Douglas Futuyma is among the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, well known for his work in plant – insect interactions and as an author of several books refuting intelligent design. Futuyma graduated with a B.S. from Cornell University, and took his M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1969. He is a distinguished professor at State University of New York Stony Brook, where most of his work focuses on the interaction between plant-eating insects and the host plants themselves. When there was no textbook on evolutionary theory, he published the first Evolutionary Biology textbook in 1979, after four years of endeavoring. He has lectured widely around the world and was a crucial educator in tropical ecology and evolution at the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica. He has been the President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the editor of Evolution, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is the editor of the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, and is the author of the successful textbooks Evolutionary Biology and Evolution. With his several books, journal articles along with the seminars and lectures, he is in the forefront of scientists fighting against the anti-scientific creationism. He spoke to us during a visit to National University of Singapore on January 22nd about evolution and teaching science. Happy reading!
Bilgenur Baloglu- You are the author of the Evolution textbook, with the first edition in 1979. What made you write this book?
Douglas Futuyma- In the 1970s, when I was a young faculty member and I developed a course on Evolution for undergraduates soon after I arrived at Stony Brook University, there was no textbook on the subject of evolution. So I had to create my own lectures and get students some readings from here and there. At some point, a man named Andy Sinauer, stopped by and visited my office and said that someone have told him that I might be a good author for a textbook in ecology. I said, well no, actually I do not think I would be very good at that. There were already many books on ecology but no textbook on Evolution. That was what led into his eventually agreeing that I might be a good person to write such a book. It took me four years to write because at first I had no idea what I was doing.
You are working on plant – herbivore interactions, with asking the major questions such as how so much biodiversity occurred, how environment affects the biodiversity. Which question led you specifically to plant-insect interactions?
Originally, that was not a question about insect – plant interactions at all. In the 1970s, one of the major questions that people in evolution were asking was what accounts for all of the genetic variation that had been revealed by gel electrophoresis of proteins. There was the Balance School that said natural selection was responsible for maintaining variation, and then there was the Classical School, which fostered the idea of random genetic drift. One idea was that selection could account for variation, if different genotypes for the species were adopted to the different aspects of the environment, such as different microhabitats, or different food in which case you could have heterogenous selection. And I thought ‘Well, no, this has not been well tested, but we need to be able to compare species in which we know that one occupies a more homogenous habitat or environment and the other more heterogeneous.’ And I thought that the most important part of the environment of herbivorous insects is the host plant. And so the species which has only one species as a host must occupy more homogenous, simpler environment than one insect that eats many kinds of plants. So that led into comparing the amount of genetic variation with which you see whether the genetic variation is greater in the species which eats many plants than in those species which eats only a single kind of plant. That then led me into realizing these very interesting organisms and their very interesting interactions.
I wonder about one thing. You are still teaching at Stony Brook. As an author of the Evolution textbook, what is it like to teach Evolution for you? -Well, maybe I should ask this question to your students- (laughing)
I am not sure exactly what you want to know. The students at Stony Brook have no idea about me. You think that I am a somewhat famous person, right?
Well, we used your textbook in our Evolution class.
The students at Stony Brook just think ‘Oh this is the guy who wrote the book. Okay, so what? We still have to listen to him.’ Well, I am nothing special to them.
You are teaching Evolution. As far as I know, in the US some of the schools try to teach both sides (author indicates creationism as one side). What do you think about the idea of teaching the debate, that there are two sides to the issue and both should be taught in the classroom?
That is an issue not in universities or college. The issue is a big debate for secondary schools, high schools what here you call junior colleges and also in the earlier school. That is where the big battle is, with people who say that creationism or some kind of alternatives to evolution should be taught. These are the people who do not believe in evolution. That is where the big fight is. And the question is “Should you say, okay, teach both of them and let the student make a choice or you should just teach evolution?” In the US, it is very important that we have in the US constitution, it forbids favoring any religion or even favoring people who have religion versus no religion. So religion is supposed to be totally separate from anything which is supported by the state. Public education, which is supported by the state, therefore cannot have any kind of religious based instruction. On that basis, the court, including the supreme court of the US, have said that you cannot teach anything which is a religious interpretation of the diversity of life. So, there have been many efforts by creationists to put their teaching in some kind of a mimicry or to teach indirectly. I completely oppose that. I think that in a science course, you should teach science. And there is no scientific theory or hypothesis for the diversity of life, except for evolution. If someone comes up with another scientific alternative, okay. But so far, we do not have any.
You are talking to people about evolution, not just to scientists, but also to the students, and general public in many forums. There are many people who conceive evolution theory wrongly. Then I am wondering about your opinion on how we can fight with the scientific illiteracy?
I think you have put your finger on one of the biggest most important issues. Because the issue is larger than just the evolution.
And it is not just country based. It is also a common thing in Turkey, for instance.
I know, I know it very well. The issue is scientific illiteracy. And this extends, for example now we see, to climate change and people denying the science. The scientists say that it is caused by greenhouse gas and by human activity. So the big issue is scientific illiteracy. I do not know how to do anything about that except to try to improve the teaching of science in the early years, such as the basic science courses that students are taking early in their schools. Teachers should be teaching not only some simple chemistry or cell biology. They should be teaching students how science works. How do you know that DNA is genetic material? How do we know that chemistry is made of atoms? What are the alternatives? How do we think about explaining the natural world? Do we understand how the process of science works as a kind of trial and error and also choosing between hypotheses and finding evidence for one vs another? Many people do not have any such education.
I have one more question if not too much to ask. Most people describe the field of ecology and evolution as a descriptive field of science. How far do you think we are from being predictive?
It depends on how much of a prediction you want, how accurate a prediction you want. Maybe not in very specific and exactly numerical terms, but in very broad terms, I think that we can be predictive. It is like climatology or meteorology. Meteorology, about the weather, is an application of physics. Everyone thinks physics is a very precise and predictive science. But the physics of air masses, the ocean currents, temperatures and everything are so complicated. So, physicists and so-called meteorologists, who are supposed to be physicists, can not predict exactly what the weather is going to be in New York one week from today. But they can predict that it is not going to be very hot, this time of the year it is going to be cold.
Maybe not that specific but a general prediction is possible, then.
Exactly. And I think that it is very much like that for ecology and evolution.
That is all, because you do not have much time. Thanks a lot!
Thank you very much.
This interview is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Dr. Aykut Kence, Turkey’s first evolutionary biologist, who passed away on Feb 1st, 2014.
- Balance school: The balanced school believed that genetic polymorphisms are common. They suggested that the maintenance of the polymorphisms are provided by individuals being heterozygous at most loci. According to this thought, natural selection would mainly act as a ‘balancing’ force, seeking to maintain heterozygosity at most loci, while occasionally acting as a purifying force that removed the low frequency of harmful alleles.
- Classical school: The classical school suggested that the occurrence of genetic polymorphisms in a population is rare. According to this thought, individuals in a population are homozygous at most loci, with only the occasional deleterious allele that is removed by natural selection. Thus, natural selection would be a purifying force by removing deleterious alleles in order to maintain homozygosity at most loci. They used genetic drift to explain the existence of new alleles, which would either be lost or fixed. (Fixation here means that the original allele will be replaced by the new allele in the population).
- Genotype: It is the genetic makeup of a cell, an organism, or an individual usually with reference to a specific characteristic under consideration.
- Gel electrophoresis: By using an electric field, it allows for separation and analysis of macromolecules (DNA, RNA, and proteins) and their fragments, based on their size and charge.
- Heterogeneous selection: As a result of the exposure of different natural environments on different loci (specific location of a gene or DNA sequence or position on a chromosome), selection would act heterogeneously.
- Natural selection: It is the process by which species adapt to their environment. Natural selection leads to evolutionary change when individuals with certain characteristics have a greater survival or reproductive rate than other individuals in a population and pass on these inheritable genetic characteristics to their offspring.
- Polymorphism: As the name implies, polymorphism indicates the occurrence of more than one morph or form. Sexual dimorphism and blood type can be given as examples.