News Story

Herzberg Lecture: Freeman Dyson on the Evolution of Culture

By Tyrone Burke 
Photos by Chris Roussakis
Published Dec. 4, 2018

From a single-celled organism in the distant past, life evolved into an array of species so diverse they defy superlatives.

Unique adaptations gave species an advantage – the superior fitness to fill an ecological niche. There are about 4,000 species of mammals – towering giraffes nibble on acacia leaves out of reach for other animals, and the wings of the albatross carry it to the Pacific’s most remote fishing grounds.

Nearly 300,000 species of plants have their own ingenious adaptations. Towering redwoods absorb California’s morning mist, while southeast Asia’s Rafflesia flower emits the stench of rotting flesh to attract flies that transport its pollen.

But beetles? There are more species of beetles than plants and mammals combined, with estimates running toward half a million.  And some of them are an awful lot alike. A full 7,000 species of dung beetles, for instance, fill the unglamorous ecological niche of

If natural selection enables the fittest species to thrive, why so many beetles?

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“They call this the beetle paradox,” says Freeman Dyson. The Princeton, N.J. physicist and mathematician gave the 2018 Herzberg Lecture, an annual event in honour of Gerhard Herzberg, former chancellor of Carleton University and winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

This year, Freeman Dyson used Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author as a metaphor for groundbreaking thinkers who have advanced our knowledge of evolution – from Charles Darwin to contemporary Swedish evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo.

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