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Dust Off Your Darwin Costume: It's Evolution Weekend!

by Glenn Branch

Charles_darwin_l Not so long ago in Birmingham, England, it was a reggae version of the Origin of Species with a video to match, but soon in San Diego, they’ll be listening to the Galápagos Mountain Boys playing their own brand of scientific bluegrass. In Oslo, Norway, they’ll be attending a series of scholarly lectures on the evolution of language, while they’ll be throwing another shrimp on the barbie by way of celebration in Melbourne, Australia. In Terre Haute, Indiana; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Salem, Oregon, they’ll be sitting down to watch the hilarious documentary Flock of Dodos, but in Philadelphia, they’ll be on their feet to play badminton at the Penn Museum. In Seattle, a Darwin impersonation contest is part of the festivities, while across the Puget Sound in Bremerton, it’s a one-man show with Darwin live and in concert. To top it all, in Whitewater, Wisconsin, the reception is going to feature what’s billed as the world’s largest edible tree of life.

Yes, Darwin Day is back, and still going strong. February 12, 2008, is the 199th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and colleges and universities, schools, libraries, museums, churches, civic groups, and just plain folks across the country—and the world—are preparing to celebrate Darwin Day, on or around February 12, in honor of the life and work of Charles Darwin. Last year, over 850 such events took place worldwide, and 2008—just one year shy of the Darwin bicentennial—is shaping up to be just as abundant in celebration. Darwin Day provides a marvelous opportunity not only to celebrate Darwin’s birthday but also to enjoy, and engage in, public outreach about science, evolution, and the importance of evolution education. The Darwin Day Celebration website, administered by the Institute of Humanist Studies, maintains a useful registry where you can find a Darwin Day event near you and spread the word about your own.

Accompanying Darwin Day is Evolution Weekend, February 8–10 in 2008, sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project, which encompasses over 11,000 members of the clergy who have signed a statement on science and religion describing evolution as “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests” and calling for education policymakers “to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.” Evolution Weekend is a perfect time for interested congregations to discuss and reflect on the relationship between religion and science. As Michael Zimmerman, the initiator of the project, recently wrote in the Houston Chronicle, “With more than 740 congregations representing all 50 states and nine countries planning to participate, the landscape’s changing for the better. Clergy will be delivering sermons, leading discussions and hosting speakers, and parishioners will be able to engage in meaningful discourse.”

Branch Why make such a point of celebrating Darwin Day, as opposed to, say, Einstein Day on March 14? A crucial reason, particularly in the United States, is to counteract the public climate of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution. In Florida, for example, the state board of education is soon to consider a proposed new set of state science standards—which, unlike their predecessors, manage actually to use the e-word, “evolution,” in describing what students in Florida’s public schools need to know about biology. Dismayingly, however, no fewer than ten county school boards have adopted resolutions calling for evolution to be taught as “a theory, not a fact” (for the wretched details, consult Florida Citizens for Science). Evidently the fact that the country’s scientific experts—most recently the National Academy of Sciences, in its new publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism—and educational authorities have consistently supported teaching evolution is also lost on them.

Such uninformed and misguided opposition to teaching evolution isn’t confined to Florida, either: consider recent events in Texas, where the director of science curriculum at the state education agency was forced to resign after forwarding a brief e-mail announcing a lecture by a critic of creationism, or South Carolina, where only a massive outcry from scientists and educators prevented the state board of education from rejecting a standard high school biology textbook opposed by local creationists, or in any of the three states where antievolution legislation was considered in 2007. (None so far in 2008, but the year is young.) So that’s a fine reason for you to devote a day—at the museum or in a pew, at a lecture hall or in a movie theater, out in the park or indoors on a badminton court—to learn about, discuss, and celebrate Darwin and his contributions to science, and to demonstrate your support of teaching evolution in the public schools.

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools. With NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott, he edited Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2006).