Leadership in Science

Presentation Prof. Filip Volckaert, on the birth of Charles Darwin

****Dear ladies and gentlemen, Dear colleagues, Dear friends,

Welcome to the museum of the Zoological Institute of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.
Today is a very special day.

Darwin's Drink

Exactly 200 years ago Charles Robert Darwin was born in the market city of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, just east of the English-Welsh border. He grew up in a well to do family, was always interested in natural life, although a moderate student. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and theology at the University of Cambridge (minister in the Anglican church), but finally opted for his first love for natural history. He would become a life-long student of natural history as an independently wealthy researcher, free from the sorrows of an academic or government employee. At the age of 22 to 27 he took part in a worldwide expedition on the sailing ship “The Beagle”. Darwin turned out to be a studious observer of the natural history during visits to coast of South America and the Pacific islands of Galapagos, Australia and Mauritius. Important to know is that Charles Darwin lived during a period that people gradually realised that life was neither created by God nor remained always the same. Darwin came to realize that selection played an important role in change of the living forms. But he feared that this would overthrow the ruling order of society. And thus Charles kept on searching for evidence. He prepared meticulously a manuscript, but awaited publication till he would have full evidence. Then appeared Russell Wallace, a natural historian and collector, who used to spend much of his time in the Indonesian archipelago. He also came to the idea of change through selection. Understandably this put some pressure on Darwin. Shall I or shall I not? An agreement was reached that both would present their theory at the annual meeting of the Royal Society in 1859. But Darwin published his manuscript “On the origin of species by means of natural selection” to be the first in the fall of 1859, 150 years ago.
At that time prof. Pierre-Joseph Van Beneden was a highly esteemed and very successful professor of zoology at the K.U.Leuven, working and living exactly in the building you are now, Kings College or the Zoological Institute. He was particularly fascinated by marine life and founded with his own funds a biological station in Ostend. He published prodigally and made numerous collections of animals worldwide to stock the museum of the Zoological Institute. One of those animals is the right whale, whose skeleton you might have noticed upon entering the newly refurbished museum. The poor creature was hunted in the North Atlantic and bought personally by Van Beneden in Iceland. He was a fixist, believing that everything created remained unchanged.
Back now to Darwin and his ideas. It was only the son of Prof. Van Beneden, Edouard, appointed professor at the University of Liège, here in Belgium, who would take notice of Darwin’s ideas. He became a strong supporter of evolution, such that it directed some of his research, which largely dealt with the embryology of animals. Overall, Darwin would receive a rather tepid welcome in Belgian academic circles. Here in Leuven, it was the geologist Henry de Dorlodot, whose home and geological collection is just two houses further up the street, who seemed to understand the meaning of the findings of Darwin. The catholic hierarchies in Rome were less happy with the very worldly explanation on the origin of life.
Today, evolution through selection is firmly embedded in neo-Darwinian theory. Neo-Darwinism combines the idea of evolution through selection with the idea inheritance through the chromosomes and genes as carriers of inheritable factors. Evolutionary biology is a central tenet of modern biology and provides an excellent scaffold for many observations, experiments, models and theories. Moreover, these are fascinating times for evolutionary biology, as many of the ideas and theories have only now become testable thanks to major technological progress. I refer here to the sequencing of genomes and the identification of proteins, a specialty of the Zoological Institute. One of those ideas to be tested is the implication of the steady arms race between an organism and its parasite. You might imagine that this tit-for-tat game results in a continuous upscaling of the evolutionary weaponry at both sides of the front. Prof. Ellen Decaestecker of this university has published last summer a definitive study on the little waterflea and its unicellular parasites in the highly esteemed scientific journal Nature, a member of the family of high quality journals such as the Wall Street Journal.
But there are good indications that evolution is sometimes not only neo-Darwinian. I explain. Viruses are known to jump in and out of the genomes of their host while taking a small fragment of the host genome. The next organism they infect will hence receive novel genetic material. That is very peculiar and beyond the scope of Darwin’s ideas. We also know that some of the cell organelles, small components of the cell, are in origin of bacterial origin. Through evolution they have lost some of their functions, but they have retained some of the original genetic information. I refer here to chloroplasts, the chlorophyll factories, and mitochondria, factories of oxygen. Hence we have to start thinking about evolution in the post-Darwinism era. But that’s for your next visit to this special place.
May I suggest that we raise the glass on Darwin, on his ideas and on evolutionary research, here and elsewhere.

Prof. Filip Volckaert
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Laboratory of Animal Diversity and Systematics
Ch. Deberiotstraat 32 – bus 2439
B-3000 Leuven, BELGIUM
Phone: +32 16 32 39 66 (lab) or 72 (direct)
Fax: + 32 16 32 45 75
Email: filip.volckaert (at) bio.kuleuven.be
URL lab: http://www.bio.kuleuven.be/dev
URL BioSCENTer: http://www.kuleuven.be/bioscenter

Darwin’s Drink organized by The Future Leadership Institute lead to a debate about evolutionism and creationism between readers and professors.
12 February 2009

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