Monday, December 12, 2005

Huxley on Evolution: A famous moment in history + Bleier on Culture Wars

Huxley on Evolution

From Garrett Hardin, Population Evolution Birth Control

A famous moment in the history of the debate about Darwin's theory of evolution occurred at Oxford in 1860. At a meeting of the British Association, Bishop Wilberforce turned to Thomas Henry Huxley and asked him whether he claimed descent from an ape on his father’s or his mother’s side.

Huxley recounted the event in a letter he wrote to a Dr. Dyster within a few months of the event, on September 9, 1860.

When I got up I spoke pretty much to the effect—that I had listened with great attention to the Lord Bishop’s speech but had been unable to discover either a new fact or a new argument in it—except indeed the question raised as to my personal predilection in the matter of ancestry—That it would not have occurred to me to bring forward such a topic as that for discussion myself, but that I was quite ready to meet the Right Rev. prelate even on that ground. If then, said, I, that question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessing great means and influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

Whereupon there was unextinguishable laughter among the people, and they listened to the rest of my argument with the greatest attention… I happened to be in very good condition and said my say with perfect good temper and politeness—I assure you of this because all sorts of reports [have] been spread about e.g. that I had said I would rather be an ape than a bishop, etc.


On to the culture wars today. One point that I don’t see emphasized sufficiently is the impact that the Reagan Bush years (1981- 1993) had on polarizing this country and empowering the extreme right wing. Until then the right wing had at best a minor impact on abortion and church state issues.

Reagan/Bush managed to reopen settled issues, and have created the war zone we exist in today. In that connection, I was startled to see in the fascinating article from the Science Times below, that as early as 1987, a Canadian academic, Michael R. Rose, caused a riot in his Irvine classroom by introducing the basic principles of evolution. He says that pandemonium broke out.

Indeed I have difficulty imagining such a scene even today in a college classroom in California, unless he's talking about a clone of Pepperdine U. What’s going on? I wasn’t aware that the know nothings had succeeded so roundly.

-- Ronald


December 6, 2005
A Conversation With Michael R. Rose
Live Longer With Evolution? Evidence May Lie in Fruit Flies

In the 1970's, Michael R. Rose made scientific history with experiments manipulating the life spans of fruit flies.

Through selective breeding, Dr. Rose was able to create a long-lived line of creatures he called Methuselah flies. He then put his research into reverse and developed flies with much shortened life spans.

All this was accomplished within 12 generations by accelerating the evolutionary processes in a laboratory setting.

These days Dr. Rose, who is 50, breeds fruit flies at the University of California, Irvine, where he is a professor of evolutionary biology. From there, he also directs the Intercampus Research Program on Experimental Evolution for the University of California system.

Dr. Rose, who was born in Canada, was in New York recently to promote his book "The Long Tomorrow: How Advances in Evolutionary Biology Can Help Us Postpone Aging."

Q. You are an evolutionary biologist by profession. As a researcher trained mostly in Canada and England, are you astonished by the American battles over Darwinism?

A. Not since coming to California. In 1987, the first day I ever gave a class at Irvine, there was a riot in my classroom. I was introducing the basic principles of evolution, and pandemonium broke out - yelling, students pounding the tables. That was the day I learned about evolution in America.

Recently, I was watching President Bush speak on the potential bird flu epidemic. Pandemic bird flu is exactly a question of evolutionary biology because grave danger will come only if the virus evolves into a form that can spread from human to human.

Of course, Bush couldn't use the word evolution. There were a few key points where I was waiting for him to use the word. Nope! The virus would "develop" the ability to move from human to human. He couldn't use the word evolve because that's a dangerous word.

People in the United States probably don't realize they risk their lives by rejecting evolutionary biology. In the case of avian flu, this could kill people very directly. With aging, the essential tools for solving it are located in evolutionary biology.

Q. Why do scientists need to embrace evolution to do longevity research?

A. Because the common assumption is that young bodies work and then they fall apart during aging. Young bodies only work because natural selection makes them healthy enough to survive and breed.

As adults get older, natural selection stops caring about them, so we lose its benefits and our health. If you don't understand this, aging research is an unending riddle that goes around in circles.

Q. You are known in the genetics world for manipulating the life span of fruit flies. Can you describe your very famous experiment?

A. My experiment was to let my flies reproduce only at late ages. This forced natural selection to pay attention to the survival and reproductive vigor of the flies through their middle age.

The flies evolved longer life spans and greater reproduction over the next dozen generations. This showed that natural section was really the ultimate controller of aging, not some piece of biochemistry.

Q. Why was it important to manipulate the life spans of fruit flies?

A. Because it showed that aging isn't some general breakdown process, like the way cars rust. Aging is an optional feature of life. And it can be slowed or postponed.

This implies that controlling human aging does not require the violation of some absolute scientific law. Postponing human aging is not like building a perpetual motion machine or faster-than-light space travel. It is a scientifically reasonable thing to try.

This doesn't mean it will be easy, or even that it is the best thing to do with our medical resources. But it's not a completely crazy idea.

Q. How did you stop fruit flies from breeding?

A. By discarding their eggs. In my experiment, only those females who reached 50 days of age were allowed to breed.

Obviously, only those females who lived that long, and who could still breed, contributed offspring to the next generation. After about 12 generations, you had longer-lived flies.

Sometimes, journalists have said to me, "Wow, this is what all my friends are doing," and I said, "Right, that's why it's called the career woman experiment." If everybody is like the female neurologist who waits until she is established in her profession before she reproduces, and this goes on for generations, then we will evolve longer life spans - very slowly.

It would take centuries to get a really significant effect. Long before that ever happens, we will have medical interventions that will be far superior.

Q. Do you believe there is such a thing as a limited life span for humans?

A. No. Life span is totally tunable. In my lab, we tune it up and down all the time.

And it's quite clear that the human primate life span got tuned up by evolution over the course of the last few million years.

Almost certainly, we once had the life span of chimpanzees - which is half of what humans have. But we were smarter, able to kill our predators, make deadly tools, find more food, so evolution took us in hand, and we lived longer.

Q. What will it take to increase human life span from present levels?

A. There's not going to be one magic bullet where you take one pill or manipulate one gene and get to live to 500. But you could take a first step, and then another so that in 50 years' time, people take 50 or 60 pills and they live to be 200.

Leaving aside F.D.A. approval, it looks like we are about 5 to 10 years away from therapies that would add years to our present life span. For now, pharmaceuticals will be the primary anti-aging therapy.

After another 10 years or so, the implantation of cultured tissues will become common - especially skin and connective tissues. Reconstructive surgery is certain to become more effective than it is today.

Eventually, we will be able to culture replacement organs from our own cells and repair damage using nanotech machines. All of this will increase life span.

Q. What does religion have to say about all this tinkering with life span?

A. That depends on the religion. About five years ago I was at a meeting convened by the Templeton Foundation to address the ethical question of postponing human aging, and in particular, the possibility of biological immortality, as opposed to immortality in heaven.

And the Christian theologians at this meeting were clearly horrified whereas the Jewish theologian was saying, "Yes, we like this."

In East Asian cultures, you have a split between the Confucian tradition, which is very much for self-sacrifice, versus the Taoist tradition, which very much espouses the idea of living longer. So there's this split there, too.

Q. Aging research has often attracted crackpots and cranks. Why is that?

A. Because it raises hope - a dangerous thing, especially for scientists. Often scientists work on aging only later in their life when they are more worried about their own aging or death. So hope tends to corrupt their judgment.

Q. How has your own aging been proceeding?

A. I have mysterious tumors, high blood pressure, the classic spectrum of age-related deterioration. Though we're testing anti-aging drugs and supplements in my lab every day, they are not likely to benefit me much. But I never started on this to help myself.

My motivation was pure curiosity.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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