How the 200 Year-Old Scientist Is Still A Focal Point of Modern Biology

By Nick Statt

In commemoration of one of the most revolutionary thinkers in biology, Darwin Day 2009 was not just celebrating Charles Darwin’s achievements, but the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Countries around the world took Feb. 12, 2009 to observe and reflect on how vast and widespread Darwin’s influence has been since the introduction of the idea of evolution in 1859. This was done through the hosting of multiple events at universities and research centers that aimed both to educate and show respect.

At our very own Stony Brook University, this scientific holiday, organized as one of the events for the reoccurring Provost Lecture Series, brought Yale’s professor Stephen C. Stearns, the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, to the SAC for a special lecture on how evolutionary biology has dramatically changed the field of medicine and medical practices.

After a few moments of microphone difficulty, that humorously exhibited that even the smartest of textbook thinkers get caught up in the simplest of modern technology, professor Stearns jumped right into his short, but extraordinarily informative, lecture. The topics revolved around evolution, the stepping stone Darwin talked about in his 1859 On The Origin Of Species, and how it has opened up new areas in medicine, which range from the battle against auto-immune diseases to psychological studies of the human brain.
Stearns was, as expected of a Yale professor, a highly eloquent and intelligent speaker and managed to weave into his scholarly lecture a few of his own personal beliefs on Darwin. He commented that to judge a person’s influence, all you have to do is observe “how long it takes a culture to accept it.” Drawing comparisons to Copernicus’ theory of the solar system, Stearns said with some remorse that people are still attempting to refute Darwin’s revolutionary ideas, despite the mounds of evidence that have led scientists to believe that evolution and natural selection exist in a multitude of different real-life scenarios. This long-lasting fight proves that Darwin’s discoveries, despite being communally looked upon as stepping stones for future scientists like Gregor Mendel, created wakes that, 200 years later, have yet to subside.

This was Stearns’ segue way into talking about one of the focal points of his lecture – worms that use our bodies as hosts. Starting with the blunt and discomforting statement, “we all used to be infected by worms,” Stearns brought up point after point on how bacterial worms and the human immune system, which are technically enemies, have gone through multiple evolutionary stages to coinside with each other. By alerting the body to the possible danger, worms put the immune system into a sort of increased security mode that allows for long-term positive effects. Some of these positive effects involve worms helping the human body grow to prevent auto-immune diseases like asthma, diabetes, and Krohns disease. Through graphs, Stearns introduced startling info showing that African children, although infected with common bacteria that U.S. hygenics has prevented, are almost completely devoid of diseases like diabetes because of the variety of worms their bodies host.

The second half of the lecture involved studies that Stearns claimed “were not yet proven,” leaving the audience members, ranging from small children to aged doctors, on the edge of their seats. He delved deep into the studies of Robert Trivers and Bernard Crespi, among others, who have taken evolutionary biology to the brink of radical study. Some theories that have been raised by these men, and outlined as simply as possible by Stearns, were ideas of gene imprinting and ways that natural selection functions on an almost untraceable scale. Gene imprinting is a theory that says that the father’s and mother’s genes are fighting constantly and attempting to influence the growth of the fetus more than their opponent, sometimes resulting in an imbalance. Some side effects of this imbalance have been clinically accepted, such as the Angelman Syndrome and the Prader-Willi Syndrome. Stearns explained that Angelman Syndrome is when the father’s genes win the battle and imprint more into the fetus’ brain, which can lead to autism, retardation and being uncoordinated or overweight. Prader-willi Syndrome says that the opposite happens and the mother wins, resulting in a vast variety of mental conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Stearns considers these studies to be groundbreaking: “If this speculative connection between evolutionary conflicts of interest and mental disease is validated, it will become one of the most astonishing insights that evolutionary thinking has given us.”

Professor Stearns ended his lecture with strong words, claiming that, “Evolution can shed useful new light on parts of medical research and practice,” and that “it complements other approaches” and “does not replace them.” Stearns’ lecture revolved around only one topic that Darwin’s theories have influenced over the years, and Darwin Day, which might not be as publicized for another century, will certainly stick around every year to pool scientists’ recent breakthroughs in the massive field that is modern biology.