One Hundred and Fifty Years without Darwin are Enough

This story, if true, is rather sad. 2009 will be a major date for evolutionary biology, both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th of the publication of the Origin (note to self: must publish earth-shaking treatise on 50th birthday to make future commemorations simpler*.) Apparently, the political issues may mean that American scientific institutions will not mount any major celebrations. And of course, we have to get this news from a British publication.

Even more depressing, G.G. Simpson made this same complaint about the deficiencies of the American public’s education in basic biology 50 years ago, in his essay One Hundred Years without Darwin are Enough. Nothing has changed. The situation may be even worse than in Simpson’s time.

The editorial from The Independent is below the fold.

*100th birthday might work better…that’ll give me time to come up with something.

Charles Darwin, the uncelebrated scientist

Philip Hensher

The other day, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who had an interesting story to tell.

He reported talking to a senior figure at the Smithsonian Institute, and complimenting them on their contributions to the centenary celebrations of Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905, and their work during 2005, designated an “international year of physics”. There is, of course, he remarked, a still more resonant anniversary coming up in 2009. That marks not only the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, but the 150th anniversary of the first publication of The Origin of Species. What, he asked, did the Smithsonian have planned to mark that?

According to Sir Martin, the principal American institution entrusted with the public understanding of science is having difficulty in mounting any kind of celebration at all, and there may well be none. Not that they wouldn’t like to, of course: but there are distinct difficulties in getting any funding to increase any awareness of Darwin’s ideas.

I would very much like to pass this on as no more than dinner-party chit- chat, but one doesn’t readily discount the account of Sir Martin, and it seems quite appallingly plausible. Anti-Darwinists have been gaining in confidence over the last few years, and increasingly, alternative “theories” of life are being taught in schools and universities.

Bald creationism and its absurdly mock-plausible alternative, “intelligent design”, are everywhere being taught as alternative theories to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Even here, they are creeping into syllabuses – the new GCSE biology syllabus includes discussion of creationism, and it has been widely reported that medical students of religious bent are starting to demand acknowledgement of citations of the Bible and of the Koran as scientific texts.

The inclusion of undisprovable mythologies within scientific education as if they were on a par with proper theories of life is bad enough. At least, in that context, anybody who is taught evolutionary theory after creationist fantasies ought to be able to see the distinction, and it should only be a problem of time-wasting. But, if this story about the Smithsonian has any basis, it is clear that creationists will not stop there. They don’t want Darwinian thought to be given any kind of public dissemination. They want creationism to be taught as if it were the correct answer to these major questions. If, by insisting that any survey of Darwin’s work be “balanced” by deluded accounts of God’s creation of the world, they can prevent any kind of explanation of life and evolution at all, they will be perfectly happy. They don’t, in fact, want the debate they constantly call for; they just want to be declared right.

Of course, no reputable scientific institution could possibly mount any kind of event devoted to explaining creationism and “intelligent design”, and if that is the condition, nothing will take place. I sincerely hope that there is some misunderstanding here; despite the august source of my information, I can’t honestly believe that the Smithsonian is unable to go ahead with celebrations of one of the greatest scientific thinkers in history. Nothing, however, is impossible in America nowadays, and we should all encourage the institute to think again, and that any celebrations should not be mounted on the pretence of staging debates where, in reality, there is none to be had.


  1. says

    No way. Don’t let’s take this sitting down. Obviously it’s going to take a grassroots effort to bestir our “senior figures.”

    It would be helpful, I think, to have an endowed chair connected to the Smithsonian that is devoted to the public understanding of science in this country, as Charles Simonyi created for Dawkins in Oxford. It’s not a magic solution, and certainly not a grassroots solution, but a step in the right direction. (People respond to a personality, even if they don’t like him or her.)

    Whatever “difficulties” there are in securing funding for Darwin’s Day is going to be outweighed in spades by the difficulties in securing funding for anything if we give any more ground to the hucksters. I think forming these “citizens for science” groups at the state level is a great start. Run for the school board, or at least be a delegate. Write letters to the editor. Send out “save the date” notices. Tell your local museums and libraries that you want a “Darwin Day” there. (Shameless plug: join your local museum, too.)

    People respond to confidence, not to equivocating and silence in the face of creationist opposition. Cowering is not going to solve anything; it will make things worse.

  2. Joker Cross says

    At the very minimum I’m planning a Planet of the Apes marathon. You’re all invited.

  3. MNDarwinist says

    Ever heard of “theological correctness”? Turns out, it is worse than its famous political counterpart.
    It seems to me that mankind is doing itself a great disservice. But that is not something that evolution would have thought ahead of, and prevented. As Dawkins says, it doesn’t think at all.

  4. ulg says

    This is what scientists get for zooming around in Black Helicopters and causing Hurricanes and Promoting Teh Gay Agender.

  5. says

    Slightly off topic, but I’ve been looking for a thread to slip this plug in:
    The Butterfly Zone
    A special exhibit through the summer at one of San Francisco’s crown jewels, the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Apart from how cool the Conservatory is after it’s renovation (basically a complete rebuild after some severe storm damage in the mid-90s), it’s a neat exhibit (hint: wear orange and hold still–the butterflies will come to you).

    I mention it because all the descriptive materials are hard-core evolution. There was even a panel about Darwin’s prediction of a moth with an 11 inch tongue (proboscis — whatever, it’s not my field, monkey boy) to feed on a 10 inch Madagascar orchid bloom and nectar only at the very bottom. The moth, Xanthopan morgani praedicta, was finally observed and described in 1903 (a nocturnal feeder, so rather elusive).

    How sad is it that after reading about the evolution wars all year, the primary thing I noticed about the exhibit materials was that they were reality-based?

  6. SEF says

    The important thing ;-) is to get Google on side, ie with one of their special day celebration images. That’s a lot of click-throughs to inform/remind people (and thus annoy creationists). There might be other similar sites to be approached too – anything involved with connectivity or advertising. I was going to suggest wikipedia might slant their article of the day stuff towards evolution for some period but that would probably only prompt creationists to trash the pages.

  7. says

    I was surprised to see this claim:

    If, by insisting that any survey of Darwin’s work be “balanced” by deluded accounts of God’s creation of the world, they can prevent any kind of explanation of life and evolution at all, they will be perfectly happy.

    In the tolerant and politically correct discourse of the age, the media and pundits assume that creationism or IDT are merely rival explanations.

    It’s refreshing to see an open acknowledgment that the cryto-theocrats do not want any sort of explanation at all — that they are deeply threatened by explanations.

    (Why that’s so is also clear: because explanations are understandable by anyone, and so undermine any claim to privileged or esoteric knowledge. It’s about authority, in other words.)

    Creationism and IDT are at best pseudo – explanations — in the proper sense that they seem to explain, but on close examination, do not. Unfortunately, this seems to be understood only by scientists and a few philosophers.

  8. Ed Darrell says

    Don’t rail about it: ACT!

    1. Drop a letter (with a modest little check) to NCSE, and tell them they need to start lobbying for a celebration.

    2. PZ, how many professional societies do you belong to? A letter to each is in order — tell them they need to plan to honor Darwin themselves, and that they need to lobby major institutions to act — not just Smithsonian, but also the Field Museum in Chicago, AMNH in New York, the museums at Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, etc. Many celebrations make up for small size — and each has a cause to celebrate.

    3. Let’s find some practical applications and get relevant folk to plan commemorations: The American Diabetes Association should plan to mark the anniversary, since the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes is so intricately linked to evolution theory; the American Cancer Society should mark advances against various cancers based on understanding of evolution — including the recent release of the vaccine against HPM, which could prevent cervical cancers; the poobahs of cotton may have greater cause to celebrate if, by 2009, the campaign against the cotton boll weevil is successful(based on application of pesticides designed to prevent the bug’s developing immunity to the pesticide, and to strike it at its greatest vulnerabilities), but they should celebrate in any case. Similarly, McDonalds and the State of Idaho should celebrate Luther Burbank’s application of evolution theory to create the russet Burbank, which is both a chief cash crop and source of fame for Idaho, and the stuff that keeps us going to McDonalds.

    3 (a.) – Genentech should do a corporate commemoration, as should a dozen or so other pharmaceutical companies. ADM and Cargill owe their existence to Darwinian theory applied — let’s celebrate it!

    4. Commemorating Darwin’s birth should be on the agenda of Evolution 2006, Evolution 2007, and Evolution 2008. The three big biology societies should lead the way, shouldn’t they? Here’s the scoop on Evolution 2006 (at Stony Brook this year):

    PZ, will you serve on the Darwin’s Anniversary coordinating committee? Can you get Niles Eldredge, or Ken Miller, or Eugenie Scott, or someone similar, to chair? I think the Texas Nobelists would join in, including the physicist Stephen Weinberg — they’re good for a good cause. How about the Minnesota Nobelists? Can you round them up? Anybody else?

  9. SmellyTerror says

    Oh, you wacky Americans! What will you think of next? Maybe you could replace your power stations with churches. God is awfully powerful, y’know!

    Sorry, I’m pasting you fine American folk with the tar meant for the idjits. I just see this sort of thing (ID is such a US phenomenon), and look at your it’d-be-hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-depressing health system, and the random enemy generator of US foreign policy, and the angry blugeoning colossus that is America In The World, and I have to wonder: what the hell happened to that country? I’ve read history books – it had so much potential!

    What’s with all the willful ignorance? Not you guys, of course, but all of Them.

    Your mission: go forth and beat some sense into some hillbillies. LESS TALKIN’, MORE BEATIN’!

  10. thwaite says

    Don’t overlook the existing resources:

    darwinday. org

    –well-organized for the next several years. From their front page:

    Darwin’s 200th Birthday will occur on February 12, 2009; it will also be the 150th Anniversary of the publication of his famous book On The Origin of Species. So, together we have time to evolve a truly International Celebration to show our appreciation for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity.

    Here are ways you can participate:
    Provide your e-mail address so we can send you future announcements and not have them considered “spam”! Or,
    Add your email and name to our list of eminent Supporters
    by clicking here.
    Plan a Darwin Day Celebration and register it for 2007 by clicking here.
    Plan to participate each year until Darwin’s bicentennial birthday in 2009.
    Please consider making a financial donation (by PayPal or other ways)
    to support Darwin Day .

  11. says

    That’s a splendid article. I think I just switched my newspaper allegiance to the Independent.

    The Guardian still has the best crosswords though.

  12. says

    And zoos, too.

    I’ve been lobbying the local zoo — where I volunteer — to get them to start some kind of “everything you should know about evolution but didn’t know to ask” event. They’ve been receptive. Hope to pilot in 2007 and 2008 so we can be ready for 2009. With any luck (and plenty of work) you’ll see our event on the Darwin Day event list.

  13. Bob O'H says

    I think Kristine is right: the Citizens for Science groups should be mobilised. I’m sure they’d like to be involved with something other than trench warefare against Creationists.

    Personally, what I’d like to do for 2009 is to run a CAMRA pub next to Down House for the year.


  14. G. Tingey says

    And, of course,I’m sorry to say, a massive publicity campaign, carefully using Judge Jones’ words.

    ( Plus other statements )

    The baseline must be that ID is a lie, Creationism is a lie.
    Anyone who says these things is a liar.
    They may (just may) be sincere and believe this crap) – but it is a lie just the same.

    Keep at it.

    Before more of the loonies come over here.

  15. says

    I’d meant to hold this for a day or so, but with Pharygulous seredipity intervening, here goes.

    We’re building a replica of HMS Beagle, going to use it re-stage the voyage of the Beagle and them for science education and public engagement work, and yes we’ll sail it to America. We: me (zoology grad, Liverpool University now professional yacht skipper and author) and David Lort-Phillips, descendent of John Lort Stokes who sat across the table from Darwin for five years and later commanded Beagle on her final surveying trip.

    It’s going to be built in Milford Haven, south west Wales, where we have a free dockyard site and even now a ferociously efficient German shipwright who specialises in square riggers is preparing plans to submit to Germanischer Lloyd’s for approval.

    We want this boat to be an asset to science (and especially the understanding of evolution) in the broadest possible sense: international young crews revisiting Darwin’s landfalls, making new landfalls and new discoveries, being mentored in science and research. So far we have British support and that from the European Molecular Biology Lab in Heidelberg

    see Building a Beagle here:

    I was waiting to get time to update the website:


    before starting to raise awareness and ask for support in America, but PZ has spoken, so the kitchen fitting will have to wait and I guess I’ll have to get on and upload updates…

  16. says

    If course that should have been

    We aim to launch in early 2009, time to build 14 months, cost £3.3 million. We can do this from a standing start: Darwin 2009 needs something tangible around which to focus its thoughts and events. You want a Beagle loaded with young scientists crossing the Atlantic to visit your Darwin 200 events, help us build it.

  17. says

    If I happen to be teaching that year, I’ll try to do something. (Even if I am not American.)

    Though, that part of it reminds me. Doesn’t Darwin share a birthday and year with Abraham Lincoln? It will be interesting to see how that plays out, too.

  18. Andrew says

    I was appalled at the suggestion of creationism on the GCSE syllabus, so I had a quick look at the revision site on the bbc website. It seems creationism is taught mostly as a reason for “Why didn’t people agree with Darwin at first”, which isn’t as bad as I might have thought when I first read the above editorial.

  19. says

    It seems to me that 600 scientists named Steve are enough volunteers to hold a pretty major Darwin celebratory conference. You’d probably have to guarantee the hotel about $150,000 but would get it back if you had enough people attending (say, 300 scientists named Steve). And you could have three days of lectures and workshops provided by about 25 scientists (named Steve), and still have a few Steves left over to take registrations and serve at the information tables, organize the message exchange, the job fair, the pub crawls, and the welcoming banquet.