February 12 is Darwin Day: There’ll Be Cake!

(In 2012, I was asked to write a Darwin Day post for Alternet. Since it’s no longer available on-line, I think that it’s okay for me to publish it again here at the Science League of America blog in 2014. This is the version I submitted; there were a few edits, including the substitution of a vastly inferior dek for the original “There’ll Be Cake.” Note that the various events and the antievolution bills under consideration are all from 2012: if you want to find Darwin Day events for 2014, visit the Darwin Day website, and if you want to find antievolution bills for 2014, visit Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, or Virginia.)

Despite the white beard, Charles Darwin isn’t Santa Claus, but like Christmas, Darwin Day comes once a year, and when it comes it brings good cheer. Across the country and around the world, at colleges and universities, schools and libraries, museums and churches, people assemble around February 12 to commemorate the life and work of the British naturalist. But it’s not just about Darwin: it’s about engaging in—and enjoying—public outreach about science, evolution, and the importance of evolution education.

Where are they celebrating? Where aren’t they celebrating! You may not be able to make the trip to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, to participate in a discussion of life on other planets, or to Perth, Australia, to hear a lecture on “some really odd evolutionary features in tortoises,” but no worries, mate (as they say in Dnepropetrovsk): the Darwin Day website, operated by the International Darwin Day Foundation, maintains a useful registry where you can find a Darwin Day event near you and spread the word about your own.

How are they celebrating? How aren’t they celebrating! Talks on all sorts of topics, from the comparative significance of archaeology and molecular genetics in understanding the prehistoric colonization of the Americas to the evolutionary psychology of whining; screenings of films like Creation and No Dinosaurs in Heaven; activities for kids such as science-themed face-painting; musical recitals and trivia games and bicycle rides and nature walks and fossil identification sessions (à la Antiques Roadshow) and who knows what else.

There’s cake; of course there’s cake: you can’t have a birthday party without cake, can you? They take their cake seriously in the Department of Biology of Eastern Washington University, where a cake contest was part of the Darwin Day celebration in 2009—the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth—although they prudently stopped short of ornamenting them with two hundred candles. (If you feel ambitious, you could even make Emma Darwin’s own recipe for Scotch cake.)

And why are they celebrating? Perhaps there are as many answers as there are celebrants. As John Levin of the Southern Connecticut Darwin Day Committee observes, “this holiday is relatively new. As the early celebrants, we can decide for ourselves, right?” It’s worth noticing, though, that although a lot of Darwin Day celebrations are held by secularists or humanists, by no means all are. Indeed, over five hundred congregations across the country will be celebrating Darwin Day, in the form of Evolution Weekend, in 2012.

Can attending a Darwin Day event make you smarter? Well, no, probably not. But it can make you more knowledgeable about science and more enthusiastic about science education. Mark Friedman, a science teacher at a high school with a predominantly Latino/a enrollment in the Los Angeles area, reports that after his school instituted a Darwin Day program (as well as maintained a steady emphasis on evolution in their curriculum), the number of graduates intending to study science or medicine in college rose from 5% to 28%.

Knowledge about science and enthusiasm about science education sometimes seems to be in short supply. Nearly all scientists (97%) agreed with “humans and other living things have evolved over time” in a 2009 poll—but only 61% of the general public agreed. The general public was equally shaky about what scientists believed: only 60% believed that scientists generally agreed that humans have evolved over time. And is this level of ignorance about the science of evolution reflected in the educational system? You’d better believe it.

If you’re in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire or Oklahoma, there are antievolution bills currently under consideration in your state legislature. Indeed, the Indiana Senate recently passed a creationist bill that prompted a local paper to predict, "Hoosier public school students soon may be taught life was created by God, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, the human mind and/or Xenu, dictator of the Galactic Confederacy." If you’re in Kentucky or Louisiana, there are antievolution laws currently in your state’s statute books.

It gets worse. If you’re in any state except Florida, Nevada, Rhode Island, and—ironically—New Hampshire, then you’re in a state whose state science standards fail to “openly embrace human evolution,” according to a recent report from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which adds, “This marks a subtle but important victory for creationists.” The omission matters, since state science standards help to determine what’s contained in textbooks and statewide tests and thus what’s presented in the classroom.

And if you’re in the United States, one in every eight public high school biology teachers in your country is presenting creationism as though it were scientifically credible, according to a national survey conducted in 2006, despite the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that it is anything but. And the same survey suggested that six out of ten of public high school biology teachers are not presenting evolution with the accuracy, breadth, and confidence that’s needed for their students to attain a basic level of scientific literacy.

With a steady drumbeat of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution among the general public, Darwin Day comes as a welcome respite every year: it can be a relief to be among people who understand evolution, and appreciate that it—and not creationism—belongs in our schools. But for whatever reason you attend your local Darwin Day celebration, whether for the company or the talks or the films or the face-painting or the refreshments, you’re sure to have a splendid time. Oh, by the way: save me a slice of cake.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.