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Math tribute to Darwin

As a year of meetings and celebrations of Darwin anniversaries winds down, mathematicians are planning their own Darwin fest: “The Mathematics of Darwin’s Legacy” (23 to 24 November 2009 in Lisbon, Portugal).The legacy begins with Darwin, even though he was no mathematician and took only a qualitative approach to natural history. As Warren Ewens of the University of Pennsylvania will point out at the meeting, Darwin was quite hampered by the lack of knowledge at the time about Mendelian genetics. Offspring were instead thought to be “blends” of the parents’ traits—a process that was problematic because it should lead to the homogenization of traits and the loss of that same variation needed for evolution to occur.

But Darwin’s view that systems could evolve without the guidance or interference of a planner “has the generality and power of a mathematical idea,” says theoretical biologist Peter Jagers of the University of of Gothenburg, Sweden. And within a few decades, mathematics became a boon to the ideas promoted by the father of evolution.

“Once the Mendelian hereditary system [came into] use, mathematics becomes inevitable,” says Ewens. Quantitative methods quickly showed that variation is preserved in offspring.

Throughout the past century, mathematicians have helped promote a better understanding of evolution. In the early 20th century, mathematically minded biologists founded population genetics and put modeling on a firm footing in evolutionary biology. In the 1960s, another set of equations helped explain how cooperation could evolve, the subject of a recent Origins essay.

“There is an increasing community of applied mathematicians working on problems inspired by biology and, in particular, problems related to the theory of evolution,” says meeting organizer Fabio Augusto da Costa Carvalho Chalub of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal. And more biologists want to take a mathematical approach to their work. “Our intention is to put these two communities in closer contact.”