Darwin day celebration: the International Recognition of Darwin, Science, and Humanity.

Robert J. Stephens

CELEBRATIONS are an important part of every culture. They provide a tradition and a common bond to be shared among all those who make up their culture, permitting them to experience a meaningful connection with one another and to the principles to which they subscribe. Unfortunately, most celebrations are based on ancient traditions that are relevant to only a specific country or culture, and ancient traditions have often been, and continue to be, the source of serious conflicts. At this juncture in history, the world has become so small and interdependent that we need a global celebration to promote a common bond among all people.

Why is Charles Darwin’s work so important to the development of a mutually caring global community and to the establishment of a new global tradition?

Darwin’s lifelong work has been instrumental in paving the way toward solving the vexing problems haunting our world and threatening our survival. If we persist in the rigid support of diverse ancient tribal mythologies–what are commonly called religions, some factions of which harbor desires for global domination–we will surely pay an enormous price.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by the mechanism of what he named “natural selection,” together with the monumental amount of supporting evidence he compiled to demonstrate its validity, provides our modern culture with a coherent scientific explanation for the diversity of life on this planet. This explanation of our origins has been greatly strengthened by recent genomic research, making it possible for all of us to set aside our numerous mythologies and, in their place, appreciate our common humanity.

Prior to the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species, almost all scientists acquiesced to the power of the church and interpreted scientific observations through the lens of religious dogma. To do otherwise invited persecution by the church, including the serious charge of heresy for which one could face death by fire. According to Darwin scholar Janet Browne, at the time of the famous debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, held in the Natural History Museum at Oxford University on June 20, 1860, Wilberforce was considering bringing charges of ecclesiastical heresy against one Braden Powell, a member of the clergy and Oxford professor of geometry, for having refuted Paley’s traditional evidence for the existence of God–known as “Natural Theology.” Furthermore, Powell had favorably mentioned Darwin’s Origin of Species in an article in Essays and Reviews saying it was “a masterly volume, a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favor of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature.” However, as Browne says, Powell had the good grace to die before the Bishop could bring charges against him.

Nonetheless, Wilberforce had made it known to friends that he was out to “crush Darwin” before the debate took place at Oxford. He had already submitted a scathing review of On the Origin of Species for publication in Quarterly Review the following month (July 1860). To Thomas Huxley’s credit, however, Bishop Wilber force became the laughing stock of the debate and as a result the long-standing question of whether theologians or scientists had the right to explain the origin of living beings was settled and science had prevailed. Thus, the debate that was delivered to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science became a seminal event, leading to the separation that now exists between modern science and theology. In addition, the debate left the door open for the development of a more inclusive philosophy with which to guide the ethical behavior of all humans, particularly that of modern humanism. Scientists were henceforth free to interpret their empirical evidence using the laws of nature, without fear of reprisals from Church.

An additional reason to celebrate Darwin’s contribution to our modern culture is to recognize the profound influence his work has had on our current worldview. As stated by Ernst Mayr, one of the leading evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century, “Luther and Calvin inspired the Reformation; Locke, Leibniz, Voltaire and Rousseau the Enlightenment, but modern thought is most dependent on the influence of Charles Darwin.” In describing how Darwin established a secular view of life, Mayr opined that Darwin’s single greatest contribution may have been that “he developed a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person: the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism.” Modern scientists around the world accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the central organizing principle of all biological science and research, and recognize its importance to understanding the whole of scientific knowledge by, as Mayr concludes, “placing our fate squarely in our own evolved hands.”

Finally, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth on February 12, 2009, provides a splendid opportunity for all citizens of the world to commit permanently to an annual celebration in support of Darwin, science, and humanity; to the recognition of the rights, freedoms, and fair treatment of all humans; and to a greater respect and appreciation for all life on the planet.

Why Celebrate Science?

Compared to the long reign of culturally powerful religious mythologies, modern science is young, for the most part less than 300 years old. During the past 150 years in particular the acquisition of scientific knowledge about the very small and very large aspects of the material world and universe has been absolutely phenomenal. This has been possible because the highly refined accuracy of modern scientific instruments such as electron microscopes, particle accelerators, spectral analyzers, chromatographs, and space telescopes, to name a few, have extended our five senses immeasurably. These exquisite scientific tools have allowed us to acquire the empirical evidence needed to answer innumerable questions that had accumulated during the long reign of religious suppression and to uncover and solve many more. These achievements have led to the rapid advancement of human cultures and deserve our deep understanding, appreciation and celebration.

Moreover, unlike the plethora of conflicting messages presented by diverse religious beliefs, science is an international language that speaks to all people in very similar ways. Thus it is able to transcend the mythologies of tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism, denominationalism, as well as nationalism.

It’s most unfortunate that even today, during the first decade of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the world’s population that is adequately educated in science and math is unacceptably low even in the most advanced countries. What this means is that for us to move forward together and be able to solve the significant problems currently facing the nations of the world it is imperative that world leaders and the general population become more familiar with the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge. To be complacent about science education is to risk being dominated once again by the myths that fashioned the faith-driven brutality of the Dark and Middle Ages.

Our best bet for resolving our most pressing and persistent problems, both now and in the future, is to employ scientific knowledge together with rational thought and a humanistic concern for everyone. For instance, one of the most serious problems facing the world today is human overpopulation (including its contribution to global warming). It is well recognized by population scientists that there is a limit to the holding capacity of the earth, and that the current human population of well over six billion is more than two billion too high to be sustained forever. In short, it is impossible to provide an adequate living standard for this many people and at the same time maintain the biodiversity of our planet.

The humane way to respond to this crisis is through education, including factual scientific information about human sexuality, so that our future generations possess an understanding of the consequences of an unsustainable population. We must take into account that unlike most other large animals, humans have evolved to be sexually active year-round. Clearly, sex is important to humans; therefore we need ready access to contraceptives for both men and women to reduce and eliminate the need for facilities to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately the myth-keepers of the major religions of the western world claim that their supernatural beings want the human population to increase, it would seem, to a point where there would be rampant starvation around the world. The teaching of this attitude is irresponsible and unacceptable when we are already seeing widespread food shortages in major areas of many countries. Secondly, atmospheric scientists have determined that global warming is caused by modern human activity and that one of the most egregious problems is the use of such a large amount of carbon-based petroleum products.

Other problems being held hostage by ancient tribal myths are avenues to eliminating many human diseases through the use of stem-cell research and determination of genetic diseases prior to implantation. In addition, one of the most important reasonable rights that many people have expressed a desire to have for themselves is the right to die with the assistance of a medical doctor, when living no longer is of any interest or value to them. Unfortunately, religious organizations that claim that their ancient tribal myths forbid this human right continue to block legislation that would permit it. For many of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, this opposition is unethical.

Why Celebrate Humanity?

Scientific thinking has been an innate characteristic of Homo sapiens from the time we evolved away for our common ancestors with other primates. More importantly, it has been human curiosity and ingenuity that has promoted the acquisition of new scientific discoveries that have in turn made it possible for us to greatly improve our health, transform our living conditions, extend our intellectual understanding of our world and universe and, in addition, resolve innumerable questions that had accumulated during the reign of mythological control.

Current research in the field of genetics, including that on the human genome, has conclusively shown that all humans are essentially identical and that we are genetically related to all other living things on this planet. Thus an enlightened view of genetics is one of unity and equality among all humans and also one that fosters a deeper sense of respect and appreciation for all life. Today the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rests in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of genetics. Therefore, we conclude that Charles Darwin is a worthy symbol on which to focus in order to build a global celebration of science and humanity and, together with the philosophy of humanism, to promote a common bond among all people of the earth.

Robert J. Stephens, Ph.D., is the founder (in 1994) and former president of Darwin Day Celebration, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to science education and the celebration of Charles Darwin. Dr. Stephens was director, Department of Cell Biology, at SRI International from 1966-1993 and the president of Tech-Star Industries, Inc. from 1993-1997. He also served as a council member and the mayor of Menlo Park, California from 1971 to 1980. The article is published in Humanist Magazine.