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Evolutionary Biologist Sean Carroll at the Toronto Science Festival

Science is like music, art, or literature. It is to be shared," says Professor Sean Carroll. (photo courtesy of Sean Carroll)

From September 27th to the 29th, the University of Toronto is presenting the first annual Toronto Science Festival, a three-day celebration of science that explores the theme of Life in the Universe. (Read more about the festival)

On Friday, September 27th, evolutionary biologist, “evo devo” pioneer, author and educator Sean Carroll will deliver a keynote talk. (Read more about Carroll)

Carroll's research focuses on genes and the role they play in the evolution of animal form and diversity. He is a prolific science communicator, and author of such books as Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, The Making of the Fittest and Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo.

Why do so many people today not accept evolution according to Darwin?

First, it is not just evolution according to Darwin. It is evolution according to more than 150 years of geology, paleontology, genetics and embryology—an edifice built and tested by tens of thousands of scientists.

Why deny evolution? The simplest explanation is conflict with religious dogma that insists on a divine, rather than a natural explanation for diversity of life and the origin of our own species.

A second cause is the lack of exposure to evolutionary science and evidence. Historically, evolution has not been well-covered or well-taught, particularly in the U.S.

How do you face this challenge and the related challenge of active evolution deniers?

Education. Education. Education.

This is a major reason why I reduced my time in the lab to head the Science Education efforts of the Howard Hughes Medical institute (HHMI), the largest private supporter of science education in the U.S. The challenge is broader than evolutionary science—although that is a good “canary in the coal mine.” The challenge is to improve understanding of the scientific process in general.

I should note that I don’t spend much, if any time, worrying about or countering evolution deniers. I don’t think that is a good use of energy or time. I don’t think people over the age of about 22 change their minds on such fundamental questions. My focus is on future generations—on students, and the people who are and will be teaching them. Our best hope for shifting attitudes is through exposure to  good science and good teaching.

What the heck is “Evo Devo”?

“Evo Devo” is short for Evolutionary Developmental Biology, which is the field concerned with how changes in the forms of animals and plants evolve. By form I mean things like the size, shape, number, and color of body parts. These features are the product of embryonic development, so changes in form are ultimately due to changes in development. The field blossomed in the past 30 years because of breakthroughs in understanding the genetic control of development, which enabled us to gain some surprising insights into the genetic basis of the evolution of bodies and body parts.

Your latest book, Brave Genius, is about biologist Jacque Monod. Who is Jacques Monod and why did you write about him?

Jacques Monod was a co-founder of the field of molecular biology, the science concerned with understanding how life operates at the most fundamental level. I wrote a book about him not merely because he was a great scientist, but because he lived a remarkable life, and was fully engaged in the dramatic, sometimes earth-shaking events swirling around him.

He was a significant member of the French Resistance during World War II, a leading critic of the Soviet perversion of science in the decades following the War, a valued friend of the great writer Albert Camus, a prominent public figure in France in the tumultuous 1960’s, and a leading voice of science who had much to say about science’s place in our culture.

The Toronto Science Festival is about celebrating science. Why is this important to you?

Science is like music, art, or literature. It is to be shared. And, being a source of insights into our species, our planet and the Universe, it is essential.