‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’, says René Rezsohazy, professor of molecular biology at the University of Louvain, citing Theodosius Dobzhansky. But evolution depends on what? And how to separate what’s true, as demonstrated by science, from what’s false, as conveyed via dishonesty or misunderstanding? Prof. Rezsohazy is taking the initiative as one of some 40 UCLouvain researchers joining forces in Louvain4Evolution, a research platform whose first objective is to interact with the general public in order to sharpen the critical sense toward questions about evolution. A first public conference will take place 28-29 May in Brussels. One of its keynote speakers will be the world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal.
Louvain4Evolution is comprised of biologists, chemists, physicists and cosmologists, but also philosophers, anthropologists, political scientists, economists, geneticists, health professionals and many others. Prof. Rezsohazy says, ‘Bringing together all this expertise is essential to thinking in a meta fashion about all the different aspects of evolution, from the sociological point of view – humanity and its way of understanding, seeing and building the world – to the purely cosmological point of view – the appearance of life on earth.’ Driving the consortium, as with every Louvain4 platform, is a response to a societal challenge. Today, science is criticised by part of the public. Louvain4Evolution proposes to rigorously question scientific theories and to establish a constructive dialogue.
Awaken the critical sense
How? By organising public conferences to stimulate discussion, as on 28-29 May, but also by soon launching a website to pose questions to Louvain4Evolution researchers. This interface is intended for teachers, journalists, self-employed persons , students and citizens – in short, anyone who faces questions about evolution. More and more teachers are confronted in their classes with reasoning that is extremely well constructed from a rhetorical point of view but completely unfounded from a scientific point of view. Louvain4Evolution wishes to give them the keys to awaken the critical sense of their students but also help them to refute false theories through models supported by concrete illustrations to establish in a structured and rigorous way that evolution is a fact. ‘An example?’ Prof. Rezsohazy suggests. ‘The resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is a phenomenon that is growing and is an evolutionary fact caused by the misuse and inappropriate use of these drugs.’
The question of evolution is also particularly undermined by a revival of religious radicalism. Prof. Rezsohazy asserts, ‘Using the same scale to weigh scientific theories and hermeneutic discourses from sacred texts is a sham.’ One thinks in particular of American draft laws that aim to authorise the teaching of creationism in the same way as scientific theories. Because yes, the scientific theories of evolution can be incorporated by other ways of thinking, particularly political and economic. Darwin’s theory has thus given us the image of a struggling society where the best crushes all the others. This is an incorrect picture for scientists who determined that cooperation between species was a tremendous engine in terms of evolution. What makes life progress? This question will be at the heart of the conference entitled ‘Coopération ou compétition, qui mène la danse? Deux moteurs de l'évolution des espèces et de nos sociétés’, organised (in French only) by Louvain4Evolution on 28-29 May in Brussels.
From microbes to collaborative economics
Who are the speakers? Frans de Waal will unveil his experiences with primates, of which he is a prominent specialist. By examining the differences between humans and bonobos or chimpanzees, which share 98.7% of our genes, he was able to observe the degree of empathy shown by bonobos and how the feeling of injustice manifests itself in them. Marc André Selosse will tell the story of the microbes at the origin of civilisations, the subject of his latest book. Also on the programme: the philosophical issues of the selection/cooperation debate with Prof. Bernard Feltz (UCLouvain); the impact of intestinal bacteria on our metabolism and the scourge of obesity with Prof. Patrice Cani (UCLouvain); the inequalities of the foundations of human societies with Prof. Pierre-Joseph Laurent (UCLouvain); and the collaborative economy as a means to a more just society, with Prof. Géraldine Thiry (UCLouvain, Ichec).
Creating national and international synergies and getting researchers to meet outside their labs is another goal of Louvain4Evolution. And the contributions of certain disciplines are, to say the least, unexpected, such as that of archaeology student Lauranne Vermeersh, who examined genetics in order to confirm movements of populations from the Middle East to the Cretan Basin during the Neolithic and gain a better understanding of their cultural practices. For Prof. Rezsohazy, one last objective is to set up research projects that can be financed under the Louvain4Evolution banner. But it can be attained by finding the time to continue and consolidate this dynamic of meetings. ‘They’re a luxury in the life of a researcher, but so necessary when we see the richness of the exchanges.’
Coopération ou compétition, qui mène la danse? Deux moteurs de l'évolution des espèces et de nos sociétés’, organised by Louvain4Evolution
28-29 May, 4:30 to 7:30 pm
Auditoire Simonart, Avenue Mounier 71, 1200 Woluwe Saint-Lambert
A glance at René Rezsohazy's bio
Today : researcher in molecular biology at the Louvain Institute of Biomolecular Science and Technology, vice-rector of the Faculty of Sciences, and member of the scientific college of Louvain4Evolution, all within UCLouvain.
1988 Master of Biology, UCLouvain
1993 PhD in Sciences (molecular genetics), UCLouvain
1994-1996 Postdoctoral research, Het Nederlands Kanker Instituut, Amsterdam
Since 2004 Professor, Faculty of Sciences (School of Biology), UCLouvain