Portland Darwin Day events set to celebrate the life and work of the man who gave us evolution: Charles Darwin

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.”

Thanks to this guy, Charles Darwin, we know that species arise and change over time through the mechanism of natural selection. Freeimages.com

Thanks to this guy, Charles Darwin, we know that species arise and change over time through the mechanism of natural selection. Freeimages.com

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:

Feb. 12

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.”

Feb. 16

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.

Susannah L. Bodman
Twitter: @Sciwhat
Facebook: Sciwhat.Science

(*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.)

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4 Responses to Portland Darwin Day events set to celebrate the life and work of the man who gave us evolution: Charles Darwin

  1. kaptonok says:

    I am a great admirer of the meticulous reasoning of Charles Darwin which led to Natural Selection. Here is a contensious quote from the Descent of Man. Page 417.
    ‘ The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence in whatever he takes up than can woman, whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination , or merely the use of senses and hands.’
    I wonder if Darwin was being a child of the Victorian age, or if today we are blinded by a dersire to preach equality?


    • Likely he was being a child of the Victorian age. “Descent of Man” is in my to-read stack, but in “Origins” for all the great science in there, there were points here and there where we know more today about a mechanism or example, and I found myself saying, “Well, not quite, Charles.”

      For example, he didn’t know about Mendelian inheritance and genes and the units of inheritance but instead conformed to the prevailing idea of the time about mixing of blood, like you mix two paint colors together and the result is what your offspring have. We now know that’s not right.

      Also, scientifically, Darwin wasn’t perfect. The key example is his incorrect idea about what formed the “roads” at Glen Roy Scotland. More on that here: http://discovermagazine.com/2009/nov/darwins-great-blunder-why-good-for-world.

      The things we know today from science about men and women is that, yes, there are some slight biological differences, likely owing in part to selective pressures around different reproductive roles (some of these are even rooted in distinctions between who makes eggs and who makes sperm across the animal kingdom) and around our roles in social groups going back through our deep primate ancestors. Sexual selection maybe also had an affect. But the differences that do exist appear to be complementary.

      And then on top of these faint differences, we layer on a lot of culturalization and socialization around our genders that may make us appear to be more different than we really are. Take the concept about girls not being good at math. No, girls brains are just as capable of math as boys, but girls get socialized in a way that discourages them in the subject.

      Likewise I heard a report on the radio the other day about men and breast cancer, and there was quite a lot in it about how our culture is set up to accept breast cancer in women but not men, like a lot of people don’t believe men can get it, but yes, men, have residual (vestigial, you might even call it) breast tissue, carry the so-called breast cancer gene and get breast cancer.

      This gets into one area where we need to explore more about male/female distinctions: our experiences of diseases. This stems from so many decades of studies only being conducted with male subjects or male animal models. And I also recently heard that the NIH put a condition on it’s funding that biomedical research must include male and female models, so we can start learning if there is a difference and what it is. More on that here: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/02/10/464697905/a-fix-for-gender-bias-in-animal-research-could-help-humans.

      So, in the end, on talking about equality, I think it’s fair to say we are of equal value as human beings even if we have slight physiological or behavioral differences, and I think we should have equal opportunities because literally our species wouldn’t continue if one or the other of our sexes weren’t here.


      • kaptonok says:

        Darwin was a great scientist and like all great scientists he speculated. Its part of the scientific process and sometimes wrong. Being wrong is not shameful it shows an active mind.
        You confirmed my thoughts, he was wrong about women because he followed the Victorian line.
        The long incredibly slow process of evolution is not easy to prove and along with Alfred Wallace he spent his life pondering it.
        I’m just a layman with not much education but I found Richard Dawkins book The Blind Watchmaker difficult but enlightening. Thankyou for sending those two articles.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting! You are welcome for the articles. And I totally agree that there’s nothing shameful with scientists getting things wrong sometimes. It is all part of the method/process, and sometimes we learn a lot from our mistakes, even in science. Thanks again for visiting our little blog.


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