On the origin of today’s Darwin Day


Today is Darwin Day, the 205th anniversary of the birth of the father of the theory of evolution.

It’s a scientific “holiday” that has had its evolutionary ups and downs.

Five years ago, for the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his publication of “On the Origin of Species,” celebration was robust, with Darwin Days proclaimed on dozens of college campuses, in museums and in the halls of government.

Today, well, not so much.

The oldest known ancestor of the holiday, pushed these days by the American Humanist Assn., arose at Salem State University in Massachusetts, in 1980, which still holds a weeklong Darwin festival. But the first event linked to the humanist community was held at Stanford University in 1995, and featured a lecture by anthropologist Donald Johanson, who discovered the early human fossil dubbed Lucy.


The association is pushing for congressional recognition of the day -- an effort that has failed twice before in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. It was first introduced in 2011 by California Democrat Pete Stark of the Bay Area, the first openly atheist member of Congress.

When Stark left Congress last year, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has a doctoral degree in physics (and is a five-time Jeopardy! champion who beat the famed Watson computer at the game) reintroduced the measure and has offered it again this year.

“Like Galileo, Newton and Einstein in the physical sciences, Darwin in the life sciences provided a new framework for thinking that led to great new understanding and eventually greatly improved the quality of life for millions of people,” Holt said in his introduction of the resolution.

The resolution states that evolution “provides humanity with a logical and intellectually compelling explanation for the diversity of life on Earth” and that its validity has been “strongly supported by the modern understanding of genetics.”

The resolution warns that “teaching of creationism in some public schools compromises the scientific and academic integrity of the United States’ education systems.”

Such language won’t sit well with Science Committee member Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who has called evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell.”


The measure also demands that “advancement of science be protected from those unconcerned with the adverse impacts of global warming and climate change,” words that are unlikely to please the Science Committee chair, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who doubts the human origin of climate change, or its vice chairman, conservative Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Huntington Beach), who once quipped during a hearing that the cause of climate change “could be dinosaur flatulence, who knows?”

That puts some strong selection pressure against survival of the proclamation.

Public opinion about evolution, meanwhile, appears to cleave along partisan lines, according to a December poll by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. While belief that “humans evolved over time” has held steady at about 60% since the issue last was polled in 2009, a 10 percentage point split between self-identified Republicans and Democrats has more than doubled. Now, only 43% of Republicans adhere to Darwin’s theory, down from 54%. Among Democrats, 67% accept the Darwinist view of the origins of life, up three points since 2009.

Despite decades-long fights over teaching creationism as part of the science curriculum in public schools, belief in evolution remains strongest among those 18-29, of whom 68% adhere to Darwin’s theory, according to the poll.

Among the political jurisdictions that have passed proclamations this year in favor of Darwin Day are Omaha, Neb., according to the humanist association’s Darwin Day website.

Universities that have publicly declared celebrations this year include the University of Southern Mississippi, which will have its first Darwin Day confab two days late, on Friday, at its Hattiesburg campus. The College of Charleston, S.C., has a whole week dedicated to Darwin.

Eastern Illinois University also celebrates Darwin Day, as does the University of Tennessee (the state where the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial over the teaching evolution was held), Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Fla.; North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D.; SUNY Stony Brook in Long Island, N.Y.; the National University of Mar del Plata in Buenos Aires; and the University of the Valley in Guatemala.

No California institutions were listed, and it was unclear if any had official celebrations scheduled.

Last year, San Diego passed a Darwin Day proclamation, signed by former Mayor Bob Filner, who has since resigned over allegations of sexual harassment of staffers. Regina and Vancouver, Canada, likewise passed resolutions last year.

Proponents of an intelligent design hypothesis have struck back, urging supporters to organize their own countercelebrations.

This year, the Discovery Institute, a nonprofit think tank best known for its advocacy of intelligent design, designated University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne as its “censor of the year,” for pushing Ball State University to declare that intelligent design would not be presented as part of a science curriculum.

The Muncie, Ind., university had weathered a months-long controversy over accusations that a physics and astronomy professor included speculation about supernatural intervention in the origin of life as part of an honors symposium called “The Boundaries of Science.”