Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thoughts on Darwin Day, 2011

Every year on this date, many scientifically-minded people enthusiastically celebrate the life and work of at least one world-famous scientist, namely Charles Robert Darwin, born 12 February 1809.

If they are also rather historically-minded, they will probably also cite the seemingly remarkable coincidental nearness of the birth of the sixteenth U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln (indeed, an entire book, Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages compares their two lives at some length). Mineralogists and geologists will doubtless also wish to include American mineralogist, geologist, zoologist, and author of the landmark System of Mineralogy, James Dwight Dana into their commemorations on this day, although he was born four years later, in 1813.

These celebrations are, in and of themselves, a good thing. They encourage scientific and historical literacy. They raise awareness of important figures in history (and, like him or not, few people knowledgably contest Darwin's contributions to the history of science). They open up a world of opportunities for discussion.

This year, however, things have gone a step further. As reported, particularly in a number of secular and humanist sources, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) put forward a bill calling on the U.S. Congress to officially recognize February 12 as Darwin Day. This notion, to some scientific rationalists, might give pause. here is Representative Stark's quote on the matter:

"Darwin's birthday is a good time for us to reflect on the important role of science in our society,” Stark said. “It is also a time to redouble our efforts to ensure that children are being taught scientific facts, not religious dogma, and to fight back against those who seek to undermine the science of climate change for political ends."

The only qualm that I have with that statement is the choice of the day. Ensuring that children - and adults - are taught fact rather than dogma is imperative. Honesty and truth in assessing the real dangers of climate change are vital. But bearing in mind the current Republican majority, and their apparent aversion to science and apple jingoism, does approaching a group who often have a knee-jerk hostility to the name "Darwin" and suggesting that it might be good to have an official Darwin Day seem like a good idea? Did we mention that he was British? So, really, is this the best use of our time and resources?

Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy and wholeheartedly support the panoply of unofficial, ad hoc, and totally off-the-cuff Darwin Day activities that are on offer these days. Seemingly in the past decade or so these events have sprouted like fungi in a fairy ring, and it has been a great thing to see. But should Darwin's birthday be the focal point of pro-science, pro-reason public displays? Should we, in fact, put Darwin's birthday specifically up on a pedestal?

Currently, America has no official National Science Day, or Week (at least, not one that I can find). Some other countries, like India, do, which resulted in some confusion when the Beagle's first Science Quiz Bowl was being planned (it's on 28 February, more information here). The National Science Foundation does sponsor other events, and there are many unofficial and regional or local science fairs, science Olympiads, and quiz bowls, but there apparently hasn't been a proper National Science Week in America since 1999. So does that make Darwin Day the best de facto substitute?

On the one hand, it's an appealing notion: to take part in an international celebration of science, on the same day, all around the world. And, again, don't misunderstand: I know, without any shred of doubt, that the facts of the natural world and the applied weight of multiple areas of science as we now understand them unequivocally demonstrate the veracity of evolutionary theory, and that Darwin and Wallace were the first to fully see the first glimmers of that truth. I also know that a single pre-Cambrian rabbit (to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane) would undermine it at a stroke, and that such a find would present fascinating new challenges, but I honestly don't have any reason to suspect that it will ever happen.

But I wonder what Darwin, that quintessential exemplar of the retiring and private man, would have thought of being the focus of so much admiration, celebration, and the like. I suspect that he might have been amused, but that, more likely, he would have been mortified. And I suspect that he might have had some of the same objections that I have to celebrating his birth in this way: it smacks a bit of deification. It seems to elevate a single man above the accumulated knowledge of the field that he revolutionized. does that mean that it's a bad idea? Again, I wonder, and this is all little more than conjecture. Fodder for discussion. Food for thought.

Could we better celebrate science as a whole on another day? Pi Day (14 March), maybe? Moon Landing Day (20 July)? DNA Day (based on the publication date of Watson & Crick's paper, 23 April)? There are many possibilities, and I sometimes wonder if the best answer isn't to simply make every day a day to celebrate science. Or perhaps better still: when we don't use some aspect of science and the resulting technology in our daily lives, those can be the days when we can also take time off from our recognition of the fundamental importance of science, and discovery, and free enquiry unfettered by political whims and denialism, in all of our lives.


Anonymous said...

I hope you are not suggesting that Science somehow equals atheism.

By the way, interesting that you bring up Pete Stark, the former member of Congress who was an outspoken atheist and also said there is "nothing the federal government can not do".

Using Science to support atheism like some local Atheist meetups do is pure propaganda.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put, William. I agree that 'deification' isn't the answer, but at this point there's a temptation to take what we can get.