Centre for Ecology and Evolution


History of Darwin's Birthday Debate

A brief history of the Darwin's Birthday Debates organised by CEE. Thanks to Jim Mallet and Sandra Knapp for compiling.

1809Charles Robert Darwin born 12 February   
1992The "London Evolution Group", forerunner of the CEE, founded. Evolutionary biologists were felt to be scattered across the London area, and should get to know each other better. And have more parties.   
1993We had a Darwin's Birthday Party at our house.   
 About here, the Evolution Special Interest Group of the Linnean Society is founded.   
1994Derek Briggs & Simon Conway Morris on "Evolution in the Cambrian: Biology's big Bang? Or just a damp squib?" Linnean Society of London, Piccadilly. Both agree that Steven Jay Gould misinterpreted their work.   
 About here, the CEE is founded. Originally to keep Robin Dunbar from leaving UCL for Liverpool. Robin Dunbar goes to Liverpool anyway, money remains; Linda Partridge arrives, becomes director of the CEE.   
1995John Maynard Smith & Stuart Kauffman on "Is life at the edge of chaos?" Linnean Society of London, Piccadilly. Friendly disagreement. John Maddox, the editor of Nature, writes leading article "Polite Row about Models...". The Santa Fé Institute also has a write-up about this, "The Great Complexity Debate".   
1996Russ Lande & Steve O'Brien on: "Conservation genetics: is it useful?" Linnean Society of London, Piccadilly. Speakers disagree   
1997Mild problems with The Linnean Society of London, Piccadilly, and anyway we couldn't think of a subject. We just had a party at our house.   
1998Jim Lake & Tom Cavalier Smith: "The Tree of Life." First DBP to be held at the Natural History Museum.   
1999Jim Patton & Steve Hubbell: "Why are there so many species in the tropics?" Natural History Museum.  Steve Hubbell later (2001) publishes "The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography.  Princeton University Press.   
2000Peter Holland & Enrico Coen: "Evolution and Development." Natural History Museum.   
2001Michael Foote & Blair Hedges: "The Phylogenetic Fuse." Natural History Museum. Organised by Mike Coates and Sandra Knapp. Over supper, Blair Hedges is hit on the head with a toy hammer by supporter of Michael Foote.   
2002Camille Parmesan & Brian Huntley. "Evolution and Ecology of Climate Change: Past, Present and Future." Natural History Museum.   
2003Chris Stringer and Mark Stoneking. "Origin of our species."  Natural History Museum   
2004Nick Barton and Mohamed Noor.  "Species and the origins of biodiversity."  Natural History Museum.   
2005Michael Lynch and Michael Ashburner.  "Evolution: the genomic view."  Natural History Museum.   
2006Geoff West and Sean Nee. "Do general laws explain ecology and evolution?" Natural History Museum.   
2007Jeremy Jackson and Steve Palumbi. "The past, present and future of evolution under the sea" Natural History Museum.   
2008David Stern and Brian Charlesworth. "Natura non facit saltum.  Or does it?"  Natural History Museum.   
2009Rob Barton & Robin Dunbar "Organs of extreme perfection and complication: how brains evolved" Natural History Museum.   
2010Sandy Knapp (standing in for Georgina Mace) & Bill Adams "Biodiversity 2010: are we locked on target?" Natural History Museum.   
2011Gavin Naylor & Janine Caira "Do hosts determine the distribution of parasites in the oceans?" Natural History Museum.   
2012David Gems & Daryl Shanley "How aging evolves" Natural History Museum.   
2013Detlev Arendt & Hervé Philippe " 25 years since Field et al. - will the real Urbilateria please stand up?" Natural History Museum.   

Laurent Lehmann & David Haig "rb>c@50 - the golden anniversary of Hamilton's rule"
Natural History Museum - held on Darwin's actual birthday!!


Title of Debate: How Did Life on Earth Begin?
Natural History Museum

Speaker: Dave Deamer, Department of Bimolecular Engineering, University of California, Santa Cruz CA
Title: Polymerization in hydrothermal conditions: Darwin's prescient idea.
Abstract: In an often quoted note to Joseph Hooker in 1871, Darwin speculated that life may have begun in a "warm little pond." We have tested this idea in simulations of fluctuating hydrothermal fields associated with volcanism. We found that the chemical energy available in such conditions can drive polymerization of ordinary mononucleotides into surprisingly long oligonucleotides resembling ribonucleic acid (RNA). The polymerization occurs in lipid environments so that the RNA-like polymers become encapsulated in membranous compartments to form protocells, the first milestone on the evolutionary path toward primitive cellular life. 

Speaker: Nick Lane, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL
Title: Energy and Matter at the Origin of Life

Abstract: There is a paradox at the base of life. Membrane bioenergetics - the use of ion gradients across membranes to drive carbon and energy metabolism - are universal, but membranes are not. Radical differences between bacteria and archaea in membrane chemistry and active ion pumping suggest that LUCA, the last universal common ancestor, may have used natural proton gradients in alkaline hydrothermal vents to drive growth. I will outline a possible scenario for the origin of life in this environment, and present some experimental and modelling results which suggest that proton gradients could have driven the transition from geochemistry to biochemistry, and the deep divergence of archaea and bacteria.



Title of Debate: How does animal behaviour influence evolution?

Speaker: Professor Rebecca Kilner, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge
Title: Life After Death: Social Evolution in a Grave

Abstract: Although it is well-understood how evolution influences animal behaviour, it is much clear how adaptive behaviour then influences the subsequent course of evolution. Our lab focuses on one sort of behaviour, parental care, and uses experiments on the burying beetle to analyse how parental care influences distinct components of the evolutionary process. I will describe experiments that show how burying beetle parents influence the ecological conditions experienced by developing offspring, how parents can be agents of natural selection, and how different regimes of post-hatching care can accelerate or retard the pace of evolutionary change.

Speaker: Professor Jane Reid, School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen
Title: Polyandry and Inbreeding: Social Evolution and Mating

Abstract:Reproductive strategies enacted by individual organisms define social interactions and influence allele and genotype frequencies in subsequent generations, and thereby shape the course of evolution. However, we still do not fully understand the evolution or persistence of the widespread reproductive strategies that involve multiple mating, inbreeding and parental care. I applied quantitative genetic analyses to comprehensive pedigree, reproductive strategy and fitness data from socially monogamous but genetically promiscuous song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), to estimate genetic (co)variances that could drive or constrain ongoing micro-evolution of reproductive strategies.These analyses show how interactions between females and males can shape reproductive strategies, and illustrate how key evolutionary hypotheses can be explicitly tested in nature.


Title of Debate: On the Origins of the Domestic Dog

Speaker:  Professor Love Dalen, Swedish Museum of Natural History
Title: Recalibrating canid evolution using ancient DNA

Abstract: Most researchers agree that the wolf is the ancestor of the dog, and that dogs were domesticated sometime during the last Ice Age. However, there is considerable disagreement on where and how domestication happened, as well as exactly when the divergence between dogs and wolves took place. The aim of this talk is to outline how recent genomic data from Pleistocene canid remains now allows us to start disentangling the history of dogs and wolves in much better detail. 

Speaker: Professor Greger Larson, University of Oxford
Title: On the Impossibility of Dogs

Abstract: The earth is home to 150 million dogs. And dogs were unequivocally the first domestic plant or animal. Despite their ongoing pivotal role in human history, we don’t really understand where and when and how many times they were domesticated. In this talk I will focus on why we still know nothing and describe efforts underway that will lead to a satisfying answer.


Title of Debate: 60 Years of Central Dogma

Speaker:  Professor Aoife McLysaght, Trinty College Dublin
Title: Turning noise into information


Speaker: Professor Matthew Cobb, University of Manchester
Title: What did Crick’s ‘central dogma’ really mean?   

Abstract:60 years ago, Francis Crick’s article ‘On protein synthesis’ was published, based on lecture he gave the previous year. I will explore what he was trying to do in the lecture, and in particular what exactly he meant by the ‘central dogma’, the extent to which this was a change over previous ways of understanding what is in a gene, and how his ideas have been misinterpreted and misunderstood, in particular in textbooks. 


Title of Debate: The next stage of Human Evolution

Speaker: Anne Stone Arizona State University
Title: The future of human evolution: we are what we eat if we survive the pathogens we keep?

Abstract: We can gain insight into the future of human evolution by looking at our past. Research in my laboratory focuses on evolutionary history and understanding how humans and other primates have adapted to their environments, including their disease and dietary environments. I will discuss how we use genetic data to understand how diet and disease have shaped our genomes and affected our population history.

Speaker: Virpi Lummaa University of Turku
Title: Natural selection – now!

Abstract: The Industrial Revolution and the accompanying nutritional, epidemiological and demographic changes have profoundly changed human ecology and biology, leading to major shifts for example in our disease patterns, lifespan, family size or age at puberty. These recent social and cultural adaptations have cast doubt on the continued relevance of Darwinian selection in humans – we now have modern medical care and effective contraceptive methods so does that mean evolution by natural selection has stopped? I will discuss how mismatches between past adaptations and the current environment mean that gene variants linked to higher fitness in the past may now predispose us to non-communicable diseases, such as Alzheimer disease, cancer and coronary artery disease. Moreover, in both traditional and industrialized societies, differences among individuals still lead to selection favouring certain heritable traits because although survival to old age can be high, not everyone has the same family size and many forego reproduction altogether. In line with this, increasing evidence suggests that the transition to modernity has also altered the direction and intensity of natural selection acting on many traits, with important implications for public and global health.

2020Title of Debate: The Biodiversity Crisis: Innovations and Solutions

Speaker: Dr Lynn Dicks - University of Cambridge
Title: TBC

Speaker: Dr Alex Dehgan - Conservation X Labs
Title: TBC

Title of Debate: Mathematical Modelling in Evolution

Speaker: Steve Frank - University of California, Irvine
Title: Microbial metabolism: demography shapes biochemistry

Speaker: Sally Otto - University of British Columbia
Title: Linking levels of selection with genetic modifiers

2022Title of Debate: Viruses and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Speaker: Professor Kate Jones - University College London
Title: 'How Bats Changed the World'

Speaker: Professor Francois Balloux - University College London
Title: 'The Ever Changing Host Range' and Genetic Landscape of SARS-COV-2'

Speaker: Professor Mark Jit - London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Title: 'COVID-19: What Does Return to Normal Look Like?'
2023Title of Debate: Science, Policy and Activism
Professor Richard Gregory, RSBP
Dr Tristram Wyatt, Oxford University 
2024Title: Celebrating 30 years of CEE
Professor Nick Barton, IST Vienna
Professor Ashleigh Griffin, Oxford University