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Sunday, February 12, 2006 is the 197th birthday of Charles Robert Darwin—and the University of Pennsylvania Museum is celebrating with a free Darwin Day and Evolution Teach-In, 1 to 5 p.m. Penn faculty from several disciplines are participating in the teach-in, offering attendees a variety of perspectives on the study of evolution.  The following experts offer ten to 15 minute lectures, several times throughout the afternoon:

• Dr. Paul Sniegowski, associate professor of biology: Evolution: Just the Facts

• Dr. Janet Monge, co-curator of Surviving: The Body of Evidence, keeper of Physical Anthropology, Museum, and adjunct associate professor of anthropology:  Skulls and Bones: Anthropology and Human Evolution

• Dr. M. Susan Lindee, professor of history and sociology of science: Darwin’s Story

• Dr. Richard M. Leventhal, Williams Director of Penn Museum, professor of anthropology: How Culture Evolves

Event details are available online: www.museum.upenn.edu.

Darwin: Viva la Evolution!

Janet Monge and Alan Mann

Why not celebrate a person who, through his work and insights into natural history, constructed a theory that is still relevant after 150 years? Not only does his work resonate today within the academic community, but it has immense social relevance. Witness the arguments about evolution’s validity that continue, decade after decade in the U.S., the most recent playing out in a federal courtroom in central Pennsylvania. If there is a positive note to this continued dispute, it is this: the basis of science is the continual examination and necessary modification of any scientific theory. Within the scientific community, while the general theory of evolution is overwhelmingly accepted, there continue to be debates about the precise mechanisms that control the evolutionary process; even the primacy of natural selection, considered by most to be the major factor in evolutionary change and Darwin’s greatest legacy, continues to be critically examined. For many non-scientists, the notion that scientists consider all theories to be works in progress, subject to modification on the basis of new research or ideas, is an unsettling one.

Many people, some of them scientists, simply cannot accept that the living world can be explained by natural rather than supernatural mechanisms.  Even Darwin’s wife, Emma Wedgwood Darwin, was sufficiently upset by his theory to say that “I fear for his immortal soul.”  In a sense, it is the increasing public context of science that has forced scientists to confront the huge gap between what they take for granted and what the general public does not understand or will not accept.  Scientists seemingly talk to each other but do not effectively reach out to the community and even apparently to some of their own students. Two college graduates visiting the Penn Museum and being interviewed as part of a process in the construction of a new exhibit on evolution scheduled to open at the Museum in October 2007 (Surviving: The Body of Evidence), told us that humans are not animals. In their view, the world was divided into animal, vegetable, mineral and human. Thirty-two years of collective education in U.S. schools had produced two reasonably educated people who had no idea of even the most rudimentary tenets of biology. All educators must question how this happened and how our educational system permitted it to occur. These students have no idea of evolutionary processes; beyond that, they did not have even a rudimentary understanding of the patterning of life on earth, no matter how it came to be.

Darwin Day is an endeavor to bring evolutionary science into the public view. If a science museum can explain gravity and the mechanisms that produce thunderstorms, it should be able to explain evolutionary process. Would it be acceptable if students believed that thunderstorms were the result of giants banging rocks together in the sky? How is it possible that so many people have so little understanding of the processes of evolution; in some cases, not even enough knowledge to wonder why they reject it. Where to begin to describe what is, after all, the concept that explains the unity of all earthly life and has laid the foundation of the bio-technological revolution that is changing the modern world? Why not begin with Darwin? Almost 150 years ago, after more than 20 years of observation and research, he presented the world with the first consistent and well-supported mechanism of evolutionary change, natural selection.

There is, too, the physical presence of Darwin. We can view him in his small house in southern England, framed in a specially constructed armchair in a study surrounded by objects of natural history and the scientific instruments of the time.  He represents a wonderful model for scientists and non-scientists alike, an exquisite balance of scholar and human. After the publication of his great work, The Origin of Species, in the midst of the fiery assault on this work, he remained the devoted husband, father, and community member, in harmony with his family and with his local surroundings. He managed to deftly balance private family life with public clamor, something which today remains so difficult for all of us. Always the consummate observer, Darwin amassed mountains of data on very diverse topics, all linked by his curiosity to understand the patterns in the world. He was to the very core of his being a scientist and human being. Darwin Day is a way the scientific community can celebrate the human genius that produced this magnificent idea that unifies the study of life on the planet and provides the insight we need to more fully understand ourselves. As a social event, our celebration represents a balance of learning what Darwin and his ideas represent for us as part of the living world, and just plain fun—a revel in the revelation.

Dr. Janet Monge is a physical anthropologist, keeper of the Physical Anthropology collections at Penn Museum, and co-curator, with Dr. Alan Mann, of the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Surviving: The Body of Evidence. Dr. Alan Mann, curator emeritus, Physical Anthropology section, Penn Museum, is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 20, January 31, 2006


January 31, 2006
Volume 52 Number 20


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