February 2, 2009

Darwin’s Ideas Remain a Blessing for Some, Curse for Others

Controversy continues to surround scientists' use of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory to develop improved technologies, even in the days before marking the 200th anniversary of the English naturalist on Feb. 12.

Although many scientists see Darwin's ideas as an indispensible way to approach new applications in computer science, the field of medicine, and elsewhere, fundamentalist Christians still disagree on the teaching and application of those ideas.

Last month, the Texas State Board of Education "narrowly voted to delete a provision that required the teaching of the weaknesses and strengths of evolutionary theory," according to the Houston Chronicle.

The board is set to face another proposal that would require students to consider the evolutionary principle that all organisms have a common ancestor. Supporters claim they would like children in schools to learn that there are "viable alternatives to evolution."

Andy Ellington, a University of Texas evolutionary biologist, told the Chronicle that their argument is "almost amusing."

"You have these folks who are trying to suggest that we shouldn't teach evolution as something our kids need to know," he said. "But at the same time, there are these new technologies out there shaping our lives every day."

Scientists say the 1953 discovery of DNA's structure and the mapping of the human genome some 50 years later have helped them form a better understanding of how genes mutate and how species evolve.

Ellington conducts directed evolution experiments in his Austin-based lab. Computer scientists use a similar process, called evolutionary or genetic algorithms. This technique involves many people writing computer programs for a certain task, such as managing air traffic or weather forecasting. "These kinds of applications are everywhere, and a lot of it began with Darwin," Ellington told the Chronicle.

In law enforcement, Darwinian ideas have helped form the modern use of DNA fingerprinting to use as evidence in catching criminals.

"It's had a tremendous impact on criminal justice, not the least of which has been to free a lot of innocent people," Rusty Hardin, now a defense lawyer who in 1988 prosecuted the first Harris County case that used DNA evidence, told the Chronicle.

Bill Saidel, an associate professor of biology at Rutgers University's Camden Campus, has used Darwin's ideas as he studies the evolution of the African butterfly fish.

The fish has evolved two retinas in each eye, but only feeds from information derived from one.

"This fish has much to teach us. It has adapted extraordinarily to a single unique environment. Yet, the consequences of a highly adapted species is that any change can be dire," Saidel said.

Saidel's colleague Dan Shain, associate professor of biology at Rutgers-Camden, has spent his time studying the adaptation of worms that thrive in the world's most extreme climates. He says his observations into how the worms form cocoons may have biomaterial applications.

But, the freezing regions like Alaska where Shain has spent time studying the worms' behavior, aren't quite as frigid as they once were, he said.

"Ice worms have been around at least a few million years and have been through many ice ages, but the change there now is dramatic," Shain says. "I've been traveling to Alaska for 10 years studying ice worms. The mass of the glaciers is about half of what it was a decade ago."

"The number of ice worms is radically down. We think ice worms are getting washed off the glaciers and they don't have the capability to move up the glacier quickly enough," he added.

Darwin's ideas have also provided the framework necessary to develop new revolutionary health treatments.

"Evolutionary theory has definitely guided us, and now we as a medical community know to be much more careful about the use of antibiotics," said Dr. James Versalovic, a Baylor College of Medicine professor and the director of microbiology at Texas Children's Hospital.

Researchers use Darwin's theory to better understand how viruses evolve, which allows them to create more preemptive vaccines.

"We know we are in a world where we are in a constant competition with bacteria and viruses," said Dan Graur, a University of Houston biologist. "We need to use evolutionary principles just to keep them under control."


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