National Academy of Sciences: Lecture on Two Scientific Revolutions

 

The National Academy of Sciences hosted the 2012 Rosenblith Lecture on Monday, June 18 called “The Scientific Revolution: An International Play in Two Stages.”

Academy President, Ralph J. Cicerone, started the event by explaining that the lecture series is in memory of Walter Alter Rosenblith who was one of seventeen people to ever be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Rosenblith was also an Institute Professor Emeritus and former provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his most notable work was his use of computers and mathematical models to map the brain as a biophysical information handling system.

The speaker for the event was Francisco Ayala. Ayala’s work focuses on both the philosophy of biology and population and evolutionary genetics.  He was a witness for the 1981 creationism trial in Arkansas. He also happens to be the largest grower of grapes in California.

Ayala started his talk by illustrating the parallels between Copernicus and Darwin. Copernicous removed the Earth from the center of the Universe and made it just another planet rotating the Sun, while Darwin removed humans from the center of the Earth and made us one animal among many. Both ideas were very different from the accepted ones of their times.  Ayala then discussed William Paley’s 1802 book Natural Theology which claimed there was a “precise design”, and therefore there had to be a Creator since the designs of organisms were too complex to think they had naturally occurred. Paley used an image of the human eye and how it functions to support his theory.

The next topic was Darwin and his 1859 book The Origins of Species. It is “not a book on evolution, it is a book of natural selection,” said Ayala. Darwin merely used evolution in support of his theory on natural selection. Ayala went on to discuss how natural selection can best be observed on islands and the example of the peppered moth collections in England from 1840-1965 clearly indicating Darwin was right. The study showed that while the light colored “typica” form of the moth flourished pre-industrial revolution, the darker or “carbonaria” form was more prevalent once the industrial revolution took place because the trees were becoming darker due to the abundance of soot from the burning of coal. In 1965 when England passed air pollution laws and the trees once again became lighter, the “typica” form of the moth was once again more common.

The search for so called “in-between” species, which bridge the gap between one species of animal to another, were highly sought after. Darwin died before an intermediary between humans and apes, a skeleton named Lucy, was found.  Ayala then went into the cytochrome c coding that was done to see how close or distant other species are from humans. The study showed that chimpanzees are our closest relatives with only one difference in their DNA from ours. By studying the cytochrome c in different species, and then plugging the data into the computer, a phylogeny chart or branching pattern is generated.  When looking at the phylogeny chart it is obvious that all of the species have a common ancestor. Ayala went on to discuss how the length of the different branches on the chart correspond to the number of species contained within it.

The last topic that Ayala mentioned was the book Darwin’s Black Box by Michael J. Box, which refuted Darwin’s theory of natural selection by saying “design is the purposeful arrangement of parts” and as such was too complex to have occurred naturally. Once again, the human eye was utilized to demonstrate this. Ayala then went on to show the evolution or diversity of mollusk eyes. The simplest being that of the limpet mollusk, which can only distinguish light from dark in order to determine when they must hold onto the rocks, such as at high tide and when it can release and feed on the algae like during low tide. The slit shell mollusk has a slightly more advanced eye structure, and then comes the Nautiluses with their “pin-hole lens.” The most advanced eye structure of the mollusk genius is that of the octopus. Their eyes see in the same manner as the human eye, but their eyes are actually superior in reference to the optic nerves. Following intelligent design “God likes octopuses more than us,” said Ayala in his closing remarks.

 

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