February 03, 2017

Evolutionary ecologist to speak during Darwin Week

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An evolutionary ecologist will present a public lecture on the founder of the theory of evolution during the 12th annual Darwin Week observance later this month at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The annual SIU event, celebrating the life and work of “On the Origin of Species” author Charles Darwin, also will feature student research and a film screening.

Joel Brown, distinguished professor of biology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago, will give the keynote public lecture, titled, “Through the Darwinian Looking Glass: Past, Present and Future.” His talk is set for 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 17, in the library at the SIU School of Law.

Brown specializes in studying how natural selection acts as an optimization process to determine feeding behaviors and population characteristics. His work includes mathematical formulation and field tests of models and hypotheses based on foraging theory, consumer-resource models of species coexistence, and evolutionary game theory using the concept of evolutionary stable strategies.

Brown has researched exotic species such as snow leopards in Nepal, black rhinoceros in Kenya, Patagonian cavies in Argentina and springbok in South Africa. Yet, he said one of his favorite animals to observe can be found in his own backyard.

“I have an enduring fondness for squirrels, particularly those in our backyards and neighborhoods,” Brown said. 

Brown will weave three themes throughout his public lecture. Those will include a history of life as constraint-breaking adaptation followed by unintended consequences, followed by rapid evolutionary change. He will end with a discussion of cancer and therapy as the most personal experience of Darwinian evolution.

“Darwin's theory of natural selection is at once elegant in its simplicity and mind-boggling in its implications,” Brown said. “I hope to share my passion and enthusiasm for the underlying elegance and scope of Darwin's wonderful idea.”

Over vast spans of time, commonplace adaptations such as fish developing jaws, the evolution of photosynthesis and the onset of land plants have had enormous consequences, Brown said, changing life on the planet forever.

“Yet the fit of form and function, those adaptations that we see so clearly in nearly all species, does not mean that natural selection pursues what is best for the species,” he said. “I hope to share Darwin's deeper and subtler insights into the nature of adaptations for animals and plants.”

Even today, scientists observe ongoing change in terms of natural selection and evolution, Brown said.

“There is rapid evolution occurring in the animals and plants that occupy our cities and landscapes with us,” he said. “House sparrows may be a new species selected for by the grain bins of the pharaohs, the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.  We see pesticide resistance and antibiotic resistance emerging in our agricultural pests and infectious diseases. 

“And finally, that most personal and catastrophic of diseases, cancer, may be best viewed -- and possibly treated -- as a disease of natural selection, a disease propelled by Darwinian Dynamics,” Brown said.

Frank E. “Andy” Anderson, associate professor of zoology at SIU, said Darwin Week events kick off Wednesday, Feb. 15, with a screening of “David Attenborough’s First Life.” The film, which explores the earliest evidence of life on Earth, begins at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at Life Science III. A question-and-answer session will follow the screening.

Then on Thursday, Feb. 16, Brown also will give a professional talk aimed at fellow biologists, titled “Why Darwin Would Have Loved Game Theory.” The talk is set for 4 p.m. in the auditorium in Life Science III.

Organizers also are planning a student research symposium that begins at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 in the John C. Guyon Auditorium at Morris Library. The symposium will highlight research by life sciences graduate and undergraduate students, who will present their work, Anderson said. A reception will follow at 8:30 p.m. 

“We try to recruit students who are doing research that has an evolutionary component or angle,” Anderson said.