Long After Darwin: Evolution and Our Place in Nature

On November 4th, noted paleoanthropologist Alan Walker led a conversation about evolution at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center as the fourth event in Research Unplugged's Fall speaker series. The event, titled "Long After Darwin: Evolution and Our Place in Nature," focused on how our view of evolution has changed over the years.

With nearly a hundred people in attendance, Walker addressed his remarks to a diverse and enthusiastic mix of Penn State students and faculty, and community residents, including a homeschooling group and retirees.

Noting that 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday, Walker said that Darwin's continuing celebrity is remarkable, since the public does not often celebrate famous scientists. He also pointed out that a Scottish landowner and farmer named Patrick Matthew put forth a theory on natural selection in 1831, a quarter century before Darwin's treatise, On the Evolution of Species. Alfred Wallace also published a paper with similar ideas in the same year. Did Darwin steal the ideas of others? Not likely, said Walker, explaining that it's quite possible Darwin absorbed things he read and later incorporated them into his theory without realizing their source.

Said Walker, Darwin would probably be astounded by how modern genetics, embryology, molecular biology, and a larger fossil record have expanded our understanding of evolution. In some cases, scientific evidence has disproved elements of his theories. Darwin hypothesized that when humans began walking upright, it caused an increase in brain size. However, pointed out Walker, today science tells us that humans began to walk upright approximately 6 million years ago, while the human brain did not grow larger until approximately two million years ago.

Fielding over a dozen questions from audience members, Walker touched on such topics as public science education, the importance of statistics in calculating risk, and tool use in early humans. He took several questions on the polarizing nature of the study of human evolution in the United States. "I've even received death threats," from ardent opponents of evolution, said Walker. It's too bad that some people object vehemently to the concept of evolution when it's simply one branch of science, he added. "You don't hear people going on about particle physics."

For more about Alan Walker, read on...

Last Updated November 10, 2009