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2019th Stated Meeting: Forty Years of Evolution

Watch video of this event.

On March 5, 2015, Peter and Rosemary Grant presented their compelling evidence—drawn from forty years of studying the Galápagos finches—of evolution in action. (The event, which served as the 2019th Stated Meeting of the Academy, was live-streamed to New York and Chicago, where experts local experts on subject moderated simultaneous discussions.)

In an excerpt from his opening remarks, Dr. Fanton discusses the Academy’s historical interest in ornithological matters, not to mention the role the Academy played in the 1860 Agassiz-Gray debate about Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”: evolution.

One of my primary goals as president of the American Academy is to engage as many of our Fellows as possible in our projects, publications, and programs. To that end, we live-streamed our November Stated Meeting about US-Russia relations to a group of Fellows gathered in New York City. The format proved so successful that we decided we would try to make it a regular feature for our meetings and add additional cities. So I am delighted to report that this evening’s program is now live in three locations. In addition to Cambridge, we are being joined by Academy members and their guests gathered at the New York and Chicago offices of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Greetings from Cambridge to our friends and colleagues in both cities.

All three audiences will enjoy the presentations and panel discussion here in Cambridge. Following the formal remarks, while the panel here is fielding questions from the audience, the New York and Chicago audiences will engage in their own discussions. In Chicago, the conversation will be moderated by Trevor Price, Professor of Biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. Dr. Price is a leading expert on bird evolution, ecology, and conservation. In New York, the conversation will be led by Jonathan Weiner, the Maxwell M. Geffen Professor of Medical and Scientific Journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Among his many honors is a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time.

We are grateful that such distinguished experts have agreed to participate in this evening’s program. And, once again, I want to thank Academy Fellow Mark Kaplan for suggesting that we live-stream our events to groups across the country, and for facilitating our use of the conference spaces at Skadden Arps.

Tonight, our featured speakers are Peter and Rosemary Grant, a remarkable team whose research provides compelling demonstrable evidence of evolution in action in the Galápagos finches. For 40 years, they have examined the beauty and wonder of change over time, and their research has been seminal in numerous fields of study, including evolution, ecology, and population biology. Moreover, their work continues to inspire new generations of young researchers who seek to understand what Darwin once called “the mystery of mysteries.”

As many of you know, the American Academy has been an important venue for discussions of scientific discoveries as well as debates about the meanings of controversial theories. Perhaps the most important of these debates began in January 1860, when biologist Louis Agassiz and botanist Asa Gray initiated the famous conversations that helped to introduce Darwin’s theory of evolution in the United States.

But, in fact, the Academy’s interest in the natural history of birds preceded the Agassiz-Gray debates by several decades. In 1783, we received a letter about the winter habits of house swallows from Samuel Dexter, a minister in Dedham, Massachusetts. He would be elected to the American Academy in 1791. Dexter’s letter begins:

“Among more important branches of natural history with which you are conversant, ornithology cannot have escaped your notice. I know it has been a problem among naturalists, whether certain species of birds emigrate in autumn to distant countries, and return in the spring, or remain with us during the winter in a torpid state; and that the former opinion has generally prevailed. When therefore, I acquaint you that I have adopted the latter, with respect to the house-swallow.”

His letter then proceeds to describe a series of observations—some his own, some the observations of a neighbor and a local judge—about the ways in which Massachusetts swallows allegedly burrow in river mud to survive the cold of winter.

This myth of swallow hibernation is at least as old as Aristotle, and it troubled ornithologists well into the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Academy’s interest in the so-called retreat of swallows was not confined to the letter of Samuel Dexter. In subsequent years, the Academy received at least two more letters on the retreat of swallows in winter. One arrived in April 1790 from a legislator in New York. And in January of 1791, we received one from a local minister. All three were published in the Academy Memoirs, now available on JSTOR.

The Academy’s stated mission is to advance “useful knowledge,” by which we mean the research and ideas that might improve American life in one way or another. But in these letters, one can recognize a more fundamental curiosity at work, the basic desire of Academy Fellows to better understand the world in which they live.

This evening’s program therefore combines three of the Academy’s oldest traditions: an ornithological tradition, a tradition of advancing “useful knowledge,” and a tradition of curiosity-driven research.

At this point, Dr. Fanton intoduced as moderator Fellow Jonathan Losos, the Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Curator in Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

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