"The Natural History of Creation: An Evolutionary Snapshot"

Origins and Evolution Symposium
Indiana Memorial Union, Whittenberger Auditorium
October 10, 2009

Introduction and Acknowledgments

I am delighted to be able to say a few words at the opening of this symposium.

It goes almost without saying that in this year, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of the Species, it is particularly appropriate for such a symposium to be held.

It really is a wonderful idea to bring together all of IU’s experts in research on topics from the origins of the universe to the origins of modern life to speak on what we might think of as the “state of the art” in their disciplines.

I want to congratulate all of the IU researchers present here today working in all the many areas concerned with origins or evolution in any field from cosmology to anthropology, for the outstanding quality of their work, which not only sharpens and extends our understanding of these areas, but which brings honor and distinction to Indiana University.

I particularly want to congratulate Kathy Schick, Nick Toth and all their colleagues at the Stone Age Institute and elsewhere in IU who have been responsible for organizing this symposium. Let me also say that I am a great fan of the Stone Age Institute and that all that Kathy and Nick have done to pursue with enormous energy, creativity and entrepreneurial zeal their research in early human evolution. And their superb facility just outside Bloomington is a showpiece of the difference that the passion and commitment of two people can make.

David Starr Jordan

Cathy also reminded me that one of my predecessors—David Starr Jordan, the 7th President of Indiana University—was an evolutionary biologist who studied fish, and that he was one of the strongest proponents of evolution in the late 19th Century and early 20th. Jordan claimed to have taught the world’s first college course on evolution and wrote two books on the topic: Darwinism (1888) and Footnotes to Evolution (1898). He chaired the Tennessee Evolution Case Defense Fund Committee for the ACLU in 1925 and raised funds for John Scopes’ defense and for his own future graduate training in geology at the University of Chicago. Jordan left IU to become the first president of Stanford University, and Stanford and IU jointly sponsor the David Starr Jordan Prize, an international award given every three years to honor a young scientist’s innovations in evolution, ecology, and population biology.

Natural History of Creation

The aggregate of all the scientific knowledge that will be described and expounded on today provides nothing short of the natural history of creation.

This is, I believe, one of the greatest achievements of human creativity.

That bipedals, inhabiting what astronomers tell us (and what Katy Pilachowski will describe far more learnedly than I) is the third planet of a yellow, G2V-type star, located in the Gould Belt near the inner rim of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, could work out not only where they came from, but where everything else came from is nothing short of astounding.

The bipedals’ reasoning engine—which neuroscientists tell us is made of 50 to 100 billion neurons wired together with fat wrapped axons, of which the total length is about 100,000 miles—weighs only about 3 pounds on average, and yet it can grasp and analyze the dynamics and structure of the Universe, the observable part of which is at least 93 billion light years in diameter.

An Evolutionary Chronology

Somehow these creatures, or a least the cosmologists among them like Tim Londergan, worked out that the Universe is 13 billion and 730 million years old, give or take 120 million years.

They also worked out almost all that happened to the Universe after the first tiny fraction of a second, and then got bogged down in arguments over what happened before this, arguments which it is hoped that the Large Hadron Collider will help resolve when it finally comes on line next year. Incidentally, as Tim or others might describe in more detail later, IU has played a major part in the development of the Atlas experiment—one of the four major experiments on the LHC.

Cosmologists and high energy physicists found that at the very beginning the young Universe was a very hot, rapidly expanding soup filled with exotic elementary particles and anti-particles. After about one millionth of a second, the soup cooled sufficiently to curdle, so that protons and neutrons formed, and soon electrons and positrons. Soon atoms and matter were formed, and the radiation decoupled from matter and went out into space on its own. Today we can still see it as the cosmic microwave background.

Fast forward 9 billion and 160 million years, skipping all the gory details of how galaxies were formed and elements produced, which Katy I gather may describe later.

About 26 thousand light years away from the Milky Way core, a hydrogen cloud collapsed, and the Sun was born.

Some 30 million years later, according to geologists—and I gather Basu will talk on this later as well—planets formed in the disk of matter spinning around it.

The third planet was lucky because another planet, the size of Mars, collided with it only 10 million years later, and the matter ejected formed the Moon. The planet was lucky because this event gave it a tremendous fast spinning iron core, a strong magnetic field, and a companion that would knead its crust and its oceans for another 4 billion and 530 million years.

Only 500 million years later first self-replicating molecules formed in the planet’s ocean, which was like a huge chemical, Moon-stirred, reaction vessel.

Another 500 million years saw what I gather evolutionary biologists call the Last Universal Ancestor of the bipedals, fully equipped in the DNA genetics and multiplying by cellular division.

Hundred of millions of years of evolution took place in the context of cataclysmic global events such as asteroid strikes, massive glaciations, oxygen catastrophes—all so severe that according to biologists and geologists life on earth was almost wiped out a number of times, and only survived for long periods huddling around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, which is Lisa Pratt’s area of expertise and on which I gather she will speak later today.

Not until there was enough CO2 and methane in the planet’s atmosphere to melt the ice could life come back to the surface and begin to colonize the planet’s continents.

Colonization of the Earth

This was life’s greatest undertaking—to colonize the land.

It went very fast afterwards so biologists tell us.

In a geological blink of an eye, the planet’s continents filled with forests and animals, some of them bipedal with manipulative forelimbs and inquiring brains.

They ploughed fields, raised animals and stock, mined ores and coal, built cities, indulged in business and culture, brewed beer and fermented grains for whiskey.

It took centuries and centuries of work by some of the most brilliant minds in the history of humanity and armies of other contributors, many of whom will never be recognized or known, but eventually the bipedal creatures of the third planet of the G2V-type star, located in the Gould Belt near the inner rim of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy did work out where they came from.

And this, the natural history of creation, is truly one of the greatest achievements of human creativity as I’m sure will be described comprehensively today in all its magnificence.


With that, my thanks again for the opportunity to open this symposium, which will, I am sure, maintain and contribute to IU's great and historic commitment to research in origins and evolution.

Thank you.