Oct 2013

Teaching evolution in Turkey


A cross between Wayne Manor, a Napa Valley vineyard, a calculus-obsessed kibbutz and a British collegiate faculty lounge, somebody (Ali Nesin) actually built the math classroom that your math teacher dreamed about while you were taking your weekly quizzes in high school. You couldn’t ask for a more lovely setting to explore the methods and means of quantifying evolution than the picturesque Mathematics Village (Matematik Köyü) found on a hilltop in Şirince, Turkey. The Evolution and Ecology (EvoEko), and the Hard Workers for Evolution Groups in Turkey partnered with the Mathematics Village to convene a welcoming atmosphere that would allow Turkish students and faculty to discuss and explore methods for attaching numbers to one of the most subtle and intangible of phenomena known in the natural sciences: the gradual change of biological organisms in response to their environment over time.

A madrasa in Şirince

The place is at once majestic and rustic in a way that defies easy explanation. Imagine that you had the coolest mansion where you carried out your work as an esteemed scholar in the late 19th century, and that’s what this place, Nesin Mathematics Village was like. The organizers go to great lengths to create an atmosphere where the students focus on discussion- the internet access is circa-1996 dialup speeds, enabling one to check email or verify certain facts that come up in conversation (with some effort and patience), but not enough to allow regular interruptions or casual web browsing.

The purpose of the overall event was to create a place where Turkish students and faculty could learn about evolution and explore options for carrying out evolution studies at advanced academic levels. The overall event was organized into two components, a lecture series in Turkish followed by a mini-symposium in English. The Turkish-language lecture series was specifically intended to increase the capacity of Turkish students to design, critique and carry out their own mathematical modeling efforts. I taught a course describing how I apply quantitative evolution tools that create phylogenetic trees to reconstruct and resurrect versions of proteins that are inferred to have existed hundreds of millions of years ago. My lecture focused on linking mathematical models with the realms of experimental biology, that deals actual, living organisms and is in the position of observing and interpreting numbers and trends that come from natural phenomena (by contrast, most of the course focused on pretty strictly on mathematical methods, tools and models that are invoked to measure or explain evolution as a process).

(Left)  The week-long event took place in the rustic lecture hall of Nesin Mathematics Village. (Right) Zach Adam awing evolutionary biologists with the images of 1.5 billion year old microfossils of Montana.

The English-language symposium had a slightly different focus than the lecture series; it was intended to be open to international speakers and provide a forum for students to become more comfortable with discussing evolution concepts in a non-native language. Both Zach Adam and I gave talks at the symposium- Zach’s talk was also a bit atypical, given that he was the only paleontologist in the symposium, but both of us talked about using the quantitative tools at our disposal to describe and/or interpret the natural data that we see, rather than to create mathematical models.

 Me (second to the right) pictured with the attendees and the chalk ghost of Charles Darwin himself. Attendees were composed of graduate students from all across Turkey. (Photo credit: Mr. Emrah Kırdök)

We definitely recommend that other astrobiology-focused people attend this symposium that is planned to be organized next year as well — but you should keep in mind that participation should be viewed more as an outreach activity more than a professional talk venue. This is because the primary purpose of the event (at least for this year) is to create the next generation of evolution researchers in Turkey, and only secondarily to create a place for professional scientists to share their work in the Turkish academic community. The event is organized on a very tight budget, and speakers are asked to cover the costs of the stay as a kind of donation that supports ongoing development of the Mathematics Village and the Mathematical Evolution activities (there are no funds provided to speakers for airfare, accommodation, food, etc.). This isn’t really a bad thing- the cost of staying in one of the dormitories or cottages is equivalent to or much less than the cost of staying at a pansionne in the nearby Şirince town itself, and (absolutely delicious!) meals are provided throughout. But, it’s something to keep in mind if you think you expect to rely on monetary support from the organizers to attend.

Turkey is an interesting place to host such a discussion, as a recent study on attitudes towards evolution showed that it was only slightly behind that other bastion of hostility toward science, the USA. If the organizers of Matematiksel Evrim keep hosting events like this, it’s very likely that the USA will end up at the top of the bottom of the heap of advanced nations with respect to a rational view of organismal development. Look out USA, we’re coming for you!

Race to the bottom: Table shows the fierce competition at the bottom of the pile. (Image courtesy: The New York Times)


Re-posted from S.A.G.A.N. Community Outreach Forum, Betul Kacar, 2013


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