Why Darwin Day Matters

February 12, 2009

There has been a debate within the secular, pro-science community about which holidays to celebrate, especially regarding those with origins in religion, such as


and Easter. Some humanists and rationalists have attempted to come up with alternatives, such as


, and I even know of a number of friends who actually celebrate


, a secular replacement of Christmas, which first appeared in a funny Seinfeld episode in 1997. But are there any holidays secularists can get behind that, rather than criticizing the excesses of the traditional Christmas season, instead represent the whole worldview and values of the pro-science crowd? There is at least one: Darwin Day. February 12th each year. And so—Happy Darwin Day!

Although celebrations of Darwin’s birth go back to February 12, 1909, with an


held by the New York Academy of Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History, “Darwin Day” officially got started in the late 1990s by my friend Amanda Chesworth and her colleague Robert Stephens, with an explicit goal to celebrate Darwin’s birthday and to recognize his influence in science and culture in cities the world over. Others scientists and public figures soon got involved, like Massimo Pigliucci and Richard Dawkins. And Amanda edited and published a book,

Darwin Day Collection One: the Single Best Idea, Ever

, with contributions from Eugenie Scott, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and many others.

Does the Darwin Day celebration matter just because its a way for scientists to champion one of their own?

Amanda’s goal was bigger than just scientists getting together to honor a great figure in the history of science. Darwin Day is not just for scientists; its a celebration for everyone. It is a way to raise awareness about science in general, and Darwin in particular. It is a way to directly challenge the enemies of science and reason in our society. And it is a way to reach out, to grow the community of people who celebrate science and the worldview based on it.

Darwin Day is not just for science people. It is for families, and if you’re the type, it can be fun. I remember one of my first Darwin Days, maybe ten years ago, when we had a lecture from a local zoologist, put on a Darwin Fish fry, offered pictures with someone in a gorilla costume (who was me that year), did a marathon reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and even organized games for the youngsters (was one “pin the tale on the monkey”?)  Because these events can be a good mix of serious subjects and light-hearted fun, where the secular, skeptical and humanist communities come out big-time, Darwin Day has become my second favorite “holiday,” right behind Halloween, another fun time for skeptics.

So Darwin Day is more than scientists having a reason to champion one of their own; its a way to publicly raise awareness about the importance of science in society, in general. One strength of Amanda’s great idea of having an official Darwin Day celebrated in communities and at institutions around the world is that the idea is easy to understand and widely promote outside the community of scientists: Darwin Day matters because it is a day where everyone—not just scientists—come together to celebrate science by exploring Darwin, his influence and impact.

Darwin Day emphasizes for the public the importance of Darwin in particular, and the implications of Dawinism for widely held views on life’s origins and other central questions (God’s existence, etc.). Often Darwin Day events deal with the implications of Darwinism for morality and religion, focusing on issues sometimes dismissed as being part of the “culture wars.” Darwin Day matters because it is a day when people who otherwise might not be interested in the dialogue between science and religion often become engaged. It is a time to celebrate and explore what Darwin and his work


for the world. It is one of the best ways that secularist and pro-science organizers have found to advance the naturalistic worldview that we argue Darwinism undergirds.

Darwin Day also matters because it offers an increasingly popular and acceptable way to contrast the cultural competitors of the scientific worldview with those who are part of the “reality based community” grounded in Darwinism. It is a way to challenge the enemies of science and reason. Those who oppose the Darwinian, scientific worldview often get the spotlight during Darwin Day programs; many of these events focus on the evidence for evolution and against pseudoscientific and religious theories about origins such as creationism and intelligent design. Is Intelligent Design Creationism a sound alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection? What are the arguments and why are they rejected by science? Come to a Darwin Day event and hear the answers from scientists themselves.

The celebration is achieving the goal that I think Amanda and others had for it—people all over are getting involved with science advocacy, asking hard questions about the implications of Darwinism, having conversations with others who don’t necessarily share their previously held views. Indeed, Darwin Day has really taken off: it is now celebrated in dozens of countries around the word, sponsored by hundreds of different organizations. At universities, science centers, and secularist organizations, churches (at least at those not threatened by science) and even

Botanical Gardens

, people are coming together and asking big questions about Darwin that they might not ask every day. And even if the people who come out to the Darwin Day events aren’t all committed, science-minded secularists ready to sign up as foot-soldiers in the culture wars, they enjoy the party and the events, and are introduced to or get further educated about scientific alternatives to widely held views on the origins of life.

Most importantly from my vantage, Darwin Day matters because it helps build up the secularist/pro-science/humanist/skeptic community, by reaching out. Atheists and agnostics, the religiously unaffiliated, scientists, humanists, skeptics and science advocates—they all come together to make their presence known, attracting new joiners in the process. Darwin Day shows people in the wider society that this community exists, and that it is active, and that they can get involved with its efforts.

And this year, 2009, Darwin Day matters even more, because in addition to it being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday, it is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his world-changing book,

Origin of Species

. To enjoy a Darwin Day celebration in your neck of the woods, check out CFI’s listing


, or the events listed on the Darwin Day


. And if you are in Iowa, come enjoy Darwin Day celebrations with me: I’ll be speaking at University of Northern Iowa’s

weeklong Darwin celebration

, and then at

Iowa State University

the next day.

Wherever you go to celebrate Darwin Day, bring a friend, ideally someone who doesn’t believe just like you. Start a conversation. And maybe even become evangelical: wish everyone you see throughout today a happy Darwin Day!