Rice University
Future Directions

Because of Rice's ties in the Medical Center, we are especially well positioned to contribute to the exciting movement of bringing evolutionary insights into medical fields.  For example, infectious diseases are caused by microbes, whose rapid evolution needs to be understood and controlled.  Can we predict the emergence of novel pathogens like SARS or predict what flu strains we need to vaccinate against next year?  How do we reduce the evolution of pathogen resistance to antibiotics?  In HIV multi-drug therapy, should the drugs be tried all at once or sequentially?  Can we induce pathogens to evolve lower virulence?    

Few sciences are as central as evolution for understanding our place in the world.  We are still assimilating Darwin's insight that humans are kin to apes and in fact to all of life.  Evolutionary biology also speaks to core issues of how we interact with each other.  A second strength of Rice's evolution researchers is in this area, specifically in the study of cooperation.  At one time Darwinism was seen strictly as dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest.  Today, research is showing how survival of the fittest can sometimes result in the evolution of cooperation and altruism.  It is also showing how fundamental cooperation is in the history of life.  Cooperation was required for the evolution of the simplest cells, for the combining of different simple cells to make more complex cells like ours, for the evolution of multicellular plants and animals, and for the evolution of partly cooperative societies from amoebas up through humans.

Advances in theory and new experimental tools make this field ripe for rapid progress.  For example, the realization that some microorganisms are cooperative allows us to follow the evolution of social traits in test tubes.  The toolkits of molecular biology and genomics then allow us to find and experiment with the genes underlying those traits. Biofilms provide an example that links up to our other focus on practical applications.  Biofilms are complex bacterial social structures whose physical and cooperative networks can make them resistant to standard antibiotic treatments.  Understanding how evolution works in social systems can help treat biofilm diseases, like cystic fibrosis, and other biofilm problems, like maintaining clean drinking water pipes.

Advances in model systems undergird studies of the whole spectrum of life.  Why have honeybees evolved both workers who will readily sacrifice their lives for their colony, and queens who routinely kill their own sisters?  Why do some insects go to great effort to protect aphids, while others happily devour them?  Why do we live on cooperative terms with our normal intestinal bacteria, but at war with other closely related bacteria?   Ultimately, we seek to merge the insights of evolutionary biology and the social sciences to understand why humans themselves show such a complex mixture of social traits, from the vicious to the saintly.

Because evolution speaks to our view of ourselves and our place in the world, the public's views on it range from great interest to hostility.  The hostility gives us a responsibility to address those concerns, and foster understanding of how evolution is a scientific fact not at odds with our society’s views of moral and spiritual life. The great interest that evolution generates also creates an opportunity to bring science to the public.  Education and outreach are therefore particularly important goals for the Rice Center for Evolution. 

Rice already offers a wide range of courses on evolution or with significant evolutionary content (see Appendix III).  One obvious omission, given the importance of evolution, is a course specifically directed at non-majors.  A course in evolution and medicine would be attractive to Rice's large and able pool of pre-medical students.  The Center for Evolution would also fund undergraduate fellowships to do research in faculty labs.  Graduate education would be a prime focus of the Center, with funding for a number of graduate fellowships who would be mentored by advisors in multiple departments.  
Outreach would be a significant endeavor for the Center for Evolution.  Besides faculty, both postdoctoral Evolution Fellows and supported graduate fellows will participate.  Outreach may include school-based education, developing web resources, and activities at nature centers, arboretums, and parks. Teacher workshops would be particularly valuable.  Many secondary teachers are reluctant to teach evolution, feeling they lack the expertise to counter creationist opposition.  Providing advice on Texas textbook adoption is another area where evolution expertise is needed.

Texas is a critical place for such efforts.  Because of our state-wide textbook approval system, anti-evolution forces organize to try to water down or remove evolutionary biology from textbooks, or to substitute non-scientific views.  Even at the university level, one Texas institution has embarrassed itself by starting a center to study "intelligent design", an anti-evolution theory that has almost no support from scientists.  The activities of the Rice Center for Evolution will help keep science education strong and keep Texas as an attractive location for high-tech companies.

The Rice Center for Evolution would allow scientists in many different departments to partner with each other and build a truly multi-disciplinary program that will train a new generation of scientists in emerging fields and to reach out to the community to build a better educational system for our children.