February 07, 2012

Noted author, professor to keynote Darwin Day

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An author, professor and editor of a top biology journal will be the keynote speaker at the seventh annual Darwin Day event at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Massimo Pigliucci’s lecture, “Nonsense on Stilts: Why it’s Important to Separate Science from Bunk,” is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, in the Student Center Auditorium. The Darwin Day Foundation and SIU Carbondale’s University Honors Program present the event, which is free and open to the public.

Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy and editor of Philosophy & Theory in Biology. 

The event coincides with Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday.

Pigliucci’s lecture will argue that science is the most effective means humans have devised to unlock the workings of the universe. He will describe attacks on science for religious, social and political purposes and the importance of separating science from “bunk.”

Richard Thomas, associate professor of zoology and chair of the event’s organizing committee, said recognizing Darwin’s legacy is a nod to a scientific pillar in biology.

“His theory of evolution by means of natural selection is at the core of all of biology,” Thomas said.  “The importance of the work he started continues to grow and find new applications in areas as diverse as ecology, genomics and human health.”

Thomas said the committee chose Pigliucci to speak because of his background as an editor who has written or edited a dozen books almost evenly split between technical issues and the defense of science and rationality. Another factor in his selection is his work as an experimental biologist in the area of interactions between genes and the environment in an effort to understand how organisms respond to different environments           

“This is something we call 'phenotypic plasticity.’ There are many practical implications of the work in this field, including trying to understand how organisms are going to cope, or not, with our rapidly changing climate.  It also raises some profound questions in basic biology, which is part of the reason (Pigliucci) has moved more into to philosophy in recent years.  

“In addition to his more technical work, he is an outspoken advocate for applying reason in human affairs -- something we'd like to think shouldn't be necessary, but one does not have to look far to see that it is very necessary,” Thomas said.

The event is part of the University Honors Program.  Co-sponsors include the College of Science, Department of Geology, Department of Microbiology, Department of Philosophy, Department of Plant Biology, Department of Zoology and Sigma Xi.