Evolution comes to Chico

Five-day conference brings hundreds of scientists (and their money) to town

TOUCHED BY SCIENCE<br>Dr. Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist, warns during a lecture in Kendall Hall of the creeping threat in our educational system of non-scientific agendas designed to undermine the theory of natural evolution.

Dr. Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist, warns during a lecture in Kendall Hall of the creeping threat in our educational system of non-scientific agendas designed to undermine the theory of natural evolution.

Photo By Tom Angel

Who’s your daddy? Evolutionary biology theory contends that all organisms evolved from a common ancestor over the last 3.5 billion years or more.

The Chico State University campus and the downtown were invaded this past weekend by a mass of name-tag-wearing, backpack-toting scientists and students from all over the world who share at least one thing in common: a serious interest in the evolution of life on Earth.

The university was the host of Evolution 2003, the joint annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Systematic Biologists and the American Society of Naturalists. Participants included students from all over the United States, scholars from universities in Russia, New Zealand and South America and biologists from the major American research universities.

The 1,130 participants proved to be a boon to downtown merchants and local motels, which were kept busy and booked throughout the five-day event.

The five-day conference began June 20 and was organized by Chico State biology Professors Kristina Schierenbeck and Roger Lederer and Clare Roby, conference administrator for Continuing Education. The conference was the largest academic gathering ever held at Chico State, and planning for it began more than three years ago.

Allen Gibbs, a research scientist from the University of Arizona, said he looks forward to the conference every year and has most enjoyed catching up with colleagues and meeting new people in his field.

“You get a chance to see people whose research you’ve read,” Gibbs said. “For evolutionary biology in North America, this is the meeting.”

During Monday’s education symposium, Dr. Eugenie Scott, National Center for Science Education (NCSE) director and physical anthropologist, held an open lecture titled “Public Understanding of Evolution: The Challenge of Intelligent Design.”

Scott addressed the growing legal challenges to evolutionary theory in science curriculums across the country. She also attempted to explain Intelligent Design Theory and how lawmakers and others are adopting, incorrectly, it as a valid theory of science that should be taught in the classroom.

Intelligent Design Theory (IDT), she said, claims to be a science that offers a rational alternative to Darwinian evolution, but critics view it as a modern form of creationism, without scientific merit.

IDT advocates eschew this label, but like the creationists they believe that the universe and humankind were purposefully designed by an intelligent being. They never directly say God was the intelligent being, but they do allow for that option.

In August 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education passed a state science education act that removed all mention of the Big Bang theory, the age of the earth and any reference to a family tree that included humans and apes. Evolution would no longer be included in state high-school assessment exams, a direct result, Scott said, of pressures put upon the school board by anti-evolution lobbyists.

Four years later, South Carolina state Sen. Michael Fair pushed a bill onto the House of Representatives requesting that a disclaimer be placed in all K-12 grade science books stating, ‘The cause or causes of life are not scientifically verifiable. Therefore, empirical science cannot provide data about the beginning of life.”

According to an article in the Greenville News, Fair said his intention was to show that Intelligent Design was a viable scientific alternative that should be taught in the public schools.

Just this week a parent in Roseville requested that the school-board sanction the teaching of IDT because Darwin is outdated and natural selection doesn’t adequately explain the complexity of the universe.

These attacks against teaching evolution are not rare, and the debate is not limited to a few states. Thirty-four states have considered changing their science curriculum to include creationism. The NCSE Web site states that, between 1999 and 2000, the organization became aware of a new evolution controversy more than once a week, totaling 143 reported cases.

As director of the NCSE, Scott said she worries that science curriculums may one day be determined by popular opinion and persuasive ID theorists.

‘There are scientific standards to be upheld,” she told her audience at Kendall Hall. '…You can’t teach ID because it’s popular.”

She warned the audience that they must take the ID theorists seriously and recognize that strong opposition to evolution is out there and will continue to challenge public-school science programs across the nation.

Costs to attend the overall conference ranged from $155 to $350, with different rates for society members, non-members and students.

Sergio Luiz Pereira, a representative from the Royal Ontario Museum, said he was impressed with Chico and thought it was an excellent choice of venue.

“It’s a pleasant campus to walk around, to relax when you’re tired of hearing people talking,” Pereira said. “There’s enough space for everyone; it’s not too crowded.”

When not attending professional meetings or symposia, many conference participants found themselves wandering the downtown streets in search of food. Mara Lawniczak, a graduate student from UC Davis, described Chico as “cute,” the people here as “friendly” and the food as “excellent.” Lawniczak ate at Moxie’s Cafà and Gallery and Grilla Bites, noting “both were fantastic sandwiches.”

Roby said that all members of the Downtown Business Association were sent a letter six weeks in advance tipping them off to the conference and the thousand extra people who would be in town. But Peter Horylev, co-owner of Brooklyn Bridge Bagel Works, said he never got the letter. He was unaware of the conference until his shop was flooded with scientists Saturday morning.

Nonetheless, Horylev is happy to have the conference in town and estimates that his business has increased by 35 percent. Conference coordinators estimate that the economic impact from hosting Evolution 2003 in Chico will be between a half and three-quarters of a million dollars for local businesses.

“This is a great thing," Horylev said of the conference coming to Chico. "[It’s] one of the best I’ve ever seen for restaurants."