Hug a biologist: Darwin Day is for English majors too

Originally published in the Collegian on February 11, 2009

I hereby declare Thursday, Feb. 12 to be “Hug a Biology Student Day.” Not because I’m a biology student and like hugs (though I am and I do), but because it marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Yes, the father of evolutionary theory and the bane of biblical literalists for a century has reached his bicentennial, and I would like to encourage everyone to take a moment and think about what they owe to evolutionary theory.

Evolution is the glue that holds biology and the biological community together. Unlike any other theory I can think of, it has remained essentially unchanged since its proposal. Albert Einstein, in defending his theories of relativity against the onslaught of Niels Bohr’s theory of quantum mechanics, famously said “God does not play with dice.” Whoops: turns out He does. (And quantum mechanics doesn’t seem to predict movements of big things, like planets. Physicists still search for the Theory of Everything.) Atomic theory, as first proposed and still popularly conceived, had electrons whirling around the nucleus like planets around the sun. Again, wrong. (As it turns out, electrons actually exist everywhere in space at once, in something called a superposition, until we look for them. It hurts my head too.) Evolution by natural selection, on the other hand, has been improved only by the addition of Father Gregor Mendel’s theory of genes and statistical models developed in the latter half of the 20th century.

Of course this is interesting from an academic stand point (to me, at least), but I will forgive the liberal arts majors for asking why they should care about Darwin. Let me give just two critical examples of evolution’s impact on modern life. First is the case of antibiotics. If you’ve read the news recently, you’ve probably heard of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) invading hospitals. MRSA and MDR-TB are two of the worst infections one could get because, in addition to being deadly, the bacteria causing the infections are resistant to the antibiotics most commonly used to treat them. This is a classic case of evolution. Antibiotics have been overused since they were introduced: many people from older generations will remember getting doses of penicillin for the flu, a viral infection that doesn’t respond to antibiotics, and we still dose livestock regularly — regardless of whether the animals are ill — with powerful antibiotics in an attempt to increase milk, egg or meat production. When the bacteria are exposed to antibiotics — and Staphylococcus aureus is found everywhere — only those with genes to resist them survive to reproduce. And so rises MRSA.

The other, and to me more interesting, case of evolution’s importance that I’d like to share with you is the case of rabbits in Australia. It turns out, contrary to what my six-year-old cousins might tell you, there is such a thing as too many bunnies. When a British expatriate in the mid-19th century grew homesick, he decided to import his favorite quarry to “provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” The fur-balls began to multiply, and by 1910, they had spread over so much of the continent that the government decided to build a fence to keep them out of what little land remained lagomorph-free (the “Rabbit Proof Fence” from the 2002 movie). It didn’t work, and eventually the government released the Myxoma virus, which only infects rabbits, in an attempt to cull the population. It worked, for a time. Like bacteria attacked with antibiotics, only those rabbits with a mutation allowing them to resist infection survived. Now almost the entire population in Australia is resistant. Since scientists are considering the use of introduced parasites to control fire ant populations, they had better consider the possibility that the ants will simply evolve to deal with the parasites.

I could go on about the importance of evolution, but I fear that it would take over the entire page. So allow me to end with a request. If you do not feel the urge to hug a biology student on Thursday (though I don’t understand why you wouldn’t), do something that would make us even happier: learn more about evolution, and teach it to everyone you know that doesn’t believe it’s true.


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