Thursday, June 11, 2009
"The Origin of Species - 150 years later"
I am currently at the Marin Biology Research Station in Kristineberg (Fiskebäckskil) in Bohuslän att symposium in celebration of Charles Darwin. This year (2009), it is 150 years since "The Origin of Species" was published, and 200 years since Darwin was born. To celebrate the memory of Darwin, Hans Ellegren (professor of evolutionary genetics in Uppsala) and Staffan Ulfstrand (professor emeritus of animal ecology, also from Uppsala) has arranged a symposium in the beatiful archipelago on the swedish west coast. Funding for this meeting comes from The Wennergren Foundation. Unfortunately, this meeting was only open for a small group of invited people, apart from the speakers, so here is a little report from the first day.
The theme of today has been theory and genetics of speciation, with some great contributions from evolutionary theoreticians Michael Turelli (University of California, Davies) and Sergey Gavrilets (University of Knoxville, Tennesse). Turelli talked about Haldane's rule and the genetics of postzygotic isolation, and Gavrilets presented models for the tempo and mode of adaptive radiations. Although some of these topics have been presented before by these two leading theoreticians, it is always nice to get un update.
Gavrilets have apparently got a big grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to set up a centre for mathematical and biological synthesis in Knoxville, similar to the ecological synthesis centre in Santa Barbara and the evolutionary synthesis centre in North Carolina. Worth checking up: there will be funding opportunities for both postdocs and workshops.
More "naturalistic" talks were given by Trevor Price (University of Chicago) and Jim Mallet (London) about bird and butterfly speciation, respectively. Trevor presented some idéas and phylogenetic patterns on bird diversification in the Himalayas, which challenges the current ecological speciation paradigm, which has almost been taken a bit too much for granted based on a few well-investigated model systems such as the Galápagos finches. Mallet questioned the views by Ernst Mayr about the reality of species and argued that Darwin's view on species was more realistic than some of the views that were advocated by Mayr and other architects of the so-called "Modern Synthesis" in the 1940'ties. In particular, Mallet argued that some of their idéas about reproductive isolation evolving to protect the "genetic integrity" of species relied on naive group-selectionism.
Two swedish contributions were by Kerstin Johannesson (parallell evolution of reproductive isolation in Littorina-snails) and Anna Qvarnström (genetics of speciation in Ficedula-flycatchers). In general, I would say that this meeting has been good to get updated on the classical concepts and discussion topics, although there has not been many surprising news. In that sense, I have the feeling that perhaps the field of speciation might have reached a plateau (perhaps temporary) where it has now entered what science philosopher Thomas Kuhn would call "normal science" or "problem solving". Perhaps I am wrong, but I have the distinct feeling that we need some new idéas to focus on, as the classical allopatry-sympatry controversy seems to fade away and people loose interest. To me, the most thought-provoking talk today was the one by Trevor Price, although I do not necessarily agree with everything he had to say. In any case, his book "Speciation in birds" is highly recommendable.
Hopefully, I will be able to publish another bloggpost tomorrow about the genomic aspects of speciation, which will be discussed tomorrow. Food here is excellent, by the way.