December 14, 2010

Tonight our topic is evolution, and we’ll be talking with Professor Christopher Wills of the University of California San Diego, who has written a book called, The Darwinian Tourist.  He’s traveled the world looking at some of the extraordinary diversity in animal and plant life and figuring out how evolution can explain some of the strange and wonderful life forms on this planet.

The Theory of Evolution is credited to Charles Darwin, who wrote in 1859:  “Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relationship to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”

 Often neglected in discussions of Evolution is a contemporary of Darwin’s, Alfred Russel Wallace, who some think figured out the theory before Darwin. Wallace was especially interested in the effect of the environment on evolution,  writing:  “This  progression, by minute steps, in various directions, but always checked and balanced by the necessary conditions, subject to which alone existence can be preserved, may, it is believed, be followed out so as to agree with all the phenomena presented by organized beings, their extinction and succession in past ages, and all the extraordinary modifications of form, instinct, and habits which they exhibit.”

 Our guest, Christopher Wills, helps us understand both Darwin and Wallace in his book.  We’ll also ask him about cultural influences on evolution—the idea that how we shape our environment will also shape how we evolve as people. This possibility was first broached by philosopher James Mark Baldwin, who argued in 1898 that: “Heredity provides for the modification of its own machinery,”  in other words, that culture, as well as genetic permutations,  is responsible for how we have evolved as human beings.

Listen to the Program

Our Discussion with Christopher Wills

 Christopher Wills is Professor of Biology at the University of California, San Diego, and author of an amazing new book called, The Darwinian Tourist (Oxford University Press, 2010), describing his travels around the world learning about how evolution has shaped the planet. It’s beautifully illustrated with his own photographs.  (For details, go to

  • In the introduction to the book, you explain that throughout your career you have been a lab scientist, but over the past two decades, you have been out in the laboratory of the world.  Please tell us about the evolution of your own interests as a scientist and writer.
  • In our experience, the concept of “evolution” is widely if vaguely acknowledged, often debated as if it were a spiritual belief, and frequently oversimplified as “monkey business.”  At the risk of asking you to oversimplify, could you tell us how your travels have illustrated some of the basic principles of evolution? [mutation, natural selection, chance—e.g.  Nahal Oren Canyon,  Lambeh Strait]
  • How has genetic research and the Genome project helped biologists refine their theory of evolution?  Would Darwin be surprised by those refinements (or did he possibly get it more or less “right” from the start)?
  • You write at length about the eating habits, digestive system, and the swimming skills of the Proboscis monkey.
    • How are such traits a result of mutation, selection, and chance?  That is, what went on in those animals’ cells, their DNA, to make them swimmers? to make them live on a boring diet of leaves when there is more appetizing stuff available?
    • You also note that the Proboscis monkey is painted into an evolutionary corner.  Is that a dead end? [Voltaire’s Candide cheerily finds evidence that the worst of situations somehow proves that “this is the best of all possible worlds.”  How does this differ from your assertion that the evolution of (some) monkeys’ digestion “has taken the most probable of a number of possible paths”? (70)]
    • You pose an interesting question about the human digestive system. If/when we have reduced our food supply by irrevocably damaging the planet, could we (re)evolve to be able to eat the kind of cellulose fibers consumed and digested by [some] monkeys? [Could we dine off the New York Times?]

In the first part of the program, we asked you to deepen our understanding of “natural” evolutionary processes.  In the next segment, we’d like to ask you to more fully factor in the human effect on the planet and on evolution and diversity.

  • You say that humans have “accelerated the process” of evolution and “triggered repeated ecological disasters.”  How do these compare in scope to natural events that are disastrous for some species? (117)
  • How did the domestication of animals change the world—for good and/or ill? [Why do our Border Collies, Zero, Gus, and Quinoa, like to herd sheep?]
  • If the Great Migration from Africa led to human diversity, how do “parallel cultures” preserve that diversity? [Why aren’t we Indo-Europeans the ultimate in evolution?]
  • Please discuss: “Life on Earth will survive no matter what we do. Our great challenge is to see whether we can preserve enough diversity on our planet to make the lives of our descendants worth living.” (151)
  • What do you think personally: “Will our grandchildren be able to look back and say proudly, ‘Yes, they swerved in time’?” (121)

What can our listeners to do help us swerve in a safer direction?

Postscript: Diversity and the Slow Foods Movement

We close out our show on Darwinian Tourism by reading from an article by Terra Brockman, a Slow Food advocate, that appeared just this week at the Zester Daily website.  Where Chris Wills talked with us mostly about animal diversity, Terra is writing about Slow Food’s October meeting in Italy which focused on preserving biodiversity in the foods we eat. She writes:

After five days of sparkling skies over Turin, Italy, at the end of October, there was “a perturbation in the weather,” as the Italians say. And so it was under a heavy gray sky spitting icy rain, that we arrived at the huge Saturday market in Asti, and there my eyes were captured by the sunny-colored peppers of Carmagnola.

I had learned of these particular peppers at the Terra Madre conference we had just attended in Turin because they are protected by one of the Slow Food organization’s biodiversity initiatives. Safeguarding biodiversity was one of the primary themes at Terra Madre 2010. 

This biennial meeting is one of the most implausible gatherings on the planet. Organized by Slow Food International, it brings together more than 6,000 farmers, cooks and local food advocates from around the world to promote solidarity and to celebrate and protect diversity — diversity of peoples, languages, traditions, foods and the plants and animals those foods come from.

Why protect the Carmangola pepper? Why protect any domesticated plant or animal? These are reasonable questions only because most of us are unaware of how crucial biodiversity is to the planet and to human existence. And few are aware of how much biodiversity has been lost in the past two or three generations.

[…L] oss of biodiversity means we are swimming in a dangerously shallow gene pool. And shallow gene pools have a hard time defending themselves against pests, diseases and climate change. Most scientists say that the Irish potato famine could have been avoided if farmers had been growing a wider variety of potatoes. Biodiversity, then, is a crucial insurance policy. When you have 15,000 varieties of apples, you have varieties adapted to many microclimates, apples resistant to fungal and bacterial diseases, apples able to withstand bitter cold and raging heat, damp soils, dry soils, clay soils, sandy soils and whatever curveballs nature or humankind might throw. To lose a species means losing a unique genetic combination of strengths forever. 

[…] In the words of Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, “In a world of increasing globalization and environmental degradation, management of its most precious living resource, biological diversity, is one of the most important and critical challenges facing humankind today.”

And so I was only doing my duty as a concerned citizen of the world when I ordered the Carmagnola pepper in bagna càuda at the Ristorante Antico Castello built into the castle walls at the top of Moncalvo in the beautiful vineyard covered hills of Piedmont.

You can read Terra’s full article at the Zester Daily website,  

Playlist for Ecotopia #115: The Darwinian Tourist

1. Worldwide Connected        5:06        The Herbaliser        Something Wicked This Way Comes       

2. Seed        6:25        Afro Celt Sound System        Seed       

3. The Animals Went In Two By Two (UK Vocals and UK Tunes)        1:24        Wendy Green         Party Songs and Nursery Rhymes (UK Vocals and UK Tunes)       

4, Trophic Cascade        4:12        Ronn Fryer        Endangered Animals (Environmental Jenga)       

5. Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary        The Very Best of  Peter, Paul and Mary       

6. Life Uncommon        4:57        Jewel        Spirit       

7. On the Road to Find Out        5:08        Cat Stevens        Tea for the Tillerman       

8. Stay Human (All The Freaky People)        4:27        Michael Franti & Spearhead        Stay Human       

9. Nature’s Way        2:40        Spirit        Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus