People around the world this week are celebrating the birth of one of the most significant figures in human history.
On Feb. 12, 1809, Charles Darwin entered the world. Fifty years later, he would publish one of the seminal works of science: “On the Origin of Species.”
The book explains the natural phenomena of evolution and natural selection, which account for the history, characteristics and inter-relatedness of all living beings.
Evolutionary theory is the key concept underpinning all of biological science, and while Darwin’s work lays out plenty of supporting evidence available to him at the time, much more evidence has emerged since then, e.g. genes as the units of inheritance (sure, Gregor Mendel’s work was contemporaneous, but it was unknown to Darwin) and microbial drug resistance.
And for anyone with a background* in biology, the book also is a fascinating read for what you’ll recognize in it: not only the often-cited passages you saw in umpteen textbooks but also hints of some of the same anti-evolution criticisms that are still in use today, namely the argument that evolution cannot be real because the eye is too complex of a structure to have evolved on its own. Darwin, of course, aptly refuted this argument himself in the book by talking about how simpler eye structures (e.g. eyespots or light-sensitive cells that allow an organism to move to and away from light) could benefit organisms in terms of survival and reproduction and how these simpler eyes gradually could be modified over time, yielding some of the more complex visual organs we see today.
Considering Darwin’s contributions, it’s no surprise that there is a Darwin Day celebrated annually worldwide — on or close to the anniversary of his birth.
And Portland is not to be left out of the fun and remembrances.
Science In Portland has heard about two celebrations, which are described below. If you know of a Darwin Day event not listed here, send us the details via email or my social media accounts below. We’ll update this post accordingly.
In the meantime, here are the events SIP knows about:
Darwin Day with keynote talk by Kiki Sanford — Sanford, a neurophysiologist by training and host of the web and radio show “This Week In Science,” will give a keynote address about genetics and evolution at 6 p.m. in Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom, 1825 S.W. Broadway. A science communication panel discussion will precede Sanford’s talk at 5:30 p.m., and a question-and-answer session will follow it at 7 p.m. The event is hosted by PSU’s Biology Investigations and Outreach group, and tickets are free. For more information, go to the Facebook page for Sanford’s talk, “Endless, Beautiful, Wonderful: Evolution — A Darwin Day Talk.”
OMSI Science Pub lecture with PSU history professor Richard Beyler — Beyler will give the talk “Why was Darwin on the HMS Beagle? The history of evolution as world history” at 7 p.m. in Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Empirical Theater, 1945 S.E. Water Ave. Doors will open at 5 p.m., and there is a suggested donation of $5. Food and drinks are welcome in the theater and can be purchased on site from OMSI restaurants. Beyler specializes in the history of science and intellectual history. He’ll talk about how Darwin ended up on the Beagle, the voyage of which was not planned for him, and about the intersection of his development as a naturalist with international politics, naval strategy, imperial expansion, global trade and anti-slavery activism. For more information, see a post about the event on The Dispersal of Darwin blog, written by Portlander Michael Barton.
(*A note about backgrounds in biology and Darwin’s book: Ironically, despite majoring in biology, I was never required in any of my courses to read the book. Sure, we got lots of excerpts in textbooks and lectures that covered all the key points, but I think students of biology or general science are missing out if they’re not required to read it. I finally read the whole thing after graduation, and it was fascinating to see how much of the information I was taught in biology actually went back 150+years to Darwin or the scientists he was citing, the style of scientific publication back then versus today, and the opposition he anticipated or had already experienced about his theory and how he addressed it in the book. Reading it will put a lot of things in context and give you a deeper appreciation of the work he did. And contrary to what you may have heard, the language isn’t always dense and verbose. In fact, in the first chapter or two, I was really impressed with how accessible the writing was, but then I’m also someone who reads Charles Dickens for fun, so my impression of 19th century English prose is somewhat skewed. On a final side note, I made copious notes throughout “Origin” as I was reading and intend sometime to do virtual book club-style posts on my Sci-what?! blog about it. If you’d be interested in following along with such posts, let me know, and I might get that started sooner rather than later.)