Evolution Montpellier 2018

Evolutionary biology is a thriving field. This was exemplified very recently at the Second Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology, held in Montpellier, France, from 19-22 August. Attended by around 2700 scientists, there were more than 800 contributed talks, distributed over 78 thematic symposia over the course of four days. This was certainly the largest evolutionary biology meeting ever organized so far.

The congress was co-organized by the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB), the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), and the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB), representing four of the world’s largest academic societies for evolutionary biology. The many symposia that made up this congress ranged from the origin of life (i.e., the beginning of biological evolution) to advances in phylogenetic methods (i.e., reconstructing life’s evolutionary history); from questions about evolvability and predictability of evolution to human and social evolution; from genetics to ecology; and from viruses and disease to evolutionary responses to global change.

Each symposium started with an invited speaker, followed by several contributed talks. In addition, there were various plenary talks by well-known evolutionary biologists such as Laurent Keller (past president of ESEB) and Hopi Hoekstra (Harvard University). But attention was also given to young and upcoming researchers, with several award sessions and two large poster presentation sessions.

As the invited speaker in the origin of life symposium, I started off this session with a general overview of autocatalytic sets, i.e., self-sustaining chemical reaction networks in which the molecules mutually catalyze each other’s formation, as a possible “cooperative” origin of life. My colleague Mike Steel then presented more mathematical details on autocatalytic sets, followed by several talks on RNA replicators and evolving chemical systems. It was very interesting to hear how some of the main requirements for biological evolution were probably already present in chemical evolution, at or even before the dawn of life.

Some of the other talks I particularly enjoyed included one by Tanja Stadler (winner of the prestigious John Maynard Smith prize at the previous congress six years ago) in the new approaches to phylogenomics symposium, and several talks in the convergent evolution, predictability of evolution, and evolvability symposia, topics that seem to be pushing the boundaries, and sometimes even challenging the main assumptions, of current evolutionary theory.

But with more than 800 talks in total it was unfortunately impossible to attend them all, as they were presented in 13 parallel sessions during the four days. This meant that you had to pay close attention to the program, and make sure to show up in the right lecture room at the right time to hear about your favorite topics. But the whole congress was well organized, and the sessions punctually synchronized, so that one could move between lecture rooms in between talks quite easily.

A final and additional bonus was the location in which the congress was held. Montpellier, in southern France, is a gorgeous medieval city close to the Mediterranean. When not listening to interesting new developments in evolutionary biology, it was a pleasure to just walk around the old town and admire its bright and beautiful architecture.

The Place de la Comedie in the center of Montpellier, where many of the scientific discussions continued in the evenings.

In short, this congress attested to the fact that evolutionary biology is a thriving field of research. Darwin laid the foundations, but much is still left to be studied, understood, and (re-)interpreted. Conferences like this recent one in Montpellier enable progress by allowing scientists to meet in person, discuss their latest results, and develop new ideas and collaborations. I’ll be curious to see what new advances will have been made six years from now, when the next Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology will be held.