Interview with Professor Colin Purrington

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Recently, visitors to the Swarthmore College website have been greeted by a charming image of man standing side by side with ape. The man is Colin Purrington, Associate Professor of Biology, a well-known proponent of the teaching of evolution in schools. He recently wrote an editorial for the Journal of International Zoo Educators Association on the state of evolution education in American zoos, and is the designer of the “Darwin has a posse” stickers you may have seen around campus. We sat down with Professor Purrington for a frank discussion on politics, academics, life, the universe, and everything.

Daily Gazette: How were you selected to be featured on the main page as the “Faculty Spotlight”?

Colin Purrington: They just decided to do it! I was surprised to see myself listed there.

DG: What was it that originally excited you about evolutionary biology?

CP: My dad was an entomologist, so he was always talking about evolution. This early start explains why I am interested in teaching evolution to kids. I have two children, a five year old and a seven year old, and they say they really enjoy it. But there isn’t just one moment that caused me to enjoy evolution.

DG: What do you study in your research at Swarthmore?

CP: Parasitic plants- most recently, why they lose their photosynthetic abilities.

DG: Any theories on why this happens?

CP: I suspect it’s going to be some physiological trade-off. Do they need to convert their chloroplasts over to starch storage? Because all plastids, including chloroplasts, can store starch. Another possibility is just that, if you devote 95% of your ATP to photosynthesis, you can’t devote energy to making parasitic enzymes.

DG: You’re an outspoken critic of the Intelligent Design movement. How would you respond to someone speaking in support of Intelligent Design?

CP: I think that Intelligent Design people are desperate for legitimacy, and giving them the forum of a scientific debate is exactly what they want- and what they shouldn’t get. Interestingly, I often see religious groups disliking Intelligent Design even more than scientists, because it just makes them look silly. I wouldn’t wish Intelligent Design on them either.

DG: In your recent article (linked to on the Swarthmore main page), you mention that zoos often underplay the role of evolution in biology. How can this be improved?

CP: I think they should hire people who have taken Evolution courses to their science departments. My interaction with people at the Philadelphia Zoo sign department suggests that they aren’t biology majors at all… they’re graphic artists. Also, if you’re selling conservation in your exhibits, you can use examples from evolution. Zoo directors could increase memberships by making their exhibits educational, but they’re worried about being controversial. I think the opposite is true. For example, in the ’30s and ’40s, zoos built dinosaur models and membership doubled! People were fascinated by the connection to evolution.

DG: What are some of the other things you’ve done to raise awareness of evolution in the public consciousness?

CP: Most recently, I gave a talk at a retirement community, which happened to be full of Swarthmore alums. I appealed to that group as grandparents- I said that they should send evolution books to their grandkids, and I think they will! I also started a group, Pennsylvania Citizens for Science (LINK: I’m looking for members all over the state, but Swarthmore students are certainly welcome.

DG: What do you think of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism?

CP: I think Flying Spaghetti Monsterism is annoying and rude to religion, in the same way that “Darwin fish” are mean spirited. The original idea for FSM was funny (but not original; it had been done before), but would have been funnier if it had argued for some long-abandoned mythology.

DG: What is the weirdest thing you’ve seen as a biologist?

CP: I would say phosphorescent crustaceans on the beach last summer… they glowed when you kicked ’em. Actually, everything was glowing that day: crustaceans, plankton, even the sand.

DG: What do you do outside of academics (hobbies and stuff)?

CP: I cook! I’m obsessed with good food.

DG: What’s up with the “Darwin has a posse” stickers?

CP: That’s just to make talking about evolution a little more hip… which is easy. The stickers are based on the “Andre the Giant has a posse” stickers, which came from a RISD student assigned to make an advertisement with no meaning- though I hope that my Darwin stickers do have some meaning! I made them in Photoshop, based on a portrait of Darwin, and I hope they’ll undermine the “Darwin fish” campaign, which is too anti-religious.

DG: Who would win in a fistfight: Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins? Assuming that Gould was still alive, with both men at their prime.

CP: Oh, Dawkins. He’s much taller and stronger and quicker on his feet. Gould could be grumpy, but Dawkins could say things immediately and correctly. Plus, Dawkins likes the “Darwin has a posse” stickers.

DG: Any funny professor stories?

CP: Al Bloom wants me to design a transgenic coffee plant with a milk gene so you can make cappuccinos… or at least he did seven years ago. Did you know they actually have an “Al Bloom has a posse” sticker in one of the buildings where bands come to play? It might be in Olde Club.

DG: What is your favorite color?

CP: I like yellow!

DG: Any last words for our readers?

CP: If anyone wants to help, get in touch with me! Scientists are often so apathetic about sticking up for science, so we need all the help we can get.

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