Intrepid explorers and the search for the origin of species

Feb. 12, 2009

by Terry Devitt

Evolution, we know, is the guiding thread of biology and explains life as we know it.

But how that big idea was inspired and expanded over two centuries of natural history is really a tale of the adventures of a handful of intrepid scientists whose derring-do, perseverance and intellectual curiosity sparked a revolution that forever changed our view of the living world.

Those heroic tales wind through the jungles of the Amazon, the African savanna and the Malay Archipelago in an age when the history of our planet, of life and of the human species was virtually unknown. Those adventures will be brought to life in the telling of the story of the origins of evolutionary thought in "Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species," the Friday, Feb. 13, plenary lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago.

Leading evolutionary biologist and author Sean Carroll, a professor of genetics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the guide for a multimedia encounter with giant sloths, gaudy butterflies and the most remarkable creatures of all: the explorers and scientific visionaries Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry W. Bates.

"The talk is a celebration of the accomplishments of these amazing people who explored the wild and changed our view of life," says Carroll, whose most recent book shares the title of his plenary lecture. "I will tell the stories of three pioneers who deserve our admiration — young adventurers who took great risks and made great discoveries."

Carroll's talk is scheduled for the day after the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, a milestone off which the theme of AAAS annual meeting is keyed. The talk will be held at 4:30 p.m. (CST) Friday, Feb. 13, at the Fairmont Chicago Imperial Ballroom.

Carroll, who has been described as the contemporary scientist Darwin would most like to meet, is best known for pioneering research into the molecular mechanisms of development and evolution, having discovered the genes that govern such things as limb formation and the colorful patterns of butterfly wings. His research accomplishments have earned Carroll election to the National Academy of Sciences and to AAAS fellow status.

In recent years, Carroll has worked to engage a wider audience for evolutionary science as the author of popular books, "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" and "The Making of the Fittest," which are the basis of an upcoming NOVA, prepared for broadcast later in 2009 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species." He is frequently interviewed by popular media, including National Public Radio, the BBC, the New York Times and many others on topics of evolution and developmental biology.

Carroll's AAAS plenary lecture will precede the special invited address by former vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore.

Carroll's talk is free and open to the public, but attendees must register by following the "Registration" link here. Badges for attendees must be picked up on site at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Grand Ballroom Foyer. Journalists can obtain free press badges in the Hyatt Regency, West Tower, Bronze Level, Acapulco Room. AAAS reminds journalists that Carroll's plenary presentation is embargoed until 4:30 p.m. CST Friday, Feb. 13. This advance news release provides only general information suitable for immediate release.