Schenectady County

‘Darwin Day’ events explore evolution

P. Thomas Carroll knew little about Charles Darwin when he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania
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P. Thomas Carroll knew little about Charles Darwin when he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in his 20s to begin work on his doctorate.

Then he got a job transcribing Darwin’s letters. He transcribed almost 1,000 of them, learning a good deal about Darwin — the biologist who first described biological evolution through the process of natural selection — in the process. Eventually, he published a reference book on Darwin.

On Friday, Carroll, the executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway and an adjunct professor at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, spoke about Darwin to Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy. His talk was one of many events held locally and throughout the country as part of “Evolution Weekend,” which promotes discussion about the compatibility of religion and science, with the goal of challenging the idea that the two are incompatible. More than 800 churches and synagogues throughout the country are planning to hold similar events.

Evolution Weekend precedes Darwin’s birthday — known as “Darwin Day” — on Feb. 12. In the Capital Region, a growing number of groups are holding lectures and other activities to honor Darwin, raise awareness of his work and counteract the belief — held by nearly half of all Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll — that evolution does not explain how human beings came to exist on earth.

Darwin published the book “The Origin of Species” in 1859, but his research is still controversial today. At the time of publication, many scientists already believed that life on earth had evolved over many years. What Darwin did was introduce a new concept — natural selection — explaining how life evolved. Natural selection explains that organisms best adapted to their environment tend to survive and transmit their genetic characteristics in increasing numbers to succeeding generations.

The New York State Museum is hosting Darwin-related activities throughout the month. In years past, the museum has sponsored a lecture series, but this year organizers decided to take a new, more interactive approach. “We thought we’d spice it up,” said Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum. “It’s sort of experimental. We’re not sure how it’s going to work. … There’s a whole group of people who may not want to listen to a lecture, but they’ll go to a debate or a game show.”

The first event, called “Point-Counterpoint,” was held last Wednesday; Dr. John Edward Terrell, an anthropologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and Dr. David Sloan Wilson, a biologist at Binghamton University, debated whether Darwinism explains cultural diversity.

This Wednesday the Museum will sponsor an event called “Mythbusters,” a take off on the popular Discovery Channel show, which debunks urban legends, rumors and other myths. Dr. Robert S. Feranec, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology, will debunk the myth that the earth is only a few thousand years old, rather than billions of years old, and Dr. Jason Cryan, director of the Laboratory for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, will debunk the myth that all forms of life were independently created by explaining how scientists can reconstruct evolutionary relationships among living organisms. In “Ask the Experts” on Feb. 20, museum scientists will answer questions about evolution, and on Feb. 27, the museum will host “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” in which the audience will challenge museum scientists in answering trivia questions related to evolution.

“We originally wanted to have a series of debates, but the other things [scientists] argue about are so arcane we didn’t feel the public would be interested,” Cade said. As for sponsoring a debate on the merits of evolution versus creationism, “Evolutionary biologists don’t really debate that, because the evidence is so strong,” he said.

impact on science

The University at Albany recognized Darwin Day for the first time on Friday. Activities included lectures and a series of research presentations and posters by University at Albany graduate students. “This is an attempt to celebrate Darwin’s birthday, but also to commemorate the enormous impact that evolutionary theory has had on modern science,” said UAlbany psychology professor Gordon Gallup. Gallup’s field is evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain mental and psychological traits as the products of natural selection.

“Evolution is an ongoing process,” Gallup said. “It isn’t something that’s dead and buried. We’re all participating in it.”

Darwin Day is promoted throughout the world by the Albany-based thank tank the Institute for Humanist Studies, according to Duncan Crary, a spokesman for the organization who last week fielded calls about the event from reporters in such disparate locales as Poland and Arkansas.

“A lot of people who don’t want to believe in the theory of evolution dismiss it as just a theory,” Crary said. “They mean that a theory is a hunch. But a scientific theory is very different from a colloquial theory.”

This year, for the first time ever, the Institute for Humanist Studies will sponsor a legislative awareness day on Tuesday; atheists and agnostics from throughout the state will travel to Albany to urge legislators to “base legislation on sound science,” Crary said.

They will be voicing support for funding stem cell research and comprehensive sex education, as well as same-sex marriage, and opposition to Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would bar state and local governments from limiting religious practice without a “compelling governmental interest.” Supporters believe the bill protects religious beliefs and practices; the Institute believes it gives religious groups unnecessary special privileges.

The city of Albany has also issued a proclamation declaring Feb. 12 Darwin Day; a similar resolution, recognizing Feb. 12 as Darwin Day, is pending before the New York State Legislature.

“This is a fun, feel-good effort to raise awareness for Charles Darwin,” Crary said.

The Capital District Humanist Society will sponsor a talk, titled “Convincing Men They are Monkeys,” by Sherrie Lyons, an Empire State College professor who has created an Internet course on evolution, at 12:30 today at the campus center at the Albany campus of the Sage Colleges. Lyons will speak about Thomas Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin who defended Darwin in public and was known for his advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

a hero

“We always try to do something to honor Darwin,” said Dorothy Sager, the Capital District Humanist Society’s program coordinator. “He’s one of our heroes.”

The First Unitarian Society of Schenectady will observe Evolution Weekend on Feb. 17. Rev. Linda Richter, who became the minister at First Unitarian a year-and-a-half ago, said she’s presided over Evolution Weekend events in other churches.

“Evolution is very important to Unitarian Universalists,” Richter said. “We say that new light is always breaking, and new truths evolve over time.” Darwin, she said, is a “good example of human potential, of what human beings can do.”

“Judaism and science are not incompatible,” said Rabbi Debora Gordon of Congregation Berith Sholom, noting that “one of our greatest rabbis,” Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who lived during the 12th Century, was also a physician and astronomer. “He thought that to really understand God you had to be a scientist and an intellect,” she said.

At Saturday’s Shabbat service, Gordon will talk about the tabernacle — called a mishkan, in Hebrew — the Israelites carried around with them in the desert in Exodus, the second book of the Torah. In the Talmud, the collection of writings that constitute Jewish civil and religious law, the mishkan is described as “the universe in miniature.” “What does that mean?” Gordon said. “What does Judaism have to say about how the universe came to be?”

“I’m always having conversations with people about how science doesn’t discredit religion,” Gordon said. “You don’t have to check your intellect at the door.”

As for Darwin himself, his religious beliefs evolved over time, Carroll said. Many people mistakenly believe he was an “out and out atheist,” he said.

As a young man, Darwin was a Bible quoting Christian, although, “I’m not sure he believed in the literal truths of the Bible,” Carroll said. By the time Darwin published “The Origin of Species,” he described himself as a theist. He didn’t believe in a single organized religion, but believed the universe was too beautiful not to have some kind of intelligent origin. But by the 1870s, in a letter to his grandchildren, he described himself as an agnostic. “He didn’t know if there was an intelligent deity in the universe,” Carroll said.

“There’s no question his beliefs changed,” Carroll said.

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