Why I Celebrate Darwin Day

While much of the country gears itself up to celebrate Valentine’s Day, an occasion which seems to be injected with steroids more and more every year, I have a lonely little celebration two days earlier. I’m sure members of scientific communities celebrate, and probably the handful of enthusiasts, this day as well. Today, on February 12, 2011, Charles Robert Darwin would have been 202 years old. This (r)evolutionary man was born on February 12, 1809 and died on April 19, 1882 at the age of 73.

I first encountered Darwin Day when I was a first year in college. A professor of biology (I cannot for the life of me remember his name–forgive me, but that was a long time ago) from another institution provided a Darwin Day lecture on evolutionary writings that preceded Darwin. As I was in a class called Darwin’s Plots: Evolution in Literature, I decided to attend, even though my professor somehow had no idea the program was happening. Despite my initial misgivings and suspicions that I would be bored to death, the subject matter just intrigued me. I ended up doing my final paper for the Darwin class on evolutionary thought before Darwin.

I will forever remember the Darwin class, and, consequently, the Darwin Day lecture, as a turning point in my life. I went to a conservative and predominantly Christian small town high school. I was raised in a Christian household and I attended Baptist churches as a child. In middle school and high school, I was intensely active in Christian groups and Bible clubs; while most kids at my high school were out partying, I was at sleepovers with my Christian friends praying and wondering when the Rapture would come. In my high school biology class, when the teacher attempted to bring up the sensitive topic of evolution, almost the entire class booed and hissed.

Needless to say, before I went to college, my knowledge of evolution and of Darwin was lacking. In fact, Darwin was seen as the enemy in my home town and at my high school, just a step down the ladder from Satan on the list of entities who tried to sabotage the Christian message.

So, when the opportunity to take a literature class based around Darwin came up, I decided that I needed to challenge myself and step outside of my comfort zone. A few months before the class began, I had already been branching out on my own and reading secular writings on the matter of religion. Once out of the oppressive atmosphere of high school, I felt that I could finally explore. I was especially surprised to learn in the Darwin class that Charles Darwin was a rather gentle man. He didn’t rub his hands together with glee at the idea of publishing works that would challenge the entire foundation of creationism. Quite the opposite, he struggled with the possibility of publishing The Origin of Species just as much as he struggled with his faith. When I think of Darwin, I don’t think of some evil man set on destroying faith, but rather a quiet naturalist content to live out his life conducting his little experiments with pigeons. In short, he was a lab geek who was incredibly enthusiastic about nature and learning more about the world around him. That sounds dangerous, doesn’t it?

So, we come back to the question, why do I celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday every February 12? It’s simple. For me, it’s the same reason why I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (and, no, I am not comparing MLK’s civil rights achievements to Darwin’s scientific ones, just stick with me). Ultimately, when we celebrate MLK Jr.’s birthday, we are celebrating the courage and conviction with which he stood against the status quo to welcome in the tide of change. Just as few people would have the courage to do what MLK did, I would argue the same of what Darwin did. Would you have the fortitude to publish a document that challenged two thousand years of creationism? In the end, Darwin knew that the manuscript he held in his hands had immeasurable potential. And, while he struggled with the implications it would have for religious faith and what reception it would have among the faithful, he knew that scientific inquiry was more important than politics. He knew the moment he published that his life would never again be the same and that surely it would never again be easy, and, yet, he felt it was more important that he share with the world the knowledge he had discovered. That’s something, kids. And that is why Charles Darwin is my intellectual hero and that is why I celebrate his birthday.

This year I’m not really celebrating in style. I’m too poor. But, one day, when I have my own place, I plan on having a Darwin Day celebration. In the past, I have collaborated with my Darwin’s Plots professor to host a two-day movie event on our college campus. On the first day, we showed a Nova documentary detailing the events surrounding the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which largely concerned the issue of intelligent design being taught in public classrooms and which had as its decision the ruling that it was in violation of the constitution to teach intelligent design in classrooms. (This is a big issue for me, and, as NPR has demonstrated, this kind of ruling hasn’t really stopped the teaching of creationism in schools, or the consequential neglect of teaching evolution.) On the second night, we showed Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which, in my humble opinion, is a horrible documentary that utilizes the most manipulative scene splicing and editing to demonstrate Stein’s opinion that intelligent design supporters have been blacklisted in the scientific community. (Uh, maybe because it isn’t SCIENCE?)

So, with that explanation, let me leave you with the words of the man himself. The excerpt below is from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1854), which you can find online at Literature.org. Most people know Darwin for his contributions to evolutionary sciences through the discovery of natural selection. It isn’t widely known that Darwin’s scientific writings are actually quite beautiful and entertaining to read. For example, did you know that, in The Descent of Man, Darwin included a chapter on the intelligence and creativity of animals? If you don’t read anything, I’d at least read that. It’s incredibly interesting and, excuse me for saying it but, cute.

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

– From the final chapter, “Recapitulation and Conclusion,” of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species

-DL

Original text (with pictures and cartoons!) can be found on http://popculturephile.wordpress.com/

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