The History of Evolutionary Biology in Guarda

by Stephen C. Stearns

I got the idea for the Guarda course from Silke Bernhard's design of the Dahlem Conferences. I was invited to the 1981 Dahlem Conference on Evolution and Development, and I was both a member of the organizing committee and a participant in the 1986 Dahlem Conference on Evolution in the Phanerozoic (mass extinctions). Silke's essential idea was to improve communication and stimulate new ideas by providing support and incentives for high-level, intense conversations. She did so by asking 20 leading scientists to prepare background papers reviewing the states of their fields, then inviting 60 scientists (including those who wrote the papers), to come to Berlin for a week. In Berlin they did not give any lectures; instead, they broke up into four working groups, each of which was charged with summarizing the state of the art in their area, with recommendations for research, in a chapter written between Monday and Friday. During the week the groups had several opportunities to observe the discussions of the other groups and to report back on progress in plenary. The Friday deadline for a joint paper focused the group conversations and kept them moving; the presence of many well-known scientists in the groups made us all aware that we were, for that week, at the leading edge of thought on the planet. We wanted to live up to that standard.

I enjoyed the Dahlem Conference format more than any other type of scientific meeting I had attended. In 1985 I had begun to implement a series of new courses in Basel: Evolution-Oekologie-Verhalten (EOV), the Feldpraktikum, and the Computerpraktikum. My experience helping to organize the 1986 Dahlem conference led me to ask myself, why would this not work for my students? I decided to give it a try, with the first course taking place in 1988. I knew by then from experience in starting the Feldpraktikum that it was important to choose a site far enough from Basel so that students would have to live there and could not return to their rich extracurricular life in the city. In the summer of 1984 we had vacationed in Guarda, in the ground floor apartment in House 27, where we learned how beautiful it is and how easy it is to rent apartments. The choice was easy.

If the choice of site - beautiful and isolated - was one major element in the design, another was the decision to invite scientific heroes to accompany the group discussions, provide helpful advice, and socialize in the evenings. We were lucky that John Maynard Smith liked coming to Guarda and did so for many years. Other luminaries in the period from 1988 to 2000 included George Williams, Geoff Parker, Rolf Hoekstra, Ric Charnov, Linda Partridge, James Crow, Nancy Knowlton, Jeremy Jackson, David Haig, and Tim Clutton-Brock. We discovered that the presence of such well-known scientists greatly motivated the students to work hard and perform well. We also discovered the importance of sharing drinks in the evening, inviting heroes to dinner, and having informal after-dinner talks. These all created a sense of intimacy and equality, promoting the idea that the students could grow into scientists like these mentors, who no longer seemed distant and abstract but were quite clearly flesh and blood people.

Over the years the design was refined a bit. What was initially an assignment of a review paper morphed into a deadline for a research proposal. Other than that, there was little change in the basic structure: Arrive on Saturday, meet Sunday morning to express ideas and form discussion groups, then meet two hours each morning and two hours each afternoon, with visiting experts rotating through the groups and discussing among themselves what they had seen. Monday afternoon give a short progress report in plenary and get feedback. Take Wednesday afternoon off for a trip to the Nationalpark, and scatter walks around Guarda with the visiting experts throughout the week as time permitted. Thursday finish the grant propoals, hand them in before dinner, and get feedback in person from the faculty after dinner. Friday morning revise the proposals, and Friday afternoon present the final proposals in plenary. Invite the experts to dinner in the student apartments on one of the nights, and hold a party after the plenary reports on Friday. Return home Saturday.

By 1998 this routine had coalesced into this statement of purpose, procedure, and schedule:

Purpose: To learn to think more clearly

  • To gain confidence in your own ideas
  • To learn how to write a grant
  • To have a focused and sustained conversation about science
  • To make the doing of science a shared pleasure

Procedure: Form working groups of 4-6 students with shared interests

  • Choose promising research topics. Discuss the relevant questions.
  • Write a grant proposal of 4-6 pages.
  • Have it critiqued, revise it, present it in plenary.
  • Have a party and go home.

Schedule: Saturday arrival

  • Faculty members visit working groups for discussions.
  • Faculty members give talks in the evenings.
  • Wednesday afternoon free.
  • Friday afternoon oral presentations of grants in plenary.

When we started, all the working group participants were master's and PhD level students from Basel. As we gained experience, and good reports about the course were spread around Europe, we were able to include more and more students from other countries (see attached partial list). We found that constructing a working group in which the participants had a mixture of levels of experience ranging from beginners to postdocs, with at least one member whose mother tongue was English, provided the best experience for all.

A recurring problem was how to teach the groups to manage discussions in such a way that all participated - including those who were shy - and no single person dominated. In this respect we were only ever partially successful; the issue is not unique to Guarda, but rather a universal issue in human group behavior. We were able to ameliorate it but not eliminate it.