The year is off to a good start. Last weekend was the IB 372 field trip to southern Illinois for fieldwork and it was a blast. The trip started on Friday at 5pm, when the class met outside Morrill and divided into three vans that soon headed south on I-57. I knew I'd be hungry but figured I would just wait until we stopped at a McDonalds or something; my friend Cally, on the other hand, nonchalantly pulled out two enormous loaves of bread from her bag and offered them to us. To make it even more random, her neighbors had just handed the bread to her right before she left for Morrill. The food was delicious and the drive full of jokes, stories about Africa, singing along to the radio, and intellectual exploration. Gotta love IBH.
We slept at a research station (basically a log cabin) and spent most of Saturday and Sunday outside. On Saturday, we got up at 8am to begin the first part of the day - insect collection. We wanted to analyze insect diversity in three different environments - a soybean field, grassland, and woodland. With huge butterfly nets (just like you'd picture one), we walked through waist-high soybeans, grasses, or bushes while swiping the net back and forth. You couldn't see anything in the greenery so it was really surprising emptying a seemingly empty net into a plastic bag and seeing dozens of flies, spiders, ticks, caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, moths, midges, and more. Speaking of ticks, we all had a lovely time combing our legs for them afterwards and finding an uncomfortably high number of them, especially baby ones that look like tiny dots.
Anyway, the picture on the right is from the soybean field. We went to the grassland and then woodland after that before returning to the station for lunch and then heading out again for the second part of the day - soil analysis. After a small hike in the woods, we found a bog where the ground sloped upwards away from it so we decided to do our research here. We took soil samples to look at the amounts of water and organic carbon in relation to distance from the bog and we looked at the number and diameter of trees in each corresponding area. We also took fish-eye photographs of the tree canopy (by pointing a nice camera straight up and crouching to avoid being in picture) to look at amount of sunlight. When we finally got back to the station, we began sorting the insects into morphospecies (basically, what does this individual looklike it could be?) before a delicious dinner of chili courtesy of Dr. Dalling. After more insect sorting, we headed to a campfire and had s'mores while Dr. Berlocher played guitar and we sang (or, as in my case, listened while those who could sing chose to do so) oldies.
Sunday was much more relaxed, with a hike, lunch, and then drive back to U of I to finally start homework for other classes. It's a good idea to have this field trip during the first weekend because fortunately I didn't have very much. Speaking of classes, though, I get to the second part of the title of this entry: evolution. Evolution fascinates me and I hope to some day do work that incorporates it. One of the biggest debates among evolutionary biologists right now is what level of organization does evolution occur. Is it at the gene, like Dawkins argued, the organism, or the group, which Wynne-Edwards believed? Last year, I took a class called PSYC 433 - Evolutionary Neuroscience, with Dr. Justin Rhodes. He showed us support for the group selection argument and hammered it into our heads that selection can occur at this stage (we're talking exam questions where the correct answer is 'group selection'). He made some really interesting points and I could see the logic in his arguments.
Then on Friday, in my IB 429 - Animal Behavior class, Dr. Andrew Suarez spent at least ten minutes stressing that group selection does not occur and it's a mental fallacy. He showed us the problems with group selection models and argued that kin selection, which is a form of selection at the individual level, can frequently be used to explain group selection arguments. We talked for fifteen minutes after class about this dichotomy between individual and group selection theories and he said he had a history of debating the topic with Dr. Rhodes.
I think this is fascinating. Here we are, at the very edge of scientific knowledge, trying to figure out which way is correct (or perhaps if there is a third way that combines the two or a fourth way completely unrelated). Two reputable, extremely intelligent scientists are confronting the same problem and arriving at conflicting answers. Fifty years from now, maybe the problem will be resolved and it'll just be a bullet point on a powerpoint slide (or a program you input into a chip in your brain? Crazy...). But right now, we're pushing at that boundary. What sort of questions will we be asking in fifty years?
Heading into the future with an open mind,
p.s: as to where I fall on the evolution question (as if I have any credibility at all), I think there might be a little of both factoring into the answer. Do the options have to be mutually exclusive? I'm thinking of meeting with Dr. Rhodes again and seeing what he has to say again.
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things