It is February 12th and, apart from being one of the last few days to prepare some socially-compelled expression of romance, it is also the day we observe International Darwin Day! (Incidentally, it is also the day where I fight my subconscious instinct to write “International Darkwing Day!” – Let’s get dangerous!)
Charles Darwin is best known for his travels on the HMS Beagle and his book, On the Origin of Species. Or, I should say, he is best known for mythologies that have sprung up around his travels and his writing. Darwin did not discover evolution; it was generally accepted at the time. He discovered the role natural selection plays in evolution. His concluding that natural selection was the driver of evolution was not the result of an AH-HA! moment. Rather—like most scientific discoveries—the result of a long time spent doing research, intensively studying, having conversations with colleagues and scientists in other related fields, and reviewing notes. In fact, Alfred Russel Wallace is every bit as responsible for discovering the process of natural selection, having independently reached the same general conclusion as Darwin based on his own research. They actually published a joint paper.
Oh, and speaking of myths: Darwin did not say that we evolved from monkeys. He proposed that humans and primates share a common ancestor. He did not coin the term “survival of the fittest”—that honor goes to the progenitor of Social Darwinism (*shudders*), Herbert Spencer. Besides, the phrase itself is a crappy, inaccurate, incomplete way of describing natural selection.
Celebrated on Charles Darwin’s birthday, International Darwin Day is meant to be a day of reflection and celebration of intellectual courage, scientific thinking, curiosity, and the pursuit of truth, as well as a day of education and activism around scientific advancement. Though celebrations of Darwin’s contribution to science have been organized sporadically since 1909, the year of his centennial birthday, it wasn’t until the 1990s and early 2000s that the current general incarnation of Darwin Day was established. The evolved (ba-dum-tss!) brainchild of Amanda Chesworth and Robert Stephens, International Darwin Day is headed up by the Darwin Day Celebration. The International Darwin Day Fund, under the aegis of the American Humanist Association, now operates DarwinDay.org.
Darwin Day celebrations are put on by university science departments, humanist societies, museums, and learning centers around the world. Past events have included classroom lessons, film screenings, public lectures and presentations, cake and ice cream, and a dinosaur in a party hat! (*rawr*—it means “I love you” in dinosaur.)
I don’t know about you, but I definitely agree with Monty the Dinosaur: curiosity, scientific advancement, and the pursuit of truth are totally worth celebrating! I think I will be celebrating by watching this—because NOVA is wonderful. And with a dance party—because dance party!