evolution 2007

Radio silence for the last couple of weeks as I was in New Zealand at the Evolution 2007 meeting. Yes, there is internet access on my small island home, but I’m not one of those superstars who can multitask a big conference and blogging. So before it all dribbles out of my brain, here’s a brief rundown. [link to program pdf]

Russell Gray and I organised a symposium on Cultural Phylogenetics. There are pictures, but they will have to wait another day.

Our speakers (Mark Pagel, Michael Dunn, Simon Greenhill, Quentin Atkinson, Russell, and myself) spoke on different aspects of applying phylogenetic and comparative methods to interesting and cool questions in linguistics and anthropology. Click on the picture for an overview of the talks.

SymposiumProgram

Given that it was early on a Sunday morning we had a great turnout (80-120 people) over the three hours. Really fabulous to have the hardcore evolutionary biologists come along to see some novel applications of “their” methods, and it seemed to be well-received!

The conference had about 900 people in attendance with up to eight simultaneous sessions going on for the four full days, so it was hectic running about from room to room to catch talks. Luckily most of what I wanted to hear was fairly systematically (haha) grouped, so I got to attend a number of talks on phylogenetic theory and methods, behavioural/social evolution, sexual selection, coevolution, and teaching evolution. The last day also had a great session on molecular anthropology, most of which was concentrated on questions about Pacific dispersals and human migrations.

Conferences really are great for making your brain swim 24/7 in a soup of ideas, whether they’re directly related to your work or not. It’s simply stimulating being around loads of other people who like to ask questions and think of clever ways to answer them.

While I was away I read Evolutionary Pathways in Nature: A Phylogenetic Approach by John Avise. It’s a collection of short essays that tackle questions about different critters, from spider-web building to the tracking of the AIDS virus in humans. What they have in common is that moledular phylogenies have been used to help with the detective work. It was a fun book to dip into (it’s the book the ultra-geeky biologist has in the loo), but the theme was only a thin thread on which to peg the various stories. Although the Introduction and Appendix gave a little background to phylogenetics and molecular systematics, a complete newcomer would no doubt be confused. Sadly (or perhaps not…) I think the popular science book on phylogenetics remains to be written.

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