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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Carl Zimmer at Chautauqua

Carl Zimmer gave a talk in the Hall of Philosophy on Tuesday afternoon. The photo isn't very good because I forgot my camera and had to use my cell phone.

Carl posted his talk on The Loom [Darwin, Linnaeus, and One Sleepy Guy]. He said many important things about Darwin and evolutionary biology. As a matter of fact, of all the speakers who talked about evolutionary biology, Carl was one of only two speakers who got the basics correct.1

Here's what he said in the first minute ...
We are now descending into a frenzy of Darwin celebrations, and you’re not going to escape it until the end of 2009. We’ve got his 200th birthday in February, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species in November. The spotlight is going to be on Darwin, and Darwin alone.

I think this is a mistake. Darwin deserves celebrating, but that doesn’t mean we should fall prey to a cult of personality. Darwin did not invent biology. Darwin did not even find most of the evidence that he used to back up his theory of evolution. And he certainly did not discover all there was to know about evolution. Biologists have discovered many new things about evolution since his time. In some cases, they’ve challenged some of his most important arguments. And that’s fine. That’s the great strength of science.
This reflects one of the main themes in the two courses that I taught at Chautauqua; namely, that Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived but we have moved far beyond what Darwin knew in 1859.

The other important point is that we risk over-emphasizing Darwin during the celebrations next year. According to Stephen Jay Gould, this is what happened in 1959 during the 100th anniversary celebrations. The result was a hardening of the Modern Synthesis and the rise of adaptationism.2 I'm so glad Carl made this point. I think we all have to be careful judging by what I saw during the rest of the week and what I witnessed at a celebration of Darwin here in Toronto [Darwinism at the ROM]. Please, let's try and keep things in perspective. Whenever we praise Darwin we should also mention that modern evolutionary biology has incorporated his important contributions but added much more.

Later that night I met Carl for a few beers (three for me and decaf coffee wine for him). We had a wonderful three hours discussing evolution with Beth Shapiro and her husband—an informed engineer! Turns out, Carl is not quite as nice as he appears on his blog. In person, he actually has firm opinions about some of things he avoids discussing on The Loom.

Please don't tell him I said that. And whatever you do, don't tell him that I actually agree with some of the things he said.

We also talked about writing trade books. He convinced me that I should give it a try even though it's not nearly as rewarding3 as writing a textbook.

1. The other one was Genie Scott.

2. The original Modern Synthesis of the 1940's was pluralistic.

3. Financially.


  1. First you start agreeing with Dawkins, now Zimmer! Next you'll be telling me how great Provine is!

  2. Hang on a minute, John.

    I said I agree with some of the things that Carl said and some of the things that Dawkins says. They both say a lot of things, so chances are they'll get some of them right from time to time, just by chance.

    I've even agreed with some things you say. Whenever I do, I think about the metaphor of the stopped clock. :-)

    All joking aside, I think Carl Zimmer is an excellent science writer. He's also someone who is more knowledgeable about biology than many biologists, or philosophers.

  3. That post contains an egregious error. I drank wine, not decaf.

    Good to meet you, Larry.

  4. According to Neil Tyson, Issac Newton was the greatest scientists who ever lived. Dr. Tyson, who is about the size of an NFL linebacker, is not a man I would care to have a disagreement with.

  5. Carl Zimmer says,

    That post contains an egregious error. I drank wine, not decaf.

    Wine, decaf coffee, who cares? The important thing was that it wasn't beer. :-)

    (I corrected the posting in case anyone gets the wrong idea. It was another guest at St. Elmo's on Thursday night who ordered decaf coffee but I won't mention her name in order to protect her reputation.)

  6. Turns out, Carl is not quite as nice as he appears on his blog. In person, he actually has firm opinions about some of things he avoids discussing on The Loom.

    Everyone has opinions. If Carl has opinions that ought not to aired in public, I applaud him for not expressing them in public.

    And Will Provine is indeed great. Which NFL team did he play on again?