Tag Archives: history

Happy birthday, Charles and Abe

Charles Darwin was born into wealth and privilege in England 210 years ago, while across the ocean on the same day Abraham Lincoln was born to a poor family in Kentucky.

Besides the coincidence of their birthdays, there are other interesting connections. Lincoln is known, of course, for preserving the Union and freeing slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation. But Lincoln also signed the law that established the National Academy of Sciences, which provides pro bono scientific advice to the federal government. And while Darwin is known for his work on evolution, he was also a prominent overseas voice in the abolitionist movement. During the voyage of HMS Beagle, Darwin had a heated argument with the captain, Robert FitzRoy, who defended the institution of slavery.

Darwin was onboard the ship as a gentleman naturalist, but the voyage was far from easy. Planned as a 2-year expedition, it was almost 5 years before 27-year-old Darwin returned to England in 1836. He was frequently seasick and, back home, often ill. Nevertheless, his observations, specimens, and notes laid the groundwork for his thinking that culminated with On the Origin of Species in 1859. That book presented Darwin’s evidence for descent with modification (what we now call evolution), and it put forward a mechanism—natural selection—that explains how species acquire traits that fit them to their environments.

Many of us first encounter the idea of evolution as children, when we see pictures or fossils of dinosaurs and other long-ago creatures. But evolution isn’t confined to the past; it continues to occur all around us. Some ongoing evolution causes problems for our health and wellbeing, such as pathogenic microbes evolving resistance to antibiotics. In many cases, though, evolution is used to solve problems in agriculture, biotechnology, and engineering. For example, Frances Arnold won a 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work using evolution to generate valuable enzymes with improved and even new functions.

In my lab, we study evolution in action using bacteria, taking advantage of their rapid generations. We can freeze and later revive living cells, allowing us to compare organisms from different generations—in essence, time travel! In an ongoing experiment I started in 1988, we’ve watched 12 populations of E. coli evolve for over 70,000 generations. We can quantify the Darwinian process of adaptation by natural selection, and we’ve sequenced the bacteria’s genomes to understand the coupling between adaptation and genotypic evolution. We’ve even seen the emergence of a new metabolic function that transcends the usual definition of E. coli as a species.

It’s amazing just how much evolution has taken place during a few decades in these small flasks. It leaves me with awe at what evolution has achieved over the last four billion years on our planet … and with wonder about what more will unfold in the fullness of time.

LTEE flasks repeating

This post was written for the National Academy of Sciences Facebook page, where it also appears.


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Fun in Philadelphia

Madeleine and I just spent a few magical days in Philadelphia, where I was inducted into the American Philosophical Society. While I had heard of the APS, and knew it had a long history, I didn’t know very much about it until a few years ago, when I heard about some colleagues being elected.

The APS was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, making it the oldest learned society in the United States, and making this the 275th anniversary year. George Washington was a member. Thomas Jefferson was a member. In fact, Jefferson was President of the APS while he was also serving as Vice President and President of the United States. Barrack Obama is another member. In other words, there’s a bit of history associated with the APS.

Our hotel was almost next door to the APS, including the Benjamin Franklin Hall (with the auditorium where the meeting was held) as well as the museum and library. (More on those later.) Here’s the view from our hotel room the evening we arrived. Yes, that’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776.

Independence Hall at night

The highlights of the meeting for me are almost beyond description, but here’s an attempt.

The people: From colleagues across all fields to the staff and officers of the APS, everyone was exceptionally welcoming to Madeleine and me. (Partners and spouses are as much a part of the meeting as the members.) I got to see some longtime friends from the field of evolutionary biology including David and Marvalee Wake; I got to chat with people from other fields who I’ve met before, but rarely get to see, including population biologist Joel Cohen and geneticist Michael Young; I got to meet people for the first time including APS President Linda Greenhouse, an expert on the Supreme Court, and her husband Eugene Fidell, who works in military law. And many other warm, welcoming, and interesting people.

The talks: There were several talks each day, across a wide range of fields, and they were uniformly lively and interesting. You can see the full program here, and I’ll just mention some of them that especially caught my fancy. Two talks on the history of the US census (Margo Anderson) and on political fights over its implementation (Kenneth Prewitt). Three talks on new technologies used to give voice to the voiceless (Rupal Patel), on interpreting interactions between police and motorists (Dan Jurafsky), and on future cameras that can reveal with extraordinary resolution a fingerprint on an object in a still life photo or capture the image reflected in a subject’s gaze (Shreer Nayar). Toni Morrison received the 2018 Thomas Jefferson Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; while she could not attend, a moving letter of acceptance was read on her behalf. Bryan Stevenson received the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Public Service and he gave an inspiring, hard-hitting, beautiful, and moving talk about his childhood and his life’s work for social justice, emphasizing the importance of proximity, memory, empathy, and persistence. You can—and really should—hear his talk on memory and justice. (The award starts at ~35 minutes, followed by a short acceptance speech, and then his hour-long talk at ~42 minutes. Set aside the time; you won’t be disappointed.)

The Treasures: Wow. The APS library includes over 13 million manuscripts, many of extraordinary historical and scientific importance. The amazing staff of the APS, including Library Director Patrick Spero and Museum Director Merrill Mason, pulled out some of the original treasures for us to see. Among them: Thomas Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence, with his marginal comments showing the changes that were made (to Jefferson’s consternation) in order to secure approval from Congress. The only document signed by the first four US Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. All four were members of the APS, and they signed pledges to contribute financially to a cross-continental scientific survey of the flora by André Michaux, a French botanist. Although this expedition was eventually stymied by politics, it was a precursor to Lewis and Clark. Speaking of which, another treasure we got to see was one of the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, with a beautiful, tiny, hand-drawn map of Cape Disappointment. On the science side, we saw Charles Darwin’s draft of the title page of The Origin of Species, which he had originally titled “An abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties Through Natural Selection.” We also got to see a notebook of the physicist John Wheeler, with his illustration of gravitational collapse producing a “black hole”—this was especially exciting because Wheeler was a mentor of Madeleine’s stepfather, also a theoretical physicist. As I said, wow! The APS has some of these items on display at their Museum, and you can see some of these treasures online as well.

Another treasure: Another great pleasure was spending time with my wonderful friend and MSU colleague Jack Liu. Jack holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, and his work focuses on the complex interactions between people and the environment—from protecting pandas and their special habitat in China, to the effects of divorce on energy consumption in American households. As we rode together to and from airports, I learned Jack’s own inspirational story: from a tiny village in China to becoming the first member of his family to attend college; his experience learning English almost from scratch while a doctoral student at the University of Georgia; and becoming the first person from MSU ever elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Jack and me at APS Nov 2018

[Here’s a picture of Jack Liu and me standing below portraits of Franklin and Washington in the APS Auditorium.]

Signing the book at APS

[Here’s a picture that Jack took of me “signing the book” during my induction into the APS.]

Greeting from Linda Greenhouse

[This one, which Jack also took, shows me being officially welcomed by Linda Greenhouse, the APS President, after Robert Hauser (at left), the Executive Officer, has read a statement about my work.]


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