CEM Seminar- Rob Dunn
North Carolina State University
Lessons from the heart? Valuing the benefits of evolutionary theory to society and the costs of ignoring it
Early in my career I wrote about the limits of life in "Every Living Thing." The book told the story of how much is left to discover and the important role of basic biology, particularly that being done by evolutionary biologists. But after I wrote that book people asked me, "who cares?" Eventually, answering this question of who cares led me to write the book, "The Man Who Touched His Own Heart." Superficially, "The Man Who Tells His Own Heart" is the story of a thousand years of discoveries in our hearts and the women and men who made them. But the secret of this book, a secret I'll share, is that these discoveries depended disproportionately on basic biology being done by evolutionary biologists and ecologists. You will likely experience far more heartbeats than did your immediate ancestors (and twice as many as any other mammal) and much of this is thanks to the work of obscure biologists in museums and university basements studying the evolution of fungi, zombie beetles, mummies, chicken blood, chimpanzees and rivers among other, lovely eccentricities. Nor is the heart unique, it is representative of medicine more generally, in which many of our breakthroughs come not from fancy NIH labs, but instead from places like the Cal. Academy. Similar realities present themselves when we consider agriculture and the future of the food we eat. In this talk I will consider the value of evolutionary biology to medicine and agriculture in light of the heart, but then also consider how we go about valuing evolutionary thinking more generally, how much it benefits us and how much it costs us when it is ignored.
Rob Dunn is an ecologist in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. His research focuses on the ecology and evolution of the daily life of societies, be they those of humans or ants. This includes work on face mites, belly button bacteria, beetles that ride on ants as they move from place to place and house cats. He has published more than a hundred scientific articles (www.robdunnlab.com). Among those articles, he is really fond of some that no one ever reads and would like to rewrite others that get read fairly often. His work often engages the public, either directly in participatory science (www.yourwildlife.org), or through telling stories about the process of science. It is in telling those stories that Rob writes for Natural History, National Geographic, Scientific American, New Scientist and BBC Wildlife magazines. He is also coordinating the writing of eight books with the University of Chicago Press written on the basis of data collected by citizen scientists, on ants, spiders, arthropods of homes and microscopic life in homes. He has written three books for general audiences, Every Living Thing, The Wild Life of Our Bodies and, most recently, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, which tells the stories of the, often fumbling, human attempts to understand and mend the human heart over the course of the last eight thousand years.