Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Make Every Day Darwin Day, Minus the Darwin

Posted 12 Feb 2011 / 0

Today is the day widely celebrated as Darwin Day. Two hundred and two years ago, Charles Darwin was born, and many evolution enthusiasts hold rallies and teach-ins to celebrate this anniversary every year. And while my role as a college professor teaching a great variety of evolution courses ought to put me in a celebratory mood, I just cannot get excited about Darwin Day.

Since I first heard about this holiday in graduate school, Darwin Day has seemed pretty impotent to me. I also feel that Darwin Day as a response to the political aggression of creationists cheapens the value of our profession, combating attacks with some of the same kinds of propagandist methods used by Christian conservative groups. And although I do not think that any evolutionary biologists should hide in their laboratories and offices and just “do their science”, I think that there are far better ways of doing public outreach.

My first gripe with Darwin Day is that it seems to me like an event that preaches to the converted. Although there are a diversity of ways that Darwin Day is celebrated, most of them seem centered on rallying the troops to get together and reinforce a common belief in evolutionary biology. At first this seems harmless enough, but upon closer examination I think that it is not. What is the psychology behind the need to get together and self-reinforce a common belief in evolutionary biology? What does it say about our confidence in our own field that the value of all our publications, academic programs, and conferences are not enough? Do we need a day of groupthink to keep our science socially coherent? And if the goal of Darwin Day is to avoid preaching to the converted by pitching evolutionary biology to “non-believers”, is this the way we want to do it? Proselytizing anyone?

My second gripe with Darwin Day is that it capitulates to those who seek to undermine the science of evolutionary biology. This problem is tied closely to the holiday problem, which I discuss in more detail below. But the basics of this problem are independent of whether or not Darwin Day is a holiday: overall, the day comes off as reactionary and defensive. Because there are people who question evolutionary biology, we must hold a day of rally to counter these questions. As real as the threat to evolutionary biology may be, we need to keep in mind that direct reaction may not be the best way of responding to these threats. I say let the religious zealots hold rallies and special events: we can respond by doing good science and better public outreach.

My third gripe with Darwin Day is that it makes evolutionary biologists seem like some sort of weird cult or club. Every year, adherents of evolutionary biology get together to celebrate the ideals that they hold near and dear: belief in the science of evolution. Want to go check out what they have to say? Great, because there are events held by independent Darwinist chapters throughout the globe! That is not the way I want to be perceived as an evolutionary biologist. In fact, as much as I would proudly state my esteem for the field of evolutionary biology, I feel no need to wrap myself in the flag of evolution. My identity is not tied to being an evolutionist any more than it is tied to being a gravitationalist: evolution is just a way of understanding the living world, and while I happen to enjoy digging deeper into this understanding than my cursory understanding of how the force of gravity works, neither needs to be a club I belong to or a source of personal identity.

My fourth gripe with Darwin Day is that it creates a cult of personality around Darwin. I have to say the dumbest thing about Darwin Day is that it was conceived around celebrating Charles Darwin. Granted, I would probably have comparable objections to a more boring Evolution Day, but the implied Darwin worship really puts the proverbial cherry on the top of this disaster. Who did this? Did the person who decided to call this day celebrating evolutionary biology Darwin Day have any clue about the implications of this decision? Darwin is great, but do we need icons? What about all the other great icons of evolution? I do recognize that our science is extraordinary in that we have the work of one theorist to guide a really striking array of research pursuits. But would Darwin have been such a theorist without all the great scientists that preceded him? And would we even appreciate Darwin without the work of all the evolutionary biologists he inspired? Frankly, Darwin is far less important than we often make him out to be. And while we as scientific practitioners may understand that scientific progress is made incrementally through a process of building on the work of earlier scientists, celebrating Darwin Day hardly makes that reality clear. Instead, Charles Darwin comes across as our sole prophet, a prophet which some might hold in opposition to other prophets. How are we so blind to this clear message implied in celebrating Darwin Day? And how did we lose sight of our egalitarian, power-to-the-people view of how science produces understanding? Let me hear all the adherents scream “keep Darwin in Darwin Day!”.

My fifth and final gripe with Darwin Day is that it represents ineffective public outreach. Although commonly used by a diversity of other causes and cultures, I do not think that the “holiday model” works well for evolutionary biology. I see three kinds of holidays being celebrated in the United States: Awareness Days, Hallmark Holidays, and Religious Holidays. None of these make good models for reaching out to the public and explaining the value of the science of evolutionary biology.

Perhaps Awareness Days present the most promising model, as for many causes it has proven pretty effective to select a particular day to educate the public about a particular issue or problem. When the public is ignorant of a particular social or health problem, a well-executed day of awareness can rally support or modify behaviors. But does the entire field of evolutionary biology really need this kind of awareness? Is it lack of awareness that compels people to object to the teaching or funding of evolutionary biology? Are people just “ignorant” and all it will take is a “day of awareness” to set them straight? I think the answer to all three of these questions is a resounding “no”, and to confront the real reasons behind evolution denial we will have to do a lot better than simply celebrating Darwin Day once a year. Inasmuch as anyone thinks that Darwin Day is an effective tool for changing public opinion about evolutionary biology (in other words it is an effective Awareness Day), it distracts us from the real work that needs to be done to make the contributions of evolutionary biology to modern society apparent to the general public.

As much as I do not like the Awareness Day model, the alternatives are more scary. The prevalence in American culture of Hallmark Holidays — annual days that compel us to go out and buy something or force us to celebrate a particular ideal on a single day — places Darwin Day at serious risk of being perceived as just another hokey gimmick day. Now clearly there is not much profit to be made from Darwin Day (notwithstanding all the people selling merchandise such as Darwin Day t-shirts [1, 2, 3, 4]), but making this day into “the day to celebrate Darwin” or “evolution day” (or whatever else) seriously undermines the social standing of evolutionary biology. Do the engineers run around celebrating Archimedes Day once a year, just to make sure that the public acknowledges their importance and is convinced that the science of engineering is valuable? Of course not, because engineers effectively demonstrate their value to society every day. Even the climate scientists — who are under comparable attack from so-called skeptics — leave the rallying to political organizers and focus their energies on everyday outreach to the public and public media. We should not allow our field to be defined by a cheap Hallmark Holiday.

And do I need to remind all the proud atheists in favor of evolutionary biology out there what the origin of holidays is? Religious Holidays are the ancestral form of celebration, and although the very derived nature of Darwin Day will be apparent to evolutionary biologists and their supporters, will the rest of the public see the distinction? One of the greatest sociocultural victories of the creationist movement has been to frame the dialogue around the teaching of evolutionary biology as one of “warring cultures”, leading to the conclusion that science is just another cultural complex that is directly analogous to religious cultures. Celebrating Darwin Day plays right into this worldview, as it is the celebrational equivalent of adorning one’s vehicle with one of those modified “Jesus fish” that contains the word “Darwin” (another pet peeve of mine!). What are we saying by proudly celebrating Darwin Day? “Look, our religious holiday is better than yours!”. That is not the message I want sent to conservative Christians or — more importantly — moderate religious people who are curious about evolutionary biology.

I think that all the problems outlined above should suggest something important to evolutionary biologists out there: we have some issues to deal with. At our best we are smart, creative, curious, innovative, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable. But at our worst we are smug, elitist, parochial, and defensive. For me Darwin Day highlights too many of these shortcomings, even if it does present us with an opportunity to showcase some of our strengths. So what should we be doing instead? First, I think we need to do better outreach on a regular basis. This means that rather than gathering together for a single day of celebration, each of us needs to take every opportunity to engage the public and the public media whenever that opportunity presents itself. Really, each one of us choosing a different day to give a public outreach lecture that captures the wonder of discovery that is core to our discipline would be infinitely more valuable than any more Darwin Days. Second, I think that we need to let go of some of our defensiveness and not react to much of the rhetoric that is hurled at us. Go on with your work, defending it when it is actually threatened. Rhetorical threats should not provoke us. Third, I think we need to do more listening, a practice that does not really seem to be part of Darwin Day or much else in the way of outreach on behalf of evolution. Why is it that people have mistrust of evolutionary biology? What do they need to know about evolutionary biology to better understand it? What threats do skeptics perceive? Although I know there are a few zealots out there with whom such dialogue would be fruitless, I think that the vast majority of the public would react positively to outreach designed to build bridges rather than forts.

Put succinctly, what I am saying is “make every day Darwin Day, minus the Darwin”.

I do want to recognize a couple of things that might make it easier for me to be a Darwin Day skeptic. The first is that I live in New York City and teach at a school with a very liberal bent. I often laugh when colleagues at conferences ask me how often I have students in my class who are openly skeptical about the validity of evolution, because the answer is “never”. I do not suppose that every student at Pratt Institute accepts evolution as a valid explanation for the diversity of life, but the political and social atmosphere at Pratt is such that voicing an objection to evolutionary theory is probably not easy to do. I do not think this is good, but it is the reality I live. I do not have to deal directly with those who wholly question my scientific field. But if I did, I am sure that I would not want to confront this problem by celebrating Darwin Day.

If I have any misgivings about this post, they are two-fold. First, I do recognize that what I have said here could be misrepresented by creationists as an evolutionary biologist who opposes Darwin Day. Like most creationist arguments, this interpretation could only be made through a complete distortion of fact, but we all know that happens all the time. Nonetheless I refuse to circle the wagons and put the critical part of my brain to sleep simply because those who would defame evolutionary biology might capitalize on my skepticism. For our field to stay healthy, we need to resist the temptation to present a unified front to our enemies. The robustness of our scientific pursuit is defined by its embrace of skepticism, not by its ability to produce unanimous opinion.

My second misgiving is that this post will inevitably offend well-intentioned people who have participated in or organized Darwin Day events. I want to say that I differentiate between my assessment of the motives of my brothers and sisters who celebrate Darwin Day and my assessment of the effectiveness and value of their work. No, I am not questioning that those who celebrate Darwin Day are well-intentioned people whose passion for evolutionary biology is what makes our field so vibrant. Yes, I am questioning whether their energy could be better spent on other pursuits. For this I am sorry, but skepticism — like the scientific process that it is a part of — is a contact sport.

Belief, Evolution, Evolution Education, Public Outreach, Religion, Teaching

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