Friday, 1 February 2013

Happy Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend

Charles Darwin's birthday has become not just an international holiday, but an entire evolution-themed weekend. Here are ideas for how to celebrate.
Fri, Feb 10 2012 at 12:48 PM

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British naturalist Charles Darwin strikes a pensive pose in this copy of an 1881 oil painting by John Collier. (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago Sunday, 50 years before he would forever change the field of biology with "On the Origin of Species." Another book, published 143 years later, dubbed his opus on evolution "the single best idea, ever."
The editors of that book helped found Darwin Day in the 1990s, honoring not just Darwin, but also "the achievements of humanity as represented in the acquisition of verifiable scientific knowledge." People had already been celebrating Darwin's birthday every Feb. 12 for decades, but Darwin Day became a broad, global holiday for science, with Darwin as its patriarch — sort of like a less jolly, more scholarly Santa Claus.
But while Darwin's discovery of natural selection has revolutionized science, it has also inspired generations of critics. Some distrust it for religious reasons, seeing it as a threat to Creationism or Intelligent Design, and some just don't like to think of people as animals. Darwin wasn't anti-religion, though — he was on track to be a clergyman before his fateful Galapagos trip, and his body is buried at Westminster Abbey.
If you'd like to commemorate this Darwin-packed weekend, but aren't sure how, here are a few suggestions:
• Host a Phylum Feast: Darwin enthusiasts have been holding yearly Phylum Feasts on Feb. 12 since at least the 1970s. A Phylum Feast is a potluck dinner in which all the dishes are as biodiverse as possible — ideally, each should come from a different phylum. Darwin reportedly enjoyed eating "birds and beasts ... unknown to human palate," and many people still see this as a way to embrace our evolutionary past. "Most of our day-to-day food comes from a small number of domesticated vertebrates and grasses," writes naturalist and Phylum Feast authority Frederick Schueler, "but by seeking out and identifying the diverse biotic sources of our diet in this meal, we remember our origin as omnivores, and our relatedness to other lineages."
• Make "primordial soup": Of course, the idea of a Phylum Feast can make conservationists cringe, especially when the menu includes exotic items like minke whale meat. Phyla diversity is also limited at some grocery stores, often making such feasts impractical. But you could always just make another Darwin Day favorite instead: "primordial soup." Named after the cocktail of amino acids believed to spark the first life on Earth, this dish is wide open to interpretation — from simple stews to Phylum Feasts in a pot. There's also Julia Child's version, if you're feeling more literal.
• Attend a Darwin Day event: There were more than 800 Darwin Day events worldwide in 2011, and offers a partial list of those being held in 2012. Some are one-day affairs, like Friday's Darwin Day exhibit at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Saturday's Darwin Day Beach Cleanup in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; or Sunday's annual Darwin Day Lunch in Oxford, England. Others are more stretched out, like a monthlong Darwin exhibit in Bologna, Italy; "Darwin Week" festivities in San Antonio, Texas; and a variety of three-day weekend celebrations. Darwin Day originally focused on lectures by prominent scientists, but today it has expanded to include debates, museum exhibits, film festivals, art shows, essay contests and more. Some even use the holiday to jointly honor U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who was also born on Feb. 12, 1809.

• Read "On the Origin of Species": Not only is the full text of Darwin's seminal work available online, but so are all of his publications. It's a lot to absorb in one day, or even three days, but a chilly weekend like this one might nonetheless be a good time to dig in — with a steaming bowl of primordial soup, of course.
For more information about evolution by natural selection, check out this classic (and animated) explanation by the late astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan:
Have other ideas for celebrating Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend? Let us know in the comments below.
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