According to this article, 2009 will be the year of Charles Darwin. In honor of his two hundredth birthday and the 150th anniversary of his revolutionary publication, Origin of Species, the U.K.'s Open University and the Royal Society will be organizing a global hands-on experience for all ages, called Evolution Megalab. What the organizers have in mind is this:
"From Darwin’s birthday on February 12th to the Origin’s anniversary on November 24th there will be an unequalled spate of high-profile broadcasting and public events throughout the world. There will be public interest in every area of Darwin’s life, his science and his world. A central feature of Darwin’s genius was has ability to see evolutionary processes operating within commonplace observations of natural history. The aim of the Evolution Megalab is to show the public, of all ages from schoolchildren to grandparents, that thanks to Darwin’s illuminating insight, they too can see evolution at work in the natural world around them."
“They too can see evolution at work in the natural world around them?” But how are all these eager folk going to “see” something in a year’s time that takes untold millennia to accomplish? The organizers continue…
"The most accessible example of the science arising from this perception of evolution is provided by research on banded snails in the genus Cepaea…[which] occur through many parts of the UK and continental Europe and in most populations display easily seen [variation] in shell colour and banding….We now also know that there are correlations with temperature and latitude that indicate that snail behaviour and shell morph are also locally adapted to climate, together with many patterns of geographic variation which have not yet successfully been explained in terms of natural selection…[We hope to] motivate the general public to participate and also illustrate the on-going nature of natural selection."
Ahhh! I see. This will be an opportunity for the public to witness “natural selection," not evolution. No serious person denies that species undergo natural selection, small adaptations to the environment through random genetic variation, but that’s not what is commonly understood by the term “evolution”—the gradual morphing into an entirely different species over eons.
So despite the hubbub, all that grannies and their grandkids can expect to see is what they could readily observe in their back yards—small, non-directional changes driven by environmental variations. For those hoping to garner a Nobel by filling in the gaps of the evolutionary tree, it's back to Animal Planet. And for the promoters of this project, in the interests of "truth in advertising," I suggest they change the name to Natural Selection MiniLab.
(What do you think about the year of Darwin and Evolution Megalab? Post your toughts here.)