This story, if true, is rather sad. 2009 will be a major date for evolutionary biology, both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th of the publication of the Origin (note to self: must publish earth-shaking treatise on 50th birthday to make future commemorations simpler*.) Apparently, the political issues may mean that American scientific institutions will not mount any major celebrations. And of course, we have to get this news from a British publication.

Even more depressing, G.G. Simpson made this same complaint about the deficiencies of the American public’s education in basic biology 50 years ago, in his essay One Hundred Years without Darwin are Enough. Nothing has changed. The situation may be even worse than in Simpson’s time.

The editorial from The Independent is below the fold.

*100th birthday might work better…that’ll give me time to come up with something.

Charles Darwin, the uncelebrated scientist

Philip Hensher

The other day, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who had an interesting story to tell.

He reported talking to a senior figure at the Smithsonian Institute, and complimenting them on their contributions to the centenary celebrations of Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905, and their work during 2005, designated an “international year of physics”. There is, of course, he remarked, a still more resonant anniversary coming up in 2009. That marks not only the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, but the 150th anniversary of the first publication of The Origin of Species. What, he asked, did the Smithsonian have planned to mark that?

According to Sir Martin, the principal American institution entrusted with the public understanding of science is having difficulty in mounting any kind of celebration at all, and there may well be none. Not that they wouldn’t like to, of course: but there are distinct difficulties in getting any funding to increase any awareness of Darwin’s ideas.

I would very much like to pass this on as no more than dinner-party chit- chat, but one doesn’t readily discount the account of Sir Martin, and it seems quite appallingly plausible. Anti-Darwinists have been gaining in confidence over the last few years, and increasingly, alternative “theories” of life are being taught in schools and universities.

Bald creationism and its absurdly mock-plausible alternative, “intelligent design”, are everywhere being taught as alternative theories to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Even here, they are creeping into syllabuses – the new GCSE biology syllabus includes discussion of creationism, and it has been widely reported that medical students of religious bent are starting to demand acknowledgement of citations of the Bible and of the Koran as scientific texts.

The inclusion of undisprovable mythologies within scientific education as if they were on a par with proper theories of life is bad enough. At least, in that context, anybody who is taught evolutionary theory after creationist fantasies ought to be able to see the distinction, and it should only be a problem of time-wasting. But, if this story about the Smithsonian has any basis, it is clear that creationists will not stop there. They don’t want Darwinian thought to be given any kind of public dissemination. They want creationism to be taught as if it were the correct answer to these major questions. If, by insisting that any survey of Darwin’s work be “balanced” by deluded accounts of God’s creation of the world, they can prevent any kind of explanation of life and evolution at all, they will be perfectly happy. They don’t, in fact, want the debate they constantly call for; they just want to be declared right.

Of course, no reputable scientific institution could possibly mount any kind of event devoted to explaining creationism and “intelligent design”, and if that is the condition, nothing will take place. I sincerely hope that there is some misunderstanding here; despite the august source of my information, I can’t honestly believe that the Smithsonian is unable to go ahead with celebrations of one of the greatest scientific thinkers in history. Nothing, however, is impossible in America nowadays, and we should all encourage the institute to think again, and that any celebrations should not be mounted on the pretence of staging debates where, in reality, there is none to be had.


  1. #1 Kristine
    May 31, 2006

    No way. Don’t let’s take this sitting down. Obviously it’s going to take a grassroots effort to bestir our “senior figures.”

    It would be helpful, I think, to have an endowed chair connected to the Smithsonian that is devoted to the public understanding of science in this country, as Charles Simonyi created for Dawkins in Oxford. It’s not a magic solution, and certainly not a grassroots solution, but a step in the right direction. (People respond to a personality, even if they don’t like him or her.)

    Whatever “difficulties” there are in securing funding for Darwin’s Day is going to be outweighed in spades by the difficulties in securing funding for anything if we give any more ground to the hucksters. I think forming these “citizens for science” groups at the state level is a great start. Run for the school board, or at least be a delegate. Write letters to the editor. Send out “save the date” notices. Tell your local museums and libraries that you want a “Darwin Day” there. (Shameless plug: join your local museum, too.)

    People respond to confidence, not to equivocating and silence in the face of creationist opposition. Cowering is not going to solve anything; it will make things worse.

  2. #2 MNDarwinist
    May 31, 2006

    Ever heard of “theological correctness”? Turns out, it is worse than its famous political counterpart.
    It seems to me that mankind is doing itself a great disservice. But that is not something that evolution would have thought ahead of, and prevented. As Dawkins says, it doesn’t think at all.

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