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Evolution Is Subject of New Programs

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September 12, 2005 | by Megan Fellman

The theory that all organisms have descended from common ancestors has stirred passionate debate, discussion and research, especially since 1859 when Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book, “The Origin of Species,” in which he proposed a mechanism for evolution.

Recognizing that faculty and students across a range of disciplines share interests in the origin of the universe and life’s diversity, Northwestern University has established the Interdisciplinary Committee on Evolutionary Processes (ICEP) to bring these scholars together.

Through quarterly seminars and monthly colloquia, ICEP will foster collaborative projects and provide a forum for faculty, students and other individuals to discuss recent research in evolutionary science. In addition, a minor in the study of evolutionary processes will be available to all undergraduates, beginning this academic year.

“Scientists use the term ‘theory’ in a different way than the general population,” said Teresa Horton, director of ICEP and associate professor of neurobiology and physiology. “The word is commonly used to indicate a wild guess. For scientists, a theory, such as the theory of evolution, is an explanation of a natural phenomenon that is based on a large body of knowledge. The explanation has been tested rigorously, is strongly supported by evidence and is well accepted. Learning about the specific mechanisms of evolution can be approached from many perspectives, however, and we want to facilitate the sharing of these rich ideas.”

The quarterly seminars will be delivered by nationally and internationally known scholars in accessible language to a campus-wide audience. The more informal monthly colloquia on research results or a topic of interest will be conducted by faculty from the University or a collaborating Chicago-area institution, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden or Field Museum of Natural History. The first colloquium will be held Oct. 12 on the evolution of developmental biology.

Students who elect the minor will take a series of four required courses to provide a common foundation of basic science, population genetics and paleontology. They will then select four elective courses ranging from courses in astronomy (early universe cosmology) to zoology (comparative anatomy). At least one elective course must contain a significant field component or be a collections-based course offered at either the Chicago Botanic Garden or the Field Museum.

ICEP grew out of the Evolution Discussion Group, which formed seven years ago when Horton, Gary Galbreath, associate director of the Program in Biological Sciences (PBS), William Leonard, professor of anthropology, and Bradley Sageman, professor of geological sciences, began to meet because of their common interests in evolution. For administrative purposes, ICEP will be housed within PBS.

For additional information, contact Teresa Horton at (847) 467-2686 orthorton@northwestern.edu.