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9 On the Road to Chiapas

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

As 1968 bloomed, we watched in dismay the growing ferocity of the Vietnam War with the shattering surprise of the Tet Offensive at the beginning of the year, the decline of Lyndon Johnson’s hold on the presidency, and the depressing inevitability of Nixon’s election that autumn. However, my time in the U.S. Navy would come to an end early in the summer of 1969, and exciting science beckoned. One enticing new discipline bubbled up about that time from the sudden re-awakening of developmental biology: the study of how organisms develop from the fertilized egg to the adult, with the marvelous unfolding of the elaborate form of an organism from the apparently structureless spherical and homogeneous egg. I looked for postdoctoral opportunities in this new molecular developmental biology being pioneered by just a few labs. Developmental biology had made famous discoveries earlier in the twentieth century through ingenious microsurgical experiments but had languished by the 1960s because of a lack of tools to penetrate further into how embryos work. This was about to change in a completely unexpected way as genes became better understood and ways to study them were found.

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15 Evolution in the Tasman Sea

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

In the early 1980s, I started earnestly hunting for the right organism as an experimental system for delving into evo-devo. I thought the ideal animal would be one in which the evolution of early embryonic and larval development could be readily studied because embryos and larvae are crucial stages in development and are simple in cell numbers and types compared to adults. My first efforts were made using the familiar sea urchins of the Northern Hemisphere. I found that we could explore evo-devo at the gene level in sea urchins and published our first evo-devo paper in 1984. In it we showed that a major innovation in the expression of histone genes in sea urchin eggs had taken place with the origins of advanced sea urchins in the Mesozoic, while brontosaurs munched their way across the landscape. We could thus correlate a unique gene regulatory mechanism with a set of macroevolutionary events in sea urchin evolution. But the events were too distant in the past to help unravel ongoing developmental evolution. So I’d have to look farther afield.

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19 Creationist Makeovers

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

By the 1960s the scene had shift ed again. The shock of America being beaten into space by the Russian launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite ever placed in orbit, thrust the quality of our science versus their science into the hysteria of Cold War rhetoric. On the plus side, the Sputnik debacle at least prompted thinking about a renewal in public school science education. I know that I benefited from the boom in science education funding that followed. The creationists, once so loud, had vanished from the public eye in the years following the Scopes Trial, because they had for all practical purposes won and no longer needed to be active. Publishers had cooled creationist fervor by letting evolution slip away from school textbooks. Nevertheless, creationists lay like dormant termites within the walls of American life. When new curricula and high school biology texts eventually restored the teaching of evolution as a fundamental idea of biology, creationism reappeared in fully energized righteousness.

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1 Space-Time

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

I am enthralled by time. As long as I can recall I’ve wanted to know how the familiar world we take for granted came about. This has been a lifelong fascination because the past is truly not just another country but a chain of linked and ever stranger other worlds. Our evolutionary origins lie in these former worlds, which grow not only more alien but also fainter and more elusive as we look ever deeper. The passage of years and the eclipse of memory also obscure our personal origins. Like detectives, we have to tease out our pasts from imperfect and concealed evidence. On the greatest earthly scale, the geological record of the planet and the record of the evolution of life upon it have been likened to a book left to us with most of its pages torn out. On a personal level we suffer from lost family records, deceased witnesses, and the erroneous illusion that our own so-certain memories are accurate. Our efforts to answer questions on these vastly different scales will succeed with some, but others will remain elusive, and new questions will arise like dimly seen specters, shyly but persistently standing at the edge of our vision.

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12 Dining with Darwin

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

Biologists like to have a sense of connection with places or events associated with Darwin. That comes mainly from reading Voyage of the Beagle, which along with the great Darwin biography industry has given us an amazing sense of intimacy with him, a sort of feeling of kinship. I feel it, too, and I have enjoyed my contacts with Darwin’s traces even though I’ve never tried to follow his Beagle travels. The first Darwin site I saw happened to be the place where he spent most of his post-Beagle life and where he wrote Origin of Species. That was Down House in Kent, about sixteen miles south of London, which Beth and I visited in September 1974. Our trip there was long before Darwin’s popularity peaked again. Down House was empty of visitors, so we could look around the garden in solitude and stroll the famous sandwalk where Darwin walked for exercise and to think. As we were alone in the place, the custodian opened the cord blocking casual entry into Darwin’s study and showed us around, a treat that may be harder to come by now. The room was preserved pretty much as it had been in Darwin’s time. We stood in front of his desk, his mantel, and his bookcases. I put my hand on his desk. This was the room he wrote in. You might imagine that you could speak to him there, but you can’t reach across time except in imagination.

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