Duquesne University event to tackle beliefs on nature

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Whether it's the 30-point buck, the bighorn ram or the silverback gorilla, the male of the species often captures human attention, with the role of the smaller female downplayed or ignored.

Humans also have a tendency of viewing humans as the pinnacle species, with all other species trailing in the evolutionary race to superiority.

Wrong, says a noted scientist.

"I'm going to try to counter common misconceptions about sex and gender and how evolution works," said Marlene Zuk, a University of Minnesota biologist. "In particular, we talk about the commonly held belief that life is progressing to a peak with humans at the top. That's not an accurate view of how evolution works, and damage occurs when people think that way."

The renowned evolutionary ecologist will attempt to counter those misconceptions during her presentation, "Sex and the Scala Naturae" at 7:30 p.m. tonight, which is part of the Darwin Day celebration at Duquesne University's Power Center Ballroom. The talk is free and open to the public with a reception to follow.

The message of the Minnesota evolutionary biologist, author of "Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love & Language from the Insect World," focuses on the misuse of animals as models to understand human behavior while also ignoring the female of the animal or insect species, be it deer, ant or bee.

Depicting an animal species as low or high on the evolutionary scale, with humans at the peak, is known as "scala naturae," Latin for stairway of nature, which she said "is completely false, leading to a counterproductive view of how evolution acts on the sexes."

Her favorite targets are Disney Pixar and DreamWorks' animated movies featuring male characters playing roles that females serve in nature.

"The ants, bees and wasps we see in the spring and summer are female," she said. "They are the workers and are sterile and can't reproduce, but they always are portrayed as males in such movies as 'A Bug's Life' and 'Bee Movie.' It's not just silly, it's a mistake."

In "A Bug's Life, " Flik is the lead ant and Hopper, lead grasshopper, while Barry B. Benson is lead bee in "Bee Movie."

Duquesne biologist David Lampe, a coordinator of the annual celebration of the life and works of Charles Darwin, said people tend to think humans are the reason why nature exists.

"But every living thing on Earth has 3 1/2 billion years of evolutionary history attached to it. From that perspective, we're asking people not to take an anthropomorphic view of everything,"

The annual Darwin Day celebration emphasizes the importance of quality science education in today's world.

It is sponsored by the university's Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, with assistance from the Women's and Gender Studies program.

education - neigh_city - science

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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