Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day


Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

Creationist thought controlOf course, creationism isn’t just a harmless fantasy, like believing in ghosts and pink unicorns. It’s also a movement for thought control, to enforce a strict and unvarying world view based on a very narrow, fundamentalist and literalist perspective.

In the Creationist Museum you can see displays like the poster above that show the damaging effect of not thinking alike. The Buzzfeed article has photos of several such displays, all of which blame a wide range of social ills – from Nazis to pornography to graffiti – on not thinking like a creationist. In other words, not being a literalist fundamentalist who rejects science and reason makes all the bad things in the world.

I doubt I’m the only person who sees this as very Orwellian.

The second link I saw on Facebook today is to article on Slate that addresses this mindset. It’s called “The Cruelty of Creationism.” It’s about a new documentary – Questioning Darwin – on how “creationism imprisons the mind.”

The article notes:

Creationism, the documentary reveals, isn’t a harmless, compartmentalized fantasy. It’s a suffocating, oppressive worldview through which believers must interpret reality—and its primary target is children. For creationists, intellectual inquiry is a sin, and anyone who dares to doubt the wisdom of their doctrine invites eternal damnation. That’s the perverse brilliance of creationism, the key to its self-perpetuation: First it locks kids in the dungeon of ignorance and dogmatic fundamentalism. Then it throws away the key.

I have to interject a note of relevance here: evolution isn’t about Darwin. Darwin was merely one in a long line of scientists who have tried to understand the origins of life, and the variety we see of it. He was one of the very first (albeit not entirely the first) to publish his ideas (in 1859), and really the first to have a coherent theory about the process of evolution. But that torch was passed to generation after generation of scientists who have followed up, refined the ideas, debated and challenged them, examined, and proven them.

Blaming Darwin for evolution is like blaming Newton for gravity. Creationists demonize him because he started the awakening that shattered a pedestal for fundamentalist-literalist belief. But really, that stony, immovable platform began to crumble when Galileo proved the earth orbited the sun.

The article notes that creationists are a danger not only to themselves but to others:

But here lies the true peril of the dogma: No creationist is content to keep her beliefs to herself. Creationists don’t merely proselytize; they brainwash their own children and push their creed into public schools across the country. Creationists teach their children not only that evolution is evil, but that studying evolution, even thinking about it, is a sin that leads the soul to eternal damnation.

Yes, the article is by someone clearly not impressed by creationism, its followers or their theological-political agendas. Nonetheless, it’s worth reading because, well, it’s right. It’s scary. And we should be scared by fundamentalists because they are, in laymen’s terms: loony tunes but aggressively so. And they would force the rest of us to think like them, no matter how mad, how illogical, how fatuous it seems.

“If somewhere in the Bible I were to find a passage that says two plus two equals five,” the pastor states plainly, “I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it—accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and to understand it.”

So read away. On this Darwin Day enjoy the funny bits, laugh at the displays, and then let the scary bits make you alert and afraid – let it hone that useful skepticism that protects you from cults and crazies.

But most of all celebrate science and reason because, after all, that’s why we’re here, online, enjoying this banter on the internet on our computers and mobile devices while human-build spacecraft sail the planetary system and vaccines keep us safe from easily-prevented diseases. Science, reason and us. What a combination!


* Update: While more Americans appear to be moving away from creationism, they are apparently delving deeper into belief in pseudoscience and hoaxes. A story on Mother Jones this week noted the distressing trend towards faith in codswallop among modern Americans, and the figures seem to be accelerating in that direction:

According to data from the National Science Foundation’s just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry’s direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is “not at all scientific” declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983.

I don’t know which is worse: belief in creationism or astrology. Both point to a serious lack of critical thinking. But at least the astrology crowd isn’t as well organized or politically motivated, so they pose less of a threat to the social order.

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