CFS, SFSS lock horns over federation membership

The Simon Fraser Student Society and the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Federation of Students have been battling it out before the Supreme Court of British Columbia for the last two weeks to determine whether the SFSS is still a part of the CFS-BC.

SFSS members voted to leave the CFS-BC last spring. The federation, however, has refused to recognize the referendum, insisting that the union owes them $430,000 in membership fees for the academic year.

“It should have been over by now,” said SFSS president Joe Paling. “We had a vote last May and 69 per cent of students took part in that referendum. It should have been resolved that day, but [the CFS-BC] said that they wouldn’t recognize the referendum results.”

“CFS happily recognized the referendum while it was happening because they had 30 people or more, including some people from the University of Toronto, flown over the country to campaign on the CFS side of the referendum,” said Paling. “Even though they said they weren’t going to recognize the vote, they still actively campaigned hoping that they would get a result that was favourable to them.”

CFS claims that its own procedures were not properly followed in the referendum. The Referendum Oversight Committee, consisting of two representatives each from the CFS-BC and the SFSS, fell apart during the referendum. According to Paling, the group was ill-prepared and “basically broke down” despite lengthy notice given by the SFSS some six months in advance of the referendum date.

Paling is optimistic about the forthcoming proceedings. “We feel that this can be a summary trial without a jury because we think it’s fairly clear-cut. There’s no reason for it to go to trial when the students overwhelmingly voted to leave.”

“Since the Simon Fraser Student Society filed suit against the CFS-BC the legal process initiated by the SFSS has followed its normal course and it is my understanding that it has not been a lengthier process than a similar suit of this nature,” CFS-BC chair Shamus Reid told The Varsity. “The CFS-BC continues to vigorously represent the interests of Simon Fraser students.”

If the case does to go trial, it may remain unresolved until 2011.

Red Alert

Recently I realized that I feel a strange sense of nostalgia for the weeks following 9/11. My sophomore year of college had just begun, and I had freshly lost my virginity over the summer. I can obviously only comment on my own experience, but the days and weeks following the attacks were unbelievably surreal. I was living in a dorm on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, just north of Washington Square Park, so I used to be able to see the World Trade Center towering over the Washington Square arch from the front door of my building (this location made it sort of weird the morning of; I have no idea what it says about my psychological profile, but I was standing on the street and watched the second plane make contact, but rather than panic or try to do something, I went back inside to the dining hall to eat pancakes before I went to class).

NYU cancelled classes for the rest of that week and lower Manhattan was shut down south of 14th Street for at least two weeks, so for awhile it felt like we were living in an alternate dimension. Keep in mind that there were bomb scares at Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station, Madison Square Garden, and the New York Times’ offices in the weeks following the first attack, so there was the constant suggestion that it wasn’t over and that we could die at any time. I think I slept about three hours a night—not necessarily out of fear but because my adrenal glands were pumping all the time. I think other people had the same sort of experience—it seems like everybody I knew (myself included) drank less during those weeks because we felt high all the time. I did smoke a ton of American Spirits, but that’s only because I needed something to do.

But here’s the thing that I miss the most, and the thing that stirs up strong feelings of crippling nostalgia and guilt: terror sex. A lot was written about the fact that there were a shitload of babies conceived in the weeks following 9/11, and many have also suggested that the Sex and the City-style one-night-stand lifestyle was heartily boosted by the fact that people thought they could die tomorrow (I suppose people were having babies for the same reason; it all depends on your tax bracket). But terror sex was something different. A lot of people I talked to hooked up during that time because they had essentially gone numb to everything else, and sex was the only way to feel anything (like that scene in High Fidelity where they fuck in the car during the funeral). That was part of it, but there was also a certain rawness that everybody seemed to feel in the wake of brushing up so close to mass murder. I think that’s the only time in my life where I really knew what it was to be human in a purely animal, anatomical sense. Even though we only made love a handful of times, I remember every detail about Libby, who was from San Francisco and had taken a year off after high school to work before coming east; I later found out that the reason she did that was because she got pregnant and was going to keep the baby, only to miscarry. She had no ass, kept her pubic hair trimmed in a very peculiar and asymmetrical way and always smelled like mangoes even though she chain-smoked Marlboro Lights. My other partner from that era was a girl I went to high school with. She was a year behind me and I didn’t know her that well, but she ended up at NYU and we ended up hooking up a few times. Her name was Sarah and she was allergic to gluten. I have no idea what happened to either of these women; it seems like when the fear wore off and we got back to the business of going to college in New York, everybody drifted back to their lives.

I feel guilty about this whole scenario for a number of reasons. I feel horrible that I have admitted to myself that Libby was the best sex I’ve ever had, even though I adore my current girlfriend and know that we’ll marry and have kids someday. Somehow, it feels like cheating retroactively. I feel extremely guilty that I feel nostalgic for an event that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. But there was something about that rush of fear that I know I’ll never capture again, and that makes me feel sad and relieved at the same time. ❤

Kyle Anderson is the author of Accidental Revolution: The Story of Grunge (St. Martin’s Griffin). He lives in Brooklyn.

Who’s afraid of Ahmadinejad?

As worries of a showdown between the U.S. and Iran increase, so does the Cold War déjà vu. The techniques that the neoconservatives pioneered during the Reagan years have been retooled, and are once again being used to ensure that U.S. ascendancy continues unchallenged.

When the Soviet Union rose to challenge the United States’ global hegemony during the Cold War, the neoconservatives created a culture of fear, fabricating nightmares that manifested themselves in what came to be known as the Reagan doctrine.

What most people don’t know is that the entire threat was contrived by the CIA and perpetuated by the media: the “Evil Empire” never sought global preeminence, and had no plans to attack until the U.S. media drummed up war hysteria on behalf of the neocons.

Today, the threat posed by Iran is similarly imaginary: an Islamic country supposedly hell-bent on wiping out Israel by use of nuclear weapons and pursuing an Isalmization agenda throughout the Western World.

Fear not. America’s noble politicians will protect us from the new menace…but can we really count on the U.S., itself one of the greatest threats to global stability, to police the world? As Noam Chomsky said in 1990, “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”

From the invasions of Vietnam, Cuba, Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq, to the bombing of Cambodia and pharmaceutical plants in Sudan, to sponsoring dictatorships in Arab and Latin American countries, to supporting militaristic coups against democratically elected governments that didn’t agree with them (such as Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic), the U.S. has started more conflagrations in the latter half of the 20th century than any other country.

By contrast, Iran hasn’t started a single war in 300 years.

There’s no doubt that the current Iranian regime has undertaken a series of actions that appear calculated to sabotage any détente with the U.S., but that’s only half of it. A history lesson is in order:

During the long rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran was a staunch ally of the U.S. The Shah was brought to power by a British-led coup in 1941, lost power briefly to the popular nationalist leader Muhammed Mosaddeq in 1953, and regained leadership in another coup sponsored by the CIA. The Shah was notorious for his brutal secret police force, Savak, which was formed with the CIA’s help.

The Shah, loved by the U.S. but increasingly hated by the Iranian people, was no less a tyrant than the recently deposed “Butcher of Baghdad,” Saddam Hussein. But he could be counted on to side with the U.S., and was therefore a “friend” regardless.

But tyrants can only stay in power for so long before their victims turn against them and their sponsors. This is precisely what happened in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution erupted and the Shah was replaced with Ayatollah Khomeini, who proclaimed the U.S. “the Great Satan.” It’s not hard to see why Iran has been steadfastly defiant to U.S. bullying, especially when it comes to their nuclear program. (It should also be noted that, shortly after the Iran-Iraq war ended, a U.S. warship shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing 290 people, and still hasn’t apologized.)

The neoconservatives conjectured that Iran’s defiant attitude regarding its nuclear program, coupled with its leader’s “death threats” to Israel, pose a threat to world peace. Bush also erroneously stated that Iran wanted “nuclear weapons to destroy people.” Yet the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities states the following: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program …We [also] assess with moderate confidence [that] Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.” There’s no evidence to suggest that Ahmadinejad’s alleged threats against Israel are any more than heated rhetoric, and certainly prominent Likud members have made some heated suggetsions themselves.

The U.S. media has repeatedly misquoted and spun his words. CBS’s 60 Minutes omitted a sentence on peace in the Middle East from the final cut of an interview, and deliberately misquoted him as saying that his country was entitled to “nuclear weapons,” when in fact he was referring to nuclear energy. But that’s the modus operandi of major media outlets: deliberate prevarication, which fosters ignorance. On several occasions, Ahmadinejad has said explicitly that he has “no plans to attack Israel.” But the U.S. media never reports on this, because Iran is the enemy. It’s not in their interest to arouse calls for a U.S.-Iran détente. And let’s not forget that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and bars international inspections, and the only country in the Middle East in defiance of 69 United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Nobody commissioned the U.S. to preserve world peace. An EU poll showed that the majority of Europeans believed the U.S. and Israel to be the biggest threats to world peace, beating out Iran. But this is the new world order, where you can say and do whatever you want if you’re a global hegemon, where the U.S. can nuke any non-nuclear country at will. Let’s just hope that, in due time, America will see the irony in trying to limit nuclear proliferation by threatening to nuke other countries—a strategy that will inevitably result in the reverse and put the future of our planet at risk.

Ten Love Songs

Goldfrapp – Lovely Head

“Why can’t this be killing you? Frankenstein would want your mind your lovely head.”

Allison Goldfrapp might be oh-so lulling with her ethereal electro-noir audioscapes but don’t be fooled. This “love song” could just as easily come from the lips of a scalpel-wielding maniac.

Peaches – Operate

“He is perfect for me to practice surgery. One look coagulates it’s time to operate.”

Add this to the aforementioned “scalpel-wielding maniac” category of love song that seems to be growing alarmingly large.

Neutral Milk Hotel – Oh Comely

“Place your body here. Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine.”

The inclusion of everyone’s favourite bizarro-psych-rock indie band in this list shouldn’t surprise anyone, as their odd obsession with body parts in their love songs has been well documented. I chose this track for its candid, instructional approach to flesh-stealing.

Björk – My Spine

“I adore backs of necks, beautifully shaven…”

Looks like some Icelandic vampires have found a way to survive the 24-hour daylight that comes with the summer months. You can’t help but be a little impressed. (The Icelandic word for garlic is “hvítlaukur.” This information may one day save your life, or at least your plasma.)

Tokyo Jihen – Genjitsu wo Warau

“I would like to be composed of you… I would like to be merged into you.”

Shiina Ringo, the “Japanese Björk,” often ventures into songs with English lyrics. Here, she shows her full grasp of the Western lyrical idiom by singing a jazz ballad using the Frankenstein-fetish imagery seemingly beloved by our American songwriters.

The Rolling Stones – Give Me Your Hand – (And I’ll Hold It Tight)

“I don’t pretend that I don’t need you so come on, come on and give me your hand. I need you bad, it makes you glad, so give me your hand, I’ll hold it tight.”

I like to think this song is being sung to a monkey, and its mummified paw is currently the only thing keeping Mick and Keith alive.

Erykah Badu – Green Eyes

“My eyes are green ‘cause I eat a lot of vegetables it don’t have nothing to do with your new friend.”

For your new (Irish, formerly-sighted) friend, I’d like to think that she isn’t actually talking about stealing someone’s eyes—her heartfelt delivery says no, but her double-negative says yes. Who gave Erykah the ice-cream scoop?

Herbert – The Audience

“You are my fingers, I am your hand, I am your three-man one-man band. You are my breath, I am your tongue…”

Herbert knows that if you give a little, you get a little. Even if it turns you and your loved one into stitched-together monsters. How romantic!

Kate Bush – Eat The Music

“Let’s split him open like a pomegranate insides out, all is revealed. Not only women bleed.”

This song would be more appropriately titled if you replaced “the music” with “your entrails.” Though I’m not sure intestines have the same antioxidant properties as pomegranates, I suppose it’s best not to take nutritional advice afrom someone who dresses up as a lion and has more than one song in which she imitates bird and donkey sounds.

PJ Harvey – Legs

“Did it hurt when you bled? …You were going to be my life, damn it! …No other way, cut off your legs… how will you ever walk again?”

zehen Polly says something, she means it. This song is actually about cutting off her lover’s legs so he won’t leave her. Who needs metaphor when you’ve got a chainsaw?

Gawking at the puritans

“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder,” proclaimed Pastor Josh Duggar of TLC’s 17 Kids and Counting, as he kissed his 20-year-old bride at the culmination of their televised wedding. That kiss was their first ever, and it signified the fact that the couple, who had been courting for two years, could finally enter into a physical relationship. In fact, until that moment, the two had never been alone together; family members had chaperoned all of their visits. Yes, it’s hard to make out while your mother is watching.

To many, these values seem archaic, drawn straight from the depths of the Jesus-loving, gospel-preaching land of Mike Huckabee along the Bible belt. In reality, the concept of moral and physical purity before marriage is alive and kicking. Chastity has been getting significant media attention these days: shows like Big Love and the recent arrests of two Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) leaders have sparked a rising interest in the sect; TV documentaries like Purity Balls and the Duggar family phenomenon are piquing curiosities as well. People are riveted by stories of young men and women who follow the conservative paths of not dating, finding marriage partners through prayer and parental council, and abstaining from sex until these prayers are met. These virtuous young folk—most of them in their teens and early 20s—believe earnestly in the value of abstinence, and make it clear to onlookers that chastity is a choice they’ve made for themselves, not something forced upon them. Considering the passion these youth have for their lifestyles, the notion of saving your first kiss for your wedding day seems logical—even romantic.

These values are vulnerable to criticism—after all, we’re a sexually liberated public—and accordingly, many write them off as crazy. This explains the secular public’s overwhelming interest: the more outdated and quaint these values seem, the more they fascinate us. The shows aren’t marketed towards religious teens, but to the opposite. They attract sexually liberated viewers who are, in a way, shocked by antiquated worldviews and curious about communities they’ll likely never be exposed to. The irony is that the channels that air these programs also present unabashedly bawdy content: lurid celebrity gossip, and dispatches from the single, rich, and lusty. As a result, the public is caught between two extremes. One could argue that juxtaposing the pure with the lascivious is merely presenting two different sides of the story. But what about the moderate view? What happened to the idea of following your heart? And what about love?

Whether it’s waiting for your marriage bed or waking up in a different one every morning, both sides will attempt to prove that their lifestyles are better. They market their values by making them trendy, presenting them as things that “everyone’s doing.” What people forget is that sex is a personal choice. Sex has become a duty, an initation ritual. What’s wrong with waiting until you’re ready, or really “making love?” Sex can be sacred or lewd, but it’s up to the person having the sex to decide. So laugh as Jim Bob tells Josh of the birds and the bees, scoff at Britney’s newest beau, but know that there’s a whole world in between.

Global Catwalk

University fashion aficionados: pull out your Moleskines and pencil in February 21 and 22, because you’re invited to the fashion and cultural event of the season. Hosted by Fashion Television’s style impresario Jeanne Beker, FashionEAST highlights the top design talent from the land of milk and honey.

“Israel has such a rich culture. You’ll find fashion plays an integral part as Israeli creativity manifests itself in many ways,” says Beker, who has traveled to the country numerous times on assignment for FT. “I was just so thrilled to see the level of talent. The Israeli aesthetic is really cutting edge—from the young to established designers, there is long history of fabulous fashion and now there is a whole new wave.”

Beker skips between fashion capitals like we skip between cafés and class, but she’s still excited to host an event that highlights Israeli talent on terra firma. While some may be surprised to learn that Israel has a booming fashion scene, Beker says it makes perfect sense. “Any cosmopolitan urban centre with energy—from Bogotá to Lisbon—you’re bound to find young people, visionary artists, and wonderful craftsmanship. I’m really looking forward to seeing their work. It has a unique sense of colour and spirit.”

FashionEAST kicks off on the eve of the 21st with an exclusive cocktail gala and runway fashion show at Toronto’s tony Design Exchange. On the 22nd, the space will be transformed into an Israeli fashion showroom with apparel and accessories for sale.

Proceeds from the event will be donated to the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Leaders of Tomorrow fund. These organizations support Israeli performers participating in Canadian music festivals, film screenings, and dance performances. It will also provide scholarship opportunities for Israeli cultural students who wish to take their talents abroad. Funding raised for the Leaders of Tomorrow will provide extracurricular cultural programming to over 300 at-risk Israeli youth between six and 18-years-old.

“The idea came from [leading trips] in Israel so often,” says FashionEAST executive director Shira Webber. “I was impressed by the amazing talent and chic designs. I felt these designers should have more exposure.” Webber is a savvy Israeli culture advocate who is passionate about the cause. In her role as alumni and outreach coordinator for Canada Israel Experience, she visits twice a year with Birthright groups.

“Participants on my trips always want me to give them more time to shop, even though the trip isn’t really about that,” she says. “I always buy pieces when I’m in Israel. People inevitably stop me and inquire where I got it.” Isn’t it great to have an exotic answer?

Israeli fashion reflects its unique global positioning and the Diaspora. Designers are influenced by the middle-eastern diaphanous aesthetic—which leans to flowy, draped silhouettes. Close proximity to Europe brings refinement and access to the most luxurious fabrics. Israel’s ties to North America create a preference for casual elegance. Israeli couture combines these global elements.

Designer Anata Taiber, who will be showing her Anata collection at FashionEAST, falls into this category. This Israeli-born globetrotter says her work is about reflecting the Israeli liveliness. “My work is all about being bold. It begins with the colours and the inspiration I get from Israel. I think Israeli designers are less conservative than in Canada.” Taiber has mastered looks that transition easily from day to night. As she says, “It’s very hot in Israel, so people don’t want fussy clothes.”

Webber is thrilled to feature designers like Taiber who portray Israel in a positive light. “With sensationalism and the news, things like this get lost in the mix.”

Part-time English major and FashionEAST volunteer Sara Farb agrees. “It’s very obvious what people pay attention to here with regards to Israel,” she says. “That’s why this event is so great—everyone can enjoy Israeli fashion.”

The event is an opportunity for the Torontonian Jewish community to connect with Israeli culture, but Webber stresses that anyone can take part. “FashionEAST is for anyone who loves fashion and is curious about Israeli style. Jews already know how amazing Israel is!”

FashionEAST runs February 21 to 22 at The Design Exchange (234 Bay Street). Ticket prices range from $50 for an adult weekend ticket, $36 for a young associate weekend ticket (40 years and under), $15 for a Sunday sale-only ticket, or $50 at the door for all events. To purchase tickets online, visit

A political hurricane

According to documentary filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the decisive turning point in public opinion for George W. Bush. It was after his cataclysmically lackluster response to the devastation in New Orleans, according to The Wall Street Journal, that his approval ratings slipped irreversibly into the 30s. Compared to other Katrina documentaries (notably Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke), Bush plays an ostensibly peripheral role in Deal and Lessin’s Trouble the Water (opening this Friday in Toronto), but the atmosphere of political outrage lingers over every frame.

Trouble the Water, one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary, follows Kimberly and Scott Roberts, two residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, as they attempt to piece together their lives after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The opening scenes, filmed by Kimberly on a mini-DV cam, document the events up to and including the hurricane with startling immediacy, including a devastating scene in which the couple climbs into their attic, panicking as the water levels rise higher and higher. This is some of the most gripping documentary footage in years.

“Our original vision was to do a story about the Louisiana national guardsmen who had been in Iraq when Katrina hit,” says Tia Lessin in an interview with The Varsity. “These are people who had signed up to protect their own communities in case of storms or what have you, and they were ten thousand miles away.”

“Most of them were in tours of duty in Iraq, and had just come back and were sorta shell-shocked,” says Carl Deal. “All of a sudden being at home in this post-apocalyptic nightmare, [they have] to pull guns on American citizens and recover dead bodies. We just felt like those soldiers aren’t the problem. The problem is the people who make the decisions of where they go and what they do.”

After losing their access to the Red Cross shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana (for “asking one too many questions,” says Deal), Deal and Lessin had a chance encounter with Kimberly and Scott Roberts. Impressed by their footage, Deal and Lessin followed them back to New Orleans, where relief was slow and insubstantial. By the end, the film suggests that New Orleans today is in worse condition than ever.

The National Guard, Deal and Lessin’s original subjects, aren’t given a flattering portrait in Trouble the Water. One of the most excruciating scenes sees Kimberly, Scott, and other homeless people escorted away from an abandoned naval base at gunpoint, despite the fact that their base could have theoretically sheltered hundreds.

For Lessin, the blame lies not with the guardsmen. “It was the Bush administration [and] the commander in chief that failed to change the standing order. I mean, the standing order at a naval base is to keep civilians out, but at this time of crisis that standing order should have been changed and the person to do that was the commander in chief, who at that time was George W. Bush.”

With any documentary about the aftermath of Katrina, the elephant in the room is the president, whose well-documented response (or lack thereof) to Katrina’s devastation could be charitably described as tepid. I ask Deal and Lessin why they think Bush demonstrated such a lack of caring. Lessin is surprisingly direct in her response.

“First of all, I think the federal government, after a quarter century of conservative rule in America, had been systematically dismantled by the right wing. The safety net in our country has been systematically dismantled. So I would say the institutions had failed Kimberly and Scott long before Katrina, long before the levees broke. And I guess it’s not even a surprise considering that the Bush administration was so out of touch with the suffering of people around the globe, and had caused so much suffering. It’s not surprising…although it’s still an outrage.”

“These were poor people in America who he had been turning his back on, and he and his father and the Reagan administration helped create this level of inequality. So it’s not even that they didn’t care, it’s that they systematically, as a family empire, created this kind of institutional neglect. He had turned his back on poor people a long time ago, and this was the logical extension of that.”

For Lessin, who worked with Deal as an archivist on numerous left-wing documentaries (including several by Michael Moore), outrage over Bush and the Republican Party has been a central motivating factor in her career. “It’s not just about New Orleans—it’s about America. I think a lot of America looks like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Many communities in cities throughout the country have failed public school systems, people without healthcare, failed infrastructure…just a mess.”

She pauses. “It almost gives him too much credit to say he didn’t care.”

Trouble the Water opens Friday, February 13th.

Happy birthday, Darwin

This year marks the 200th birthday of one of modern history’s most influential thinkers, Charles Robert Darwin. It is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most influential work, The Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin was born in England in 1809 to a wealthy family who expected him to enter the clergy. Instead, Darwin managed to gain passage aboard the HMS Beagle and the rest, as they say, is history. His trip aboard the Beagle brought him to South America, the South Pacific, and most famously, the Galápagos Islands. This voyage not only gave him the inspiration to write the popular travel book The Voyage of the Beagle but also provided the fodder for a revolutionary theory.

Darwin postulated that evolution, speciation, and the explanation for the wide variety of living organisms could be driven by a force known as natural selection. His theory explains how the coupling of environmental and sexual pressures can select for variation both within and between species.

Notably absent from Darwin’s theory is the mention of a divine creator. Darwin was acutely aware of how inflammatory his theory of natural selection was, especially in a Victorian setting, and therefore kept it under wraps, only discussing it with a few supportive naturalists.

It was only when he received an essay from Alfred Russel Wallace describing a similar theory that Darwin was pushed to submit a co-written paper on their theories. Because he waited an astonishing 20 years to publish his findings, Darwin was able to amass a large amount of data to support his claim.

Dr. Aneil Agrawal, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Canada research chair in the genetics of evolutionary interactions, emphasizes that it wasn’t “just that [Darwin] had the idea, he collected a lot of data.” Through his work, Darwin formulated questions about evolution that researchers today are still trying to solve.

Darwin dedicated his life to understanding the forces that shape species and their behaviours. “It’s remarkable how much Darwin got right, and how much he was able to explain,” says Agrawal. Although Darwin had no knowledge of genes and the manner by which traits are genetically inherited, he did have an understanding of how new variants might present themselves as adaptive characteristics. Agrawal highlights that in an evolutionary biology seminar, it is not uncommon to hear speakers acknowledge that Darwin also considered the problem they are about to present. Darwin often had the correct answer. “It’s only now [that people have] the data, that it turns out that Darwin was right,” says Agrawal.

Darwin had a knack for seeing what we today take for granted. “[Evolution is] clear only once someone has pointed it out to you,” says Agrawal. “In some ways, evolution by natural selection is fairly simple. We can explain [the theory of natural selection] pretty well to first year undergrads. We don’t, for example, teach [Einstein’s] theory of relativity to first year undergrads. It’s easier to grasp the idea of what [evolution] is and how it works.”

The theory of natural selection is accessible, at least at some level, to anyone who has observed the natural world. This may explain the fascination popular culture has with “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that makes most evolutionary biologists cringe. “People are broadly familiar with the idea of evolution and natural selection. Even if they might not understand what it is, they’ve at least heard of it,” says Agrawal.

Today it’s easy to look back at Darwin’s theories and think, “that was obvious, I could have thought of that.” But as Agrawal points out, many bright thinkers before and after Darwin have considered the origins of Earth’s diverse species, yet none have contributed an idea as grand as his to the field of evolutionary biology. Every scientific discipline has its great hypotheses, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection is as big as they get. “There aren’t many of those ideas,” says Agrawal. “Ones that are powerful, yet not that complicated.”

The theory of natural selection set the groundwork for an entire field—evolutionary biology—which has had biologists thinking about selection and the pressures on living things ever since.

Sitting in his bright office that overlooks a tree-filled courtyard of the Earth Sciences building, Agrawal describes how, not unlike the father of his field, he took an interest in animals from a very early age. “I was one of the rare people who always knew from a young age that I wanted to be a biologist.” Being a biologist only got better once he recognized that math could be a part of it. “When I was a little kid I would have never imagined that I would be interested in applying math to biology. But when I was older, [math was] what really attracted me to evolutionary biology.”

Dr. Agrawal has already received a number of awards for his work, including the 2007 Robert H. Haynes Young Scientist Award and the 2004 Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize, both for promise as an evolutionary biologist. He now leads an evolutionary biology lab at U of T. Dr. Agrawal and his team are interested in a number of evolutionary biology problems, including the evolution of sexual reproduction, a concept Darwin also tried to understand.

The overwhelming majority of organisms on Earth reproduce through sex, which demonstrates that it has advantages over asexual reproduction. However, sexual reproduction incurs a number of costs to the individual, including sexually transmitted diseases, the large expense of searching for a mate, and increased risk of predation while mating. What, then, is the advantage of sexual reproduction? This is a question to which Dr. Agrawal devotes a lot of his time. “If I knew the answer to [why sex occurs], I think that I could go home,” he jokes.

Current theories ascribe the evolution of sexual reproduction to its ability to manage the effect of parasites, DNA damage, and the appearance of deleterious mutations. “We’re getting a lot better at eliminating ideas… and a lot better at identifying what are the key issues and the best ways to approach this [question].” Dr. Agrawal notes that there are a multitude of theories to explain sexual reproduction, and that the correct one is likely nestled among them. “The idea is probably out there, but a bit more complicated than however it has been originally proposed.”

Much of the research in Dr. Agrawal’s lab is carried out on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, which they believe explains a lot about the effect of deleterious mutations on evolution. This was an aspect Darwin didn’t really think about. Dr. Agrawal hypothesizes that Darwin probably would have thought deleterious traits would arise but would be eliminated by natural selection, making them unimportant.

Although deleterious mutations are eliminated from the population by natural selection, they are also constantly being introduced. “They can actually, under fairly reasonable conditions, have dramatic effects on populations,” says Agrawal.

Using fruit flies as a model, the Agrawal lab looks at how genes interact and what effect the environment can have on genetic interactions. Flies make wonderful models for this, as their genes are easily manipulated. As well, there is a wealth of information available on easily observable genetic defects that affect traits such as wing shape, eye colour, and the bristles on a fly’s back. This permits the direct observation of environmental effects on visible traits.

Even within a species, different positions, or loci, of the genome are subject to varying selective pressure. Regions that encode spermatogenesis—the development of sperm in the male testes—and proteins important for the immune system appear to evolve faster than the rest of genome. This makes sense in light of the extreme evolutionary pressure on traits involved in sexual selection. For genes involved in the immune system this can be explained by the pressure to avoid the cost of parasites.

Dr. Agrawal admits that many questions in evolutionary biology still loom large over the scientific horizon. Chief among them are the questions “Why sex?” and “To what extent do the four evolutionary forces—genetic drift, migration, mutation, and natural selection—shape the genome?” He also wonders about the factors that lead to speciation.

Where will these answers come from? Dr. Agrawal believes they will take a concerted effort from field workers, experimentalists, and theoreticians to solve. “I could be hit with my greatest idea ever and figure out what could be the right idea for the evolution of sex. But, you’d still need to do some pretty nice experiments and ultimately field work to provide the data to show it’s true.” He adds that the “revolution in genomic[s] … and the bioinformatics tools for interpreting those data are making big inroads into [these] questions and are sure to continue to do so.”

Darwin would be proud of the progress.