Eat through 4 billion years, Darwin, the church, and evolution speakers

Media bulletins

Darwin’s 200th birthday is next week on Thursday 12 February.

The menu for his birthday dinner was released today – from the primordial ocean to dinosaur drumettes.

Also, this Sunday the Archbishop of Melbourne joins us in celebrating Darwin’s contributions to humanity.

And in Sydney and Melbourne UK geneticist Steve Jones asks if evolution is over? This is the first in a series of speakers talking about Darwin and his relevance over the next two weeks.

Melbourne will host a unique dinner to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday on 12 February at Melbourne Museum.

Guests will eat their way through the evolutionary tree – from primordial soup, to the first life on Earth, to the mammals.

The menu was developed by John Long, one of Australia’s leading palaeontologists, and head of science at Melbourne Museum.

The birthday party is open to the public and will include evolution themed entertainment.

“We’ll start with crusty arancini symbolising the earth’s crust. Four billion years ago the Earth was young and lifeless,” says John.

“Algae appeared in the oceans three billion years ago. We’ll be eating algae – as sushi wrapped with nori,” he says.

“The oceans thickened to form a primordial soup – represented by shots of seafood bisque – and filled with invertebrate life – represented by scallops, prawns and oysters.

“480 million years ago fish appeared. Then life spread from the oceans to the land, the dinosaurs, birds and the mammals appeared. All will appear on the menu.”

“The killer asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is the theme for desert. It’s marked with meteorites of churros with a lava centre.”

And then Chris Darwin, Charles’ great great grandson, will cut a unique 200th birthday cake modelled on an Aldabra Island tortoise from the Museum’s collection. These tortoises grow to over a metre and can live for more than 100 years. They demonstrate the gigantism that Darwin saw on the Galapagos Islands.

“There dinner concludes. The rise of the primates is off the menu.”

Entertainment will be provided by the National Institute of Circus arts and their spectacular Whale Evolution show, IMAX film features, and the museum’s own exhibits.

Tickets are available for $150.

Details and bookings at

Darwin’s birthday party is just one of a series of events marking Darwin’s work and ideas. Melbourne’s celebrations commence with a church service at St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 8 February.

Interviews: please contact Penny Underwood, (03) 9818-8540,

Celebrating Darwin at St Paul’s

A church service is probably the last thing you would expect to kick off a year-long celebration of evolution – but that’s exactly what’s happening at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne at 2pm on Sunday 8 February.

Entitled Science and Faith: The Intersection the service will be the first official event of Evolution – the Festival, a public celebration of 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 years since the publication of the book in which he set out his theory of evolution by natural selection, On the Origin of Species.

2009 is also the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating 400 years since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sky.

Given that many Christian groups still dispute the idea of evolution by natural selection, and that the Roman Catholic Church placed Galileo under house arrest for his view that the Earth revolved around the Sun, the service sets out to explore whether faith and science can be harmonised as different paths to truth.

“I have never believed science and faith to be at odds,” says Prof Phil Batterham, a committed Baptist, who is associate Dean of Science at Melbourne University and a speaker at the service.

“There is much common ground between the pursuits of faith and science. Both search for truth.”

Batterham is chair of the organising committee for Evolution – The Experience, a major conference on the impact of Darwin to be held in the Melbourne Convention Centre from 9 February to 13 February.

He will be providing his views at the service, along with the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Revd Dr Philip Freier, whose first degree was in biological science, and emeritus Professor of Physics at Monash University, Prof John Pilbrow, who is current president of the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST).

Is Human Evolution Over?

Steve Jones is speaking at the University of Sydney this Thursday, and in Melbourne on Monday 9 February

Jones is a leading evolutionary thinker and great talent.

He can talk about Darwin’s work, its importance today and the future evolution of the human race.

His lecture is on the future of human evolution.

“Many people are concerned about what the future might bring and, from Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516 to the latest science fiction fantasy, they have made lurid models of what may be to come.

Evolution is all about understanding the past; but I will argue that we now know so much about our own biological history that it is possible to make some informed guesses about the Darwinian future.

Everything we see around us suggests that, at least for the time being and at least in the modern world, the agents that lead to genetic change – mutation, natural selection, and geographic isolation – are losing their ability to do so and that human evolution is more or less over. There is, as a result, no need to worry what Utopia might be like, for we are living in it now.”

Evolution speakers

And next week there are a host of speakers attending a Darwin conference in Melbourne.

Here’s a list and brief summary.

Steve Jones, University College London

Without variation we’d have no genetics and no evolution – still no one really knows why it’s there. This is just one of the many big questions Professor Steve Jones explores through his work, along with sex, variation, race, and inherited disease.

His book, In the Blood, explores, confirms and debunks some commonly held beliefs about inheritance and genetics. Topics explored include issues as diverse as “lost tribes”, European royal families and haemophilia.

Jonathan Marks, University of North Carolina

Prof. Marks’ research interests focus on primate/human evolution, race, molecular genetics and evolution, general physical anthropology, history of studies of human evolution and variation, anthropology of science, critical studies in human genetics, and general anthropology.

Michael Ruse, Florida State University

As one of the most prolific and well known philosophers and historians of Darwinism, Prof. Ruse has authored and edited many classic books including:

The Philosophy of Biology, Sociobiology: Sense or Nonsense?, The Darwinian Revolution, Is Science Sexist?, Taking Darwin Seriously, Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry, Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?, Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, Cloning, Genetically Modified Foods, Stem Cell Research, Debating Design: Darwin to DNA, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose?, The Evolution/Creation Struggle, and Charles Darwin.

Alan Dixson, Victoria University, Wellington

Prof. Dixson’s lecture will deal with the origins of human mating systems and sexual behaviour as illuminated by comparative studies of the reproductive anatomy and behaviour of extant primates.

Tim Flannery, Macquarie University

An internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer and conservationist, Tim Flannery has published more than 130 peer-reviewed scientific papers. His books include the landmark works The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers.

Douglas J. Futuyma, Stony Brook University, NY

Douglas J. Futuyma is a Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University.

He is the author of the textbooks Evolutionary Biology (3 editions) and Evolution (2005), and of Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (1982, 1995), which concerned the conflict between science and creationism.

Jenny Graves, Australian National University

Jenny Graves is a geneticist who works on Australian animals – kangaroos and platypus are a specialty, but devils (Tasmanian) and dragons (lizards) and even frogs are fair game.

Her laboratory is famous for using this unique perspective to explore the origin, function and (dismal) fate of human sex chromosomes, and even to discover novel human genes.

Randolph Nesse, University of Michigan

Randolph Nesse’s primary current research focus is on how selection shapes mechanisms that regulate defences such as pain, fever, anxiety and low mood. His work emphasises the utility of negative emotions, and how a signal detection analysis (the “smoke detector principle”) explains why defence expression so often seems excessive.

He notes that low mood is useful to disengage effort from unreachable goals, and failure to disengage often leads to depression. Closely related is his work on how social selection for relationship partners can shape human capacities for altruism, empathy and complex sociality.

Neil Shubin, University of Chicago

Neil Shubin has been one of the major forces behind a new evolutionary synthesis of expeditionary palaeontology, developmental genetics, and genomics.

He has found new fossils that change the way we think about many of the key transitions in evolution: from the reptile-mammal transition and the water-land transformation, to the origin of frogs, salamanders, turtles and flying reptiles.

John H. Vandermeer, University of Michigan

John is one of the great names in ecology having undertaken an extraordinary professional journey throughout his career: from population theory to sustainable agriculture and the role of ecologists as potential agents of social and political change.

Martin Daly, McMaster University

What does evolution tell us about homicide? Trained in the study of nonhuman animal behaviour, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have brought a Darwinian perspective to bear on human social behaviour, including interpersonal conflict as manifested in homicide and nonlethal violence.

Jim Chisholm, University of Western Australia

Prof. Chisholm uses the principles of evolutionary ecology, life history theory, sexual selection theory and parental investment theory to investigate the role of early psychosocial stress and attachment history in the evolution and development of theory of mind, the capacity for culture and the development of alternative reproductive strategies and their implications for health and health inequalities.

Ross Crozier, James Cook University

What can ants tell us about evolution?

Ross Crozier’s interest in biology began from watching ants and termites in South East Asia as a child.

He’s explored many aspects of the evolution and genetics of social insects, for example how do they recognise and estimate relatedness?

Jonathan Foster, University of Western Australia

He has combined a career in the UK and Australia as a senior international researcher in cognitive neuroscience with a role as consultant neuropsychologist in clinical practice. Foster’s research has focused on the key mechanisms underpinning the changes that occur in neurocognitive functioning across the lifespan.

Peter Gluckman, University of Auckland

Peter’s research encompasses the hormonal regulation of fetal and postnatal growth, developmental neuroscience and neuroprotection, and comparative aspects of the evolutionary-developmental biology interface.

Michael Goddard, University of Melbourne

Since his PhD on genetics of guide-dogs for the blind (1973-77), Michael Goddard has worked on research into the genetic improvement of livestock. This concentrates on the utilisation of molecular genetics in livestock improvement. For instance, he helped develop the concept of “genomic selection” and is now applying this to dairy and beef cattle.

David Green, Monash University

David’s proof of the universality of networks in 1992 showed that networks (nodes linked by edges) are inherent in both the structure and behaviour of all complex systems. It also established a link between evolution and self-organisation in general.

Colin Groves, Australian National University

Colin Groves’ has worked for 40 years on the taxonomy and phylogeny of primates (including humans) and other mammals.

This research has involved work in museums, fieldwork in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, and much writing and lecturing on evolution and in opposition to creationist fantasies.

Brian Hall, Dalhousie University

Prof. Hall trained as an experimental embryologist at the University of New England (UNE), Armidale (NSW), and is an expert on skeletal development. He has played a major role in integrating evolutionary and developmental biology into the discipline now known as Evolutionary Developmental Biology (evo-devo).

Ary Hoffmann, University of Melbourne

Ary Hoffmann has shown how natural populations evolve in response to environmental stresses, initially using Drosophila as a model system and later applying the same approaches to beneficials and pest organisms.

His research has led to major advances in understanding how stressful periods influence evolutionary rates, how insects adapt to overcome stressful conditions, and when evolutionary limits occur.

John Long, Museum Victoria

John’s research work has focussed on the early evolution of fishes in Australia and other parts of Gondwana. He has collected fossils throughout Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Africa, and has been on two expeditions to Antarctica. He has become well-known for his discoveries of well-preserved Devonian age fish fossils from Gogo, in the Kimberley (including his discovery of Mcnamaraspis, the state fossil emblem of Western Australia), and of dinosaurs and marine reptile fossils in Western Australia.

Rick Shine, University of Sydney

Rick’s studies on sexual selection in snakes and lizards have provided some of the first and most detailed information on topics such as sperm competition, cryptic female choice, and sexual conflict.

His recent studies on invasive cane toads have documented remarkably rapid evolutionary responses both in the toads and in the Australian species with which they interact, suggesting that an evolutionary perspective can play a critical role in formulating solutions to conservation issues.

Suzanne Sadedin, Monash University and University of Tennessee

Fortunately, a flirtation with computer science provided Suzanne with an avenue into theoretical evolution.

Her recent work includes investigations of cultural evolution, social networks, landscape genetics and the evolution of complexity.

Thomas Suddendorf, University of Queensland

Thomas’ research interests include the cognitive abilities of primates and young children and the evolution of the human mind. Of particular interest to him are representational capacities such as those related to understanding of self, time and mind.

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