Tag Archives: evolution

More or less?

Very interesting after-work drink with Mary Beth Williams, the recently appointed Eberly College of Science Dean for Undergraduate Education and a guest instructor on this course (nano).  She was looking for ideas on how to better engage research-active faculty in undergrad education. I was after a solution to the question which is really starting to bother me about 2012.  Should we go for more students (e.g. 400) or should we go elite niche (e.g. 20 Schreyer Honors students)? The status quo (100 random students) is also an option.

My instincts are to go elite: teach the students most guaranteed to be leaders of the free world. But Mary Beth might have just talked me out of that. Among the students who did not get elite grades at school will be many leaders of the free world (true). We pay the elite students to be here; the paying students deserve at least as much (true). People in all walks of life deserve to be scientifically literate – not just the elite (so true). Maybe the impact I can have on the elite is negligible – they’re doing fine on their own (true). And certainly among my ‘ordinary’ students, there really are many extraordinary individuals.

Hux 3.jpgHaldane.jpgOddly, her arguments made me think of Huxley and especially Haldane, two outstanding evolutionary biologists who took engagement with the wider citizenry very seriously. Mary Beth had heard of neither of them, but that is because she is an impoverished chemist. One was from the chosen elite, the other not. Both made a real difference to their generations by not being elitist.

15-love to Mary Beth.

Medicine and evolution

Three seemingly unconnected happenings.
1.  Last night, I was at dinner for PSU’s Physician Alumni, a dinner put on by the Eberly College of Science.  Interesting how lives in medicine work out.  I got a real sense of people hungry for intellectual stimulation. 
Two things stood out.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was interested in how this course is going.  They all loved the aspiration, and immediately got the vision.  They are also very curious as to how we are trying to achieve it – and whether it is working.  I keep saying it’s too early to say….  a line that should work for at least the next few years.
The other thing was a conversation with a cancer surgeon.  We got talking because I could name the first US surgeon to successfully remove a lung*, something I learnt teaching this course.  But our conversation then meandered into evolution.  The surgeon was concerned that humans had not been around long enough to evolve into what makes us humans.  I realized after that I completely mishandled the conversation.  A problem like this needs to be better defined.  What trait(s) did he have in mind?  Everything follows from that.  We share SO much with other primates.  Lets say Homo sapiens became recognizably distinct just 100,000 years ago.  How much of what happened since is evolutionary, in the sense of genetic change? Probably not too much.  Indeed, if I had one of those first humans in my class, could I pick them out?  If they had been raised in a modern American family, I bet not.
2.  George Williams just died.  One of the first to aggressively argue that medical students and physicians need to know more evolution.  But he said even more important things.  His master peice was his 1966 book Adaptation and Natural Selection.  Oh, to think and write with even 20% of that clarity.  George, so long and thanks for all the fish.
3.  The course blog just got its first evolution post.  An impressively brave student statement.  Lets see where this discussion goes.
*The surgeon I met pointed out that for every operation there are two firsts: the first time it is attempted, and the first time the patient survives.