Charles Darwin Symposium

Special Edition
24 September 2009

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Charles Darwin: Shaping our Science, Society and Future

More than 600 people registered to attend the three-day Charles Darwin Symposium held this week at the Darwin Convention Centre.

Darwin specialists from across the globe attended the Symposium, which marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication “On the Origin of Species”.

Charles Darwin Symposia are a joint initiative of Charles Darwin University and the Northern Territory Government.

Welcome addresses

Listen to the welcome addresses >>

Charles Darwin: The concise story of an extraordinary man

Professor Tim BerraWorld-renowned Darwin specialist Tim Berra, Emeritus Professor of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at the Ohio State University, USA, delivered the keynote speech of the Symposium.

Entitled “Charles Darwin: The concise story of an extraordinary man”, Professor Berra’s address was based on his recently published book of the same title.

Through a collection of anecdotes, Professor Berra emphasised the human side of Darwin by dealing with his family relationships and interactions with his closest advisors.

Professor Berra spoke of Darwin’s early forays into medicine, his subsequent studies in theology and natural history at Cambridge University, and his voyage as the captain’s companion on The Beagle, aged 22.

He also spoke of Darwin’s happy marriage to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, with whom he had 10 children. Professor Berra described Darwin as an openly devoted and affectionate father who grieved for the rest of his life over the loss of his eldest daughter, Annie, who died of consumption at age 10. Annie’s death led him to abandon Christianity, saying he could no longer imagine a just and merciful God would allow such suffering of innocent children.

Professor Berra also spoke of Darwin’s inner turmoil at releasing his account of a godless “On the Origin of Species”, not only for the damning public reaction he anticipated but also because of its potential impact on his deeply religious wife.

Listen to Professor Berra’s address >>

The co-evolution of infection and immunity


Professor Peter DohertyNobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty AC, of the University of Melbourne, opened the first full day of discussion at the Symposium with his presentation entitled “The co-evolution of infection and immunity”.

Professor Doherty, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1996 and named Australian of the Year the following year, is a bio-medical researcher dedicated to the exploration of the immune system.

During his presentation, Professor Doherty demonstrated Darwinian science at work in human populations through “interface with simpler life forms that seek to live in or on us”, an interaction he said was more commonly known as infection.

Declaring that biology and, in particular, the fields of infection and immunity do not make sense unless viewed through the prism of natural selection, Professor Doherty said there could be no doubt that infection provided the selective pressure that drove the evolution of what is called adaptive immunity.

He also spoke of his own ground-breaking research into T-Cells, which ultimately led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize.

Listen to Professor Doherty’s address >>

Mothers and Others


Professor HrdyChild-rearing techniques might be just as important as conflict in determining humankind’s prosocial tendencies, according to a leading anthropologist.

Professor Sarah Hrdy, of the University of California, explored the causes of why humans came to pay so much more attention to what others thought and cared about, compared with other apes.

While altruism is believed to have grown out of hostility between groups, “co-operative breeding” contributed to the development of social traits in off-spring, she said.

Co-operative breeding, in which children are cared for by relatives and others in the group, helped to ensure the survival of off-spring into early childhood.

Professor Hrdy said, however, that contemporary child-care practices, which could be compartmentalised, depersonalised, remote and neglectful, could well affect altruism in our society over time.

Listen to Professor Hrdy’s address >>

Tree of Life as a Framework for Modern Evolutionary Biology


Professor Keith CrandallCharles Darwin famously used a tree illustration to develop his theory of natural selection, a “phylogenic” method still widely used today to chart the evolutionary development and diversification of organisms.

This science of phylogenics is a particular area of expertise for evolutionary biologist Professor Keith Crandall, whose Symposium presentation, entitled “The tree of life as a framework for modern day evolutionary biology”, demonstrated how phylogenics is an exceptional scientific method for predicting future outcomes for certain species.

Professor Crandall, who lectures at Brigham Young University in the USA, spoke of how phylogenics charts evolutionary relationships to provide classifications and develop hypotheses.

He spoke of how phylogenics can be used to assign conservation priorities among endangered species, how it is a powerful weapon in fighting infectious disease in humans and how it has become all-pervasive in biology.

He also spoke about his current research into the treatment of HIV and AIDS.

Listen to Professor Crandall’s address >>

A new understanding of the human genome

Professor John MattickGenetic programming of complex organisms has been misunderstood for the past half century, Professor John Mattick told the Symposium.

A professor of molecular biology at the University of Queensland, John Mattick explored recent research into what was routinely described as “junk DNA”.

While this research has been largely ignored by the wider scientific community, Professor Mattick said human development may live in the sequences of “junk DNA”.

Listen to Professor Mattick’s address >>

Panel Discussion

Darwin: Science ethics and the future

Listen to the panel discussion >>

Darwinism and the Victorian soul


Professor LarsonAs Darwin had predicted, there was enormous outcry following the publication of “On the Origins of Species” as it challenged the Genesis account of creation.

But for Victorian society the idea that perturbed people most was the suggestion that the human soul evolved from that of a beast. 

The aftermath of Darwin’s theory of evolution formed the basis of Professor Ed Larson’s presentation entitled “Darwinism and the Victorian soul”.

The Talmadge Chair of Law and Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia and recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History, Ed Larson’s areas of expertise include history, law, science, bioethics and technology.

Professor Larson described how Victorian society had accepted Darwin’s evolutionary theory in explaining the origins of the human body. Even the most staunchly religious could acknowledge this. But it was that which make humans distinct, that mankind was created in the image of God – including humankind’s mental and moral attributes and the ability to behave altruistically ­– that could not be explained in Darwin’s theories.

Professor Larson said the most significant question to arise within Victorian society in response to Darwin’s theory of evolution was “what form of evolution could be accepted”.

Listen to Professor Larson’s address >>

The philosophy of science


Professor HewlettThe nexus between science and faith needs to be unravelled and understood if the science of evolution is to be lifted from layers of controversy, according to a leading theistic evolutionist.

As Emeritus Professor Martinez Hewlett, of the University of Arizona, USA, explored the philosophical aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution, he said it was essential to distinguish the science of evolution from the ideological layers.

He said that 60 per cent of public perception in the USA rejected Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, much to the amazement of scientists worldwide.

Professor Hewlett also challenged the notion of “intelligent design”. “Intelligent design is a model that is explanatory, but is not predictive or falsifiable,” he said.

The rise of theistic evolutionists, and their views on how the science of evolution related to religious beliefs and interpretation, was a peaceful middle-ground and one that was well supported, he said.

Listen to Professor Hewlett’s address >>

Social Darwinism, history and Indigenous policy


Dr RigneyGovernment policies, legislation, and social controls have, and continue to be, written for Indigenous peoples but never by them, a prominent Indigenous academic told the Symposium.

Dr Lester-Irabinna Rigney, of Flinders University, said Darwin's “On the Origin of Species”, alongside his later work “The Descent of Man”, were used to construct policies in relation to Indigenous people.

“Social Darwinism has become the fabric upon which all individuals, groups, nations, or ideas drive social evolution in human societies,” he said.

Dr Rigney explored how western knowledge systems had impacted, and unfairly misrepresented, indigenous peoples in Australia and across the Pacific.

He said one of Australia’s darkest chapters, the “Stolen Generation”, was a result of “Social Darwinism” and called for policy-makers to rethink the way they communicated and engaged with Indigenous Australians on issues relevant to them.

Listen to Dr Rigney’s address >>

The then and now of Social Darwinism and imaging a different future

Dr Maggie WalterDr Maggie Walter, a Trawlwoolway woman and lecturer at the University of Tasmania, gave an impassioned close to the last Symposium theme with a presentation entitled “The then and now of Social Darwinism and imagining a different future”.

Dr Walter spoke of how the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth could also mark the end of social Darwinism in Australia.

Through recounting the story of her grandmother, a Trawlwoolway woman enslaved by colonialists and forcibly removed from her native Tasmania, Dr Walter began her presentation with the destruction of Tasmania’s Indigenous people.

She said Darwin’s work rationalised the Tasmanian destruction post-event via his concepts of evolutionary inevitabilities. Darwin had contributed by requesting Tasmanian skulls for his research. In contemporary times, the iterations and societal adaptations of these concepts continued to echo in Indigenous lives.

Dr Walter suggested an alternative narrative, a paradigm shift in which the evolutionary gaze was swung 180 degrees from the Indigene to the non-Indigene in what she dubbed “a re-imagining of non-Indigenous self-concept and belongingness”.

Listen to Dr Walter’s address >>