Today, as most calendars note, is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. But a bevy of secular humanists, atheists, scientists and educators are pushing Feb. 12 as “Darwin Day.”
Charles Darwin, known for his groundbreaking work on evolution, “The Origin of Species,” happens to share a birthday with the 16th president.
Darwin Day proponents believe that the naturalist’s theory that men evolved from apes warrants a federal holiday, even if it means sharing the day with the president who led America through its Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in states in rebellion.
Darwin revolutionized the way people understand and look at life, said Amanda Chesworth, executive director of the Darwin Day Program. The program is an anti-creationist organization that aims to improve understanding of the evolutionary sciences and Darwin’s work.
Miss Chesworth would like to “make Darwin Day a national holiday” but feels there is little chance of that happening in the United States, with maybe a better chance in Europe.
Darwin was from Shrewsbury, England, where a group of scientists recently began a petition to make his birthday an official holiday.
Though Darwin was a good naturalist, he does not accurately describe the origin of humans, said Frank Sherwin, a writer and researcher at the Institute for Creation Research, who added that Darwin should not be celebrated in the manner some organizations have chosen.
“What people have done is magnified this idea of origin of species and made Darwin the high priest of secular humanism,” said Mr. Sherwin, whose Christian ministry in Santee, Calif., works to integrate science and the Bible. “Darwin himself would be very shocked with the kind of high accolades that are given to him about an unproved, unobserved and untested idea of his.”
Darwin Day events first took off in the early 1980s. Originally, seminars and lectures served as forums for evolutionists who opposed creationism and wanted to defend the theory of evolution.
The purpose, however, has changed over the years. Darwin Day participants say now the mission to hold events celebrating Darwin’s life and scientific achievements and to provide information about evolution.
In San Francisco, for example, the California Academy of Sciences hosted a two-day event on Feb. 5 and Feb. 7 featuring both a roadshow and a night of romance the latter honoring Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
To put love in the air, the academy chose jazz and blues band Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers to serenade guests, who could “smooch under the stars” during a planetarium show or pucker up with the fish while wandering through the aquarium.
The roadshow was modeled on the televised antiques roadshow popularized in England, but this party was a bit different. The public was encouraged to bring not antiques but leaves, worms, bugs, rocks and feathers; anthropologists, aquatic biologists and herpetologists were on hand to explain their evolutionary significance.
Darwin was said to be religious. He believed the diversity of nature was proof of God’s existence. But after years of conducting experiments and traveling the world on HMS Beagle, he developed the theory of evolution. And his views on God and creation changed.
His theory, published in “The Origin of Species,” suggested that everything evolves, or changes, over thousands of years in order to survive against enemies and make the best use of food sources. Darwin’s theory also stated that humans developed from apes.
Darwin’s theory sparked controversy in his time.
Many Christians disagreed with his ideas because they contradicted their own theory of creation as described in the Bible’s book of Genesis, which describes God creating Earth and all creatures in six days.
Opposition to Darwin’s theory still exists and teaching evolution has been a sensitive subject for some creationists.
“Although [creationists] certainly embrace natural selection as nature’s way of culling out the less fit, we have a problem with the extrapolation of the small changes we do observe turning into large changes like ape creatures turning into people,” Mr. Sherwin said.
Massimo Pigliucci, associate professor of ecology, evolution and biology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, said he believes it is worthwhile to hold events celebrating Darwin’s theory of evolution because it is biology’s most unifying theory.
“If you are interested in learning about science, you have to know about Darwin’s theory of evolution,” Mr. Pigliucci said. “To not educate the public about evolution is like not educating the public about Einstein’s theory of relativity.”
And the growing popularity of Darwin Day events has influenced some schools, museums, zoos and organizations to sponsor elaborate festivals, teachers’ workshops and performances.
Miss Chesworth said her group estimates 10,000 individuals may participate in Darwin Day events this year.
“The most effective events, I think, are those that are planned as community-wide celebrations and offer a mixture of fun and learning for different age groups,” Miss Chesworth said in a recent press release.
The Eugene Round Earth Society in Winston, Ore., honored Darwin Feb. 9 with Wildlife Safari, where members drove through a 600-acre wild-animal park.
The organization’s mission is to help atheists live a secular life and “keep an eye on supernatural claims and creationist intrusions into local government and perhaps help people in our community use scientific reasoning to make more informed choices,” according to its Web site.
The division of biology at UT-Knoxville has been throwing events in Darwin’s honor since 1996 the year the Tennessee legislature tried to pass an anti-evolution law, banning the teaching of evolution in classrooms statewide.
Mr. Pigliucci believes the creationist movement is a symptom of anti-intellectualism, which he loosely defines as a mistrust of reason.
“The evolution controversy is dangerous,” he said. “When society starts distrusting reason as a way to solve problems, we all lose.”