Matt Cherry on 'dowdy Darwin and 'cool Charles'
One of the more enjoyable achievements of America's Christian fundamentalists has been to make Charles Darwin seem daring and dangerous again. In Britain, he's dowdy Darwin: a dead, white Victorian male – who, even while alive, was a neurotic, publicity-shy recluse. But in the US, he's cool Charles, the rebel with a theory. In the American sub-culture of scientifically minded people, Darwin has become a symbol of reason, scientific inquiry, and – yes – evolution. Among the more in-your-face rationalists, the best-selling bumper sticker is the Darwin Fish: a parody of the Christian fish, sprouting legs, and with the letters DARWIN inside. The Darwin Fish can be spotted on vehicles throughout America, and it has given birth to numerous variations. The Evolve Fish doesn't just have legs, but also hands grasping a tool. The Science Fish looks like a Buck Rogers-style space rocket. Even other religious groups are touting their own fish: a fat fish with the word Buddha inside, the Hindu fish with udders, and the Rastafarian fish smoking a spliff.
Interestingly, a Christian counter-attack has begun against the Darwin Fish, with symbols of the Christ Fish as a shark eating the Darwin Fish. (So much for turning the other cheek!) And, in turn, you can now buy the Darwin Fish eating the Christ Fish. The newest addition to the family is the 'Procreation Fish', which is certainly not Pro-Creationist, depicting the Evolution Fish (How can I put this delicately?) sharing its genes with the Christ Fish. (You can find these Darwinian emblems and other freethought merchandise at www.evolvefish.com )
All this symbolic evolution reveals the status of 'Darwin' as an all-purpose icon for the scientific worldview. Darwin is the definitive rebuff to fundamentalist Christianity. For many American college kids, this makes Darwin seem kind of cool. 'Darwinistas' are perceived as a dangerous, radical minority. If you really want to alarm your family, and the nose ring and other metal in your face is no longer freaking out granny, then get a Darwin Fish. Or better yet, celebrate Darwin Day!
Darwin Day is celebrated every year on or about February 12, Charles Darwin's birthday. Darwin Days are mostly sponsored by local and campus humanist groups, but university science departments and other groups are also starting to join the celebrations.
A 'Darwin Festival' was first celebrated on February 12, 1980 at Salem State College in Massachusetts. In 1991, 'Darwin Day' was adopted by the Humanist Community at Stanford, California, and other humanist groups in the US, Europe, and Australia gradually began to copy the idea.
In 1996, Massimo Pigliucci, a biology professor at the University of Tennessee, began an annual Darwin Day conference that brought together university biologists, high-school science teachers, students, local humanists, and the general public to explore the theory of evolution and its impact on the world.
In 2001, the 'Darwin Day Program' was incorporated and an excellent website created, at www.darwinday.org Darwin Day celebrations began to multiply almost as fast as Darwin Fish stickers. In 2001, 24 groups celebrated Darwin Day. Around 150 celebrations were organized in 2002. Organizers hope for 300 Darwin Day events in 2003.
Darwinistas have a multitude of options to celebrate Darwin Day. Few humanist groups can resist the lure of a lecture, so the most common way to mark 'D-Day' is with a talk by a local biology professor.
But more creative celebrations are evolving. Darwin Day festivities can include essay contests, film festivals, museum exhibits, art shows, and even an 'Evolution Banquet' with 'Primordial Soup' followed by a 'Darwin Fish Fry'. On some campuses, students don ape costumes and walk around handing out pro-evolution flyers. For many science students, this could be the highlight of their year!
"The best activity I've heard of is the one done by the California Academy of Sciences," says Amanda Chesworth, executive director of the Darwin Day Program. "They had a Darwin Roadshow that invited the community to bring in fossils, nature items, and so on, and their experts would identify them."
Amanda also recommends the Darwinian Beauty Contest, where beauty is based on survival value: "Contestants dress up as a particular animal or plant and show specific things about them that are adapted to their environment or provide them some sort of advantage in surviving. For instance, a male peacock might wear an incredibly brilliant tail and discuss how this gets him the girl peacock every time – thereby perpetuating his kind."
Darwin Day seems to be benefiting from the association of with reason-based rebellion against religious authority. The Honorary President of the Darwin Day Program is Richard Dawkins, a biologist well-known for critiquing religion as well as popularising evolution. Yet the organizers are careful to focus on promoting scientific understanding rather than challenging religion. The Darwin Day website proclaims its mission is to "celebrate the wonder and beauty of both science and humanity."
The Darwin Day Program is beginning to expand its focus beyond just one day in the year. The organizers are planning a year-round program of education and outreach to "improve the public's understanding of science and it's appreciation for our shared humanity.
Darwin Day is also going global. Although based in America, the Darwin Day Program has very strong ties with the UK working with Cambridge University (where Darwin studied), Down House (where Darwin lived), the Natural History Museum, and many other prestigious institutions. Darwin Day has also been celebrated in Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, and Zambia.
Billing itself as an 'International Celebration of Science and Humanity', the Darwin Day Program is building up to a 'Global Celebration' of Darwin's Birthday in 2009. That year will mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. D-Day organizers are already working with Robin McKie, the science editor for the Observer, to create a media insert to be distributed to major international media in 2009.
INSTANT NAME RECOGNITION
In the early 1990s, the Humanist Community of Stanford proposed that the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) formally adopt Darwin Day as an official humanist holiday. The IHEU voted down this proposal, with board members arguing that humanists should not ape saints days or elevate humanist heroes to the status of secular idols.
The idea of Darwin Day seems to be propagating itself very successfully without official humanist endorsement. Perhaps Darwin Day is flourishing because it is easier to relate to an individual than a theory. Perhaps in a world of five second sound-bites, instant name recognition counts for more than philosophical exposition. And perhaps, in a world where the most successful marketing icons are celebrity faces, science needs a human face to sell its ideas to an indifferent public - even if that face belongs to a neurotic, Victorian recluse.
BELIEF IN EVOLUTION
Most of the world has accepted the theory of evolution, first outlined by Charles Darwin in 1859. The scientific argument for evolution was won before the end of the nineteenth century. The shocking discovery that humanity is not the pinnacle of creation, but just another species of primate, has taken longer to absorb.
Yet in the United States, alone among Western nations, the theory of evolution is still highly controversial. Every two years the National Science Board (NSB) surveys the level of scientific understanding among adult Americans. In 2002, the NSB reports that, "For the first time, a majority (53 per cent) of NSF survey respondents answered 'true' to the statement "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," bringing the United States more in line with other industrialized countries in response to this question." As good news goes, that's rather depressing. Worse, when the survey group was asked whether "The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs", only 48 per cent answered correctly (down from 51 per cent in the 2000 survey).
These findings are consistent with repeated Gallup poll findings that nearly half of Americans agree that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years." (see table below).
Opinion polls about teaching Creationism also make for depressing reading. A 2001 Gallup survey revealed that 68 per cent of Americans favour teaching Creationism in schools alongside evolution (29 per cent oppose). In a separate question about completely replacing evolution education with Creationism, the survey showed 40 per cent in favour of a Creationism-only curriculum but 55 per cent against. Some science educators actually took comfort from this news that a slight majority of Americans are in favour of giving evolution equal time with Creationism rather than eliminating it from schools entirely! In this climate, Darwin's followers are likely to remain an endangered species.
Gallup Poll on Evolution and Creation, 1982-2001
|God created people in present form within last 10,000 years||44%||47%||47%||44%||47%||45%|
|Evolution occurred over millions of years guided by God||38%||40%||35%||44%||40%||37%|
|Evolution occurred with no interference by God||9%||9%||11%||10%||9%||12%|