A Letter from Stony Brook

Last night I took the ferry across Long Island Sound to spend the day in Stony Brook at Evolution 2006, the joint annual meeting of American Society of Naturalists, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society of Systematic Biologists. About 1500 scientists were there, and there were enough talks going on–often simultaneously–to keep me in constant motion from eight in the morning till eleven at night.

The presentations were all over the map. In one study, scientists were pinpointing the molecular changes that Southwestern Indians have acquired to their cells as they adapted to life in the desert–adaptations that now leave them prone to obesity and diabetes. In another, scientists were measuring the cost of immunity to understand why we don’t do a better job of fighting diseases. Other researchers were building trees of life to understand the long-term patterns of evolution, such as how humans expanded out of Africa, or how animals first evolved. Others were asking broad questions–what are the limits of adaptation? Why does the course of natural selection sometimes take a tortuous path instead of a quick climb up the fittest peak?

There was a certain crackle in the air, it seemed to me, because of all the political controversy over evolution these days (nota bene: political controversy, not scientific). Many of the scientists mixed their diet of talks on speciation and adaptation with an all-day symposium today on the Dover Panda case. This was the case in which parents successfully sued their board of education for trying to introduce Intelligent Design into the classroom. The expert witnesses for the plaintiffs each gave a talk, explaining how they had put together the testimony that showed that intelligent design was repackaged creationism and had no scientific traction.

The most striking talk, for me at least, was given by Lauri Lebo, a reporter at the York Daily Record, one of the local newspapers. I became a regular reader of her work on the newspaper’s web site, and I was impressed by how she took care with both the politics and the science of the Dover case. Her newspaper might have been small, but her coverage was better than most of the stuff I saw from bigger organizations. Her talk was startlingly bereft of powerpoint slides. Instead, she spoke about her own struggle to understand the history of the conflict and the consensus of the scientific community. She talked about long conversations with pastors and her own fundamentalist father about why intelligent design appealed to them. She rejected the notion that she was nothing more than a sponge, as she put it, there to soak up information and squeeze it out. She fact-checked. She questioned. She knew that some members of the board of education were lying to her. And she drew a striking parallel between journalism and science. Journalists should not strive for objectivity as nothing but some fearful scramble for equal time. It is a sifting of evidence in search of truth.

The one fly in the ointment came from her editors. The program describes her only as “Lead local reporter at Dover.” No newspaper after her name. In fact, when Robert Pennock of Michigan State University introduced her, he said, “I can’t tell you the name of her paper.” The name of the York Daily Record did not come up in her talk. Her editors would only let her go to Stony Brook on that condition. Classy, guys.

It was a relief to leave the Dover talks and head for the evening to the poster session. Crowds of scientists snaked their way through tight passageways between walls of posters, reading about works in progress and asking endless questions. They had come from mountains in New Guinea, from Arizona deserts, from supercomputing facilities, from virology labs, all to this one place to drink cheap wine and eat pretzels and make a glorious roar about science.