Celebrating Darwin Day

Darwin's discoveries greatly advanced the human understanding of fields as various as genetics to epidemiology and his example is one worth emulating and celebrating.
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Considered the Father of Modern Biology, it's hard to imagine Charles Darwin falling asleep during a medical lecture. Yet, it was riding and shooting, taxidermy, and beetle collecting that instead fascinated young Darwin. Ignoring his studies in medical school, his father sent him to Christ College to become a parson, where instead he became deeply interested in natural history. After graduating, he was invited to join the HMS Beagle, which was integral to Darwin's famous volume The Origins of Species. Its publication inaugurated the beginning of modern science and thwarted religious and unfounded accounts about how life as we knew it came about.

Despite the continually growing body of evidence supporting Darwin's primary conclusions, as well as a consensus agreement from the world's top scientists, many conservative religious people continue to strive for an alternative explanation for life as we know it.

Call it intelligent design or creationism, the resistance to Darwin's theory of evolution unscientifically aims to reconcile unruly evidence with a premise that a god is responsible for the diversity of life on earth, not evolution. The scientific community-at-large sees these arguments as just religiously motivated pseudoscience. The United States National Academy of Sciences, for example, holds as a matter of policy that "Creationism, Intelligent Design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science." In fact, teaching intelligent design in public schools was deemed unconstitutional in the Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case.

Nevertheless, proponents for the creationist account of the origin of life continue to propose that it be taught in American classrooms as science. Most recently, they are advocating that we "teach the debate," which is simply a misleading statement. There is no debate among reputable scientists about whether or not evolution is the right explanation for the diversity of life we see today.

Unfortunately, the combined efforts of religious right organizations are having an impact on the teaching of science in the United States. In a recent national survey of 900 biology teachers, 60 percent say they don't endorse either theory, while 13 percent say that they explicitly teach intelligent design. Something is obviously wrong with the education system when more than half of biology teachers are afraid to present hard scientific evidence, while so many others feel free to teach kids unfounded sectarian beliefs. One sad result, as President Obama deftly reminded the country in last month's State of the Union address, is that, "The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations."

On Saturday, February 12th people around the world observe Darwin's birthday and his theory of evolution. First celebrated in 1909, Darwin Day was celebrated occasionally throughout the 20th century, but has recently been revitalized by educators around the world.

This year alone there are over 500 planned public events are listed at DarwinDay.org, with gatherings hosted internationally and in all fifty states. Events range from small, low-key dinners to educational seminars designed to inform the young and old about Darwin's impact on our everyday life. And for the first time, Rep. Pete Stark of California proposed a resolution on the floor of the House of Representatives that "recognizes Charles Darwin as a worthy symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the advancement of human knowledge."

While holidays are meant for fun and celebration, an annual event like Darwin Day is important in today's educational climate. As a national holiday, it trumpets not only the achievements of its namesake, but the accomplishments of the scientific community as a whole. Darwin's discoveries greatly advanced the human understanding of fields as various as genetics to epidemiology and his example is one worth emulating and celebrating.

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