Biologist’s view of planet has evolved since Darwin

| October 27, 2009

Evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson is working on her second book but she won’t be reprising the alter ego she created for her first, the bestselling “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation.”

Judson, a research fellow at the Imperial College London and author of the weekly online New York Times column “The Wild Side,” will present a sneak peek of the book at Sweet Briar College in her lecture, “Glad to Have Evolved.” She will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3 in Murchison Lane Auditorium at Babcock Fine Arts Center. Admission is free and open to the public.

“Dr. Tatiana” tackles the evolutionary biology of animal sex in the guise of an advice column. She answers questions like one from I Like ’Em Headless in Lisbon, who begins, “I’m a European praying mantis, and I’ve noticed I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers’ heads off first.”

As Dr. Tatiana, Judson parlayed the serious and often strange science of evolution’s most fundamental process into a popular book and three-part television series. But she turned down her publisher’s request for a sequel. Speaking by phone from her home in London, she said she wasn’t interested in writing the same book over and over.

Her lecture will cover some aspects of the new book which, put simply, is about the planet we live on and how 4.5 billion years of life evolving on its surface transformed it from boring to awe-inspiring. Earth today, she said, has largely been built by living organisms.

The notion that biology accounts for much of Earth’s present-day geology is relatively new science. And it’s a reversal of our understanding of the primary patterns of evolution — where the geology comes first and burgeoning life adapts to survive on it. Species do evolve, of course, but it works both ways. Judson cited studies showing more than half the minerals on Earth exist as a consequence of living beings.

And that’s good, because if you think about it, she said, “A planet that never had life would be much less interesting than this one.”

Judson will touch on three of Charles Darwin’s insights — common ancestry, natural selection and sexual selection — and comment on how we understand them today.

But don’t expect Darwin to dominate the conversation, despite this year being the sesquicentennial of his “On the Origin of Species.” Not to diminish him or the work, she said, but, “I’m interested in the current field and too much Darwin worship is a mistake. ‘Origin’ did change everything but it is also a historical document.”

The study of evolution didn’t start or end with Darwin, she notes, and if it did all rest on one man, that would be dull, too. “I think it would be quite nice to write a book about evolution without talking about Darwin,” Judson said.

She hopes people will come away with a different perspective of the planet, and a sense of wonder. There is an implicit message that if life on Earth — from the tiniest bacterium to humans — fundamentally alters the rock under our feet, there are implications for the way we live. But she isn’t interested in spelling them out.

“It’s more powerful when you come to them yourself rather than being told,” she said. “Evolutionists can be terribly bullying. I would much rather explore the wonder of the planet. It sounds a little bit mystical, but I don’t mean to be mystical. It’s just that the more I learn about the planet, the more I am amazed by it.”

Judson will sign copies of “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation” following the lecture. For more information, contact jsteven@sbc.edu or call (434) 381-6365.

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Biology