In any given year, the biggest buzz coming out of the annual national Botany conference is normally among the botanists ourselves. This year, however, we've been painted as either the heroic defenders of evolutionary biology or the attackers of Louisiana's right to worship freely.
The Botanical Society of America (BSA) has been spearheading an annual plant science conference for more than a century. Last week we convened in New Orleans for Botany 2013, with 1100 botanical researchers, teachers and students flooding the Hilton Riverside with wondrous tales from the Kingdom Plantae.
On Monday afternoon, during the first day of the scientific program, Drs. Marsh Sundberg of Emporia State University and Joe Armstrong of Illinois State University organized a session called "Yes, Bobby, Evolution is Real!" This title is a not-so-thinly-veiled catcall to Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal related to his support for the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), a document insisting that public school teachers teach alternative explanations for how life diversified on Earth.
One of eight sessions happening at the same time, the "Bobby Symposium" featured seven 30-minute presentations on the teaching of evolutionary biology and the challenge of doing so in Louisiana. The star of the day was Zack Kopplin, the "boy who fought Louisiana" by organizing and continuing to lead a campaign to repeal LSEA on the grounds that it is a creationism law. A speaking slot had also been offered to Governor Jindal, himself, but he opted not to accept (or read?) the invitation.
As far as Botany conference sessions go, this one was the sort of friendly and spirited exchange of ideas that brings us all back to the meetings each year. As has happened during professional science meetings all around the world for more than 25 decades, speakers made their cases, attendees asked questions, and everyone broke for coffee halfway through. When it was over, at 6:00 pm, most folks just continued on with the conference and headed down to the evening poster session to grab a few hors d'oeuvres and hear about more science. It was just another day at the annual Botany meeting.
But, of course, this one was destined to be different. Marsh and Joe had stirred the pot (and the gumbo simmering inside it). The story of the session had caught the attention of local news outlets -- and then the Huffington Post, whose headline "Botanical Society Panel Derides Creationism, Louisiana Science Education Act" drew thousands of readers who left more than 5600 comments in just the first day after the story went live.
Suddenly our annual conference on plants had gone from below the public's radar to, depending on one's perspective, either being lauded or derided for its subversive agenda.
A closer look at the other ~900 presentations given at Botany 2013 tells a different story. Science, at its very core, is not political. We seek explanations of the phenomena around us -- and we follow where the evidence leads. And the evidence in biology leads to evolution.
On the Monday when the seven Bobby Symposium talks took place, there were also 256 other presentations citing evolutionary principles in their titles, alone. About 300 more would follow before the conference concluded on Wednesday afternoon.
Contrary to popular parlance, Darwin didn't discover evolution. He uncovered one (most would say the) essential mechanism by which it operates: natural selection. Even then, his brainstorm was incomplete until the Modern Synthesis of the early/mid-20th century when (among other things) the complementary role of genetic heredity was fully realized.
Thousands upon thousands of studies have followed, providing millions of data points that support this understanding of how life on Earth has come to be as it is. And, as evidenced by the 600 evolution-themed studies presented at Botany 2013, the "discovery of evolution" is still happening every day.
The Bobby Symposium, however provocative its title, wasn't really an anomaly -- even among the topics presented at this single plant science conference. There are annual conferences like this all over the globe for other disciplines of biology that support the same fact: Evolution is the glue that binds all biological principles. It underlies every topic we teach and every study we undertake.
And, really, this was the message of the Bobby Symposium, the HuffPost coverage it received, and (interestingly) most of the reader comments the story generated. The question is not: How can we justify the unobstructed teaching of evolution in public schools? The question, of course, is: How can we not?
Yes, Bobby, even in Louisiana.
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