetings was human.

I am the author of Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, recently published by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing about your recent experience at the Evolution 2011. Hailing from a religious background, I was taught to believe that these meetings were full of dark and dangerous plotting to overthrow God. *insert sarcasm here*