February 14, 2007

Cornell Celebrates Darwin Day

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Tuesday was Charles Darwin’s 198th birthday and the 148th anniversary of the first publication of his book On the Origin of Species. This newly minted holiday was first celebrated with a series of lectures in Palo Alto, Calif. in 1995, but has gained popularity since then around the globe.

The Paleontological Research Institute and Cornell University joined in the celebration for the second time. Officials held events throughout the weekend at the Museum of the Earth and on the Cornell campus and ended yesterday with an all-day evolution workshop for teachers. Other events included panels on evolution in education, understanding evolution and human thought and human-engineered evolution.

On Saturday there was a family day and screenings of Flock of Dodos — a film documenting the debate about science-teaching in the classroom. The comedic documentary was filmed by Rand Olsen, a marine biologist who also has a film degree. The film brought up many of the key points regarding the weekend and the controversy at large. Educators stressed that the general public misunderstands evolution and often the teachers responsible for teaching the curriculum are not given the resources to answer challenging questions or bullying attacks from other perspectives. Warren Allmen, director of the Paleontological Institute, said, “19 states don’t even have evolution in the statewide curriculum and in many states that do, teachers gloss over evolution just assigning the chapter and quickly moving on because of pressure from parents and the local community.”

This has ended up feeding misunderstandings as new generations of adults are not informed about evolution. Even at Cornell, according to an informal poll done in an introductory evolution course, “About 50 percent of Cornell students don’t think evolution occurs and this has been constant over the last 12 years,” Allmen said.

The second major point brought up in Flock of Dodos is that the “other” side opposing Darwinism, including Intelligent-Design and Young Earth Creationism, is often much better funded and organized. Often proponents of anti-Darwinian theories work full-time, hire public relations firms and have annual operating budgets in the millions. This stands in contrast to most active Darwinists who, according to the film, are usually full-time researchers and teachers.

Public relation firms provide Intelligent-Design supporters with simple phrases and talking points while no such mechanism exists for scientists. Instead, Darwinists must rely on their own training and thinking, but this is often insufficient.

Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, science communication, said, “Most scientists when they are young focus on their research and becoming very specialized and knowledgeable in one area, and by the time they have become an authority and have the knowledge to reach out to the public that have lost the ability to express themselves to the public.”

In Flock of Dodos scientists are often mentioned as having acted childishly in front of the public, viciously ridiculing those who have doubts about evolution and even walking out of presentations. Teaching public outreach to younger scientists is one proposed solution. Lewenstein said,

“Cornell is very unusual offering many opportunities to graduate students and faculty to participate in outreach programs.”

Darwin Day is organized by The Darwin Day Celebration group, which was founded by a humanist organization out of Stanford but has grown to include many other humanist organizations, scientific institutions and education groups.

The movement is appealing to governments to eventually recognize Darwin Day as a holiday by 2009, which will intersect with Charles Darwin’s bicentennial and his book’s sesquicentennial. Darwin Day is a source of controversy. Creationists have accused that the day amounts to worship of Darwin or science and some of the more extreme humanist organizations have added pseudo-religious and ritual elements to their celebrations.