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Happy Darwin Day

The calendar boasts plenty of religious holidays, but how many scientific holidays can you name? One of the red-letter days is coming up on Monday, when more than 850 events around the globe will mark Darwin Day, the 198th anniversary of the evolutionary theorist's birth. You can hear about Charles Darwin and the revolution he sparked from hundreds of church pulpits this weekend, as part of a program called Evolution Sunday.

AP file
Charles Darwin in an 1875 photo.


Are those godless secularists trying to take on the trappings of religion? Not at all, says Robert Stephens, one of the organizers behind Darwin Day. "We're not trying to make a saint out of Darwin," he said. "We're just using him as a symbol." Stephens and his colleagues say this long holiday weekend is as good a time as any to turn science into a cause for celebration.

By the time the big 2-0-0 rolls around in 2009, Stephens hopes Darwin Day will be a day to remember - not only for the most ardent supporters in the cultural debate over evolution, but for everyone who uses the scientific method. And that should take in everyone, period.

"Our long-term goal is to establish a new international tradition ... an annual secular celebration of Darwin, science and humanity," Stephens told me.

The way Stephens sees it, the scientific method is coded right into our DNA. It's even evident in other species - for example, when chimpanzees turn twigs into tools to fish termites out of their mounds.

"To me, science is an international language, and it's a language that transcends tribalism, sectarianism, denominationalism and even nationalism. ... I'd like to think that it could play a role in building a world without war," he said. "I tell people that it's a 1,000-year project, but someone had to get it started."

Stephens rejected the claim that Darwin Day was somehow aimed at deifying the man himself.

"I think of Darwin as being a very good symbol for what we're doing," Stephens replied. "He did give us an alternative to mythological origins ... and going forward from that, we have solidified the knowledge that we have about evolution, all the way to the human genome."

But the ideas outlined in "The Origin of Species" and Darwin's other works shouldn't be taken as received wisdom. Since Darwin's day, fresh discoveries have led to deeper insights into how organisms change over time and transmit those changes to succeeding generations. It should come as no surprise that evolutionary theory is incomplete - even though Darwin's present-day detractors try to make a big deal over that.

The current cultural clash between science and religion isn't anything new, Stephens noted. "The argument that's going on right now in this country is really a duplication of the argument that went on in Darwin's day," he said. But Stephens sees no reason why a celebration of science should necessarily cut into religious faith.

"I'm very pleased to support everybody's individual religious beliefs," Stephens said. "Where we have a problem is with religious fundamentalists."

The effort to bridge the gap between science and faith is what Evolution Sunday is all about. The chief organizer of the Evolution Sunday project, Butler University's Michael Zimmerman, provided a progress report in an e-mail:

"We have expanded by over 27 percent from last year. Last year we had 467 congregations participating, and right now we have 595. Interest is coming from all over, urban and rural, red states and blue. Check out the specific congregations participating by going to [this Web page].

"The majority of places that participated last year are doing so again. The ones who explained why they are not have simply said that this isn't an issue for their congregation because everyone there is comfortable with the compatibility of religion and science.

"There are three major goals for Evolution Sunday.

"First, we want to demonstrate to the American people that religion and science need not be at war. We want people to understand that, unlike what some fundamentalists are saying, they don't have to choose between religion and science. They can have their faith and modern science.

"Second, we want to significantly elevate the debate about this topic. This is going to be done by having meaningful dialogue in small groups around the country and around the world - rather than having biblical literalists screaming that people believing in evolution are going to hell.

"Third, we want the world to recognize that those loud fundamentalists who say folks have to choose between religion and science are not speaking for thousands upon thousands of Christian clergy members. Indeed, The Clergy Letter itself has now been signed by more than 10,500 Christian clergy members.

"You asked about ways to bridge the gap between religion and science. I have two answers. First, the premise of The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday is that there doesn't have to be a gap. The gap is the artificial creation of biblical literalists.  Second, as an educator, I have to believe that education matters. Therefore, the more we talk about this topic in reasoned ways, in more than sound bites, the greater the likelihood that people will begin to understand our message."

If you're not able to attend an Evolution Sunday service, never fear: A huge archive of sermons and other writings can help you get in the proper meditative mood. And if you're looking for other scientific holidays to pencil onto your calendar, check out these dates:

  • March 14: Pi Day, which is also Albert Einstein's birthday. If you want to get really technical, you can focus your festivities on 1:59 p.m. or 3:14 p.m. (The a.m. times might be a bit inconvenient.)
  • April 12: Yuri's Night, marking the anniversary of the first manned spaceflight as well as the first space shuttle flight.
  • April 21: Astronomy Day, which is traditionally marked by Saturday star parties - and which serves this year as an early 17th-birthday party for the Hubble Space Telescope. Click on over to the Astronomical League or Astronomy.com to find out what's going on in your area. This year, organizers are also testing whether an autumn date - Sept. 15 - might work better for Astronomy Day.
  • May 4: Space Day, an educational event sponsored by Lockheed Martin to recognize past contributions to space exploration and inspire future generations of explorers and scientists.
  • July 20: Evoloterra, the anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing.
  • Oct. 4: World Space Week, which runs from Oct. 4 to 11 every year. This year Oct. 4 takes on special significance because it's the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. That event also marked the beginning of the space age.