Darwin Day in Houston, February-April 2009

by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 February 6

Charles Darwin in 1840, age 31.
Watercolor by G. Richmond

Darwin Day is an international celebration of science and reason held on or around February 12, the anniversary of the birth of evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin. While originally an annual celebration devoted to Charles Darwin and evolution, it quickly became a celebration of science in general and of defending the accuracy and integrity of science education. Darwin Day began in 1995, but this year, more than ever before, celebrations, symposia, and presentations are planned throughout the world. Why? 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, both events worth celebrating.

Events are primarily held in cities with large scientific communities, so Houston is well-represented. A long series of upcoming events in Houston is planned. I have said this before about other presentations in Houston: if I still lived in the city I would attend most of these. I urge you to attend some. I will discuss the major ones below. The homepage is Darwin 2009 Houston for Celebrating Darwin and Celebrating Science. It's three themes are

Darwin Day was started in 1995 by Dr. Robert Stephens and the Humanist Community of Palo Alto, California. The idea spread quickly and other celebrations of February 12 started and became annual events. I first became acquainted with Darwin Day in the late 1990s. I knew about ones held at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (beginning in 1997 by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci) and in Cincinnati, Ohio (beginning in 1998). I was a visiting assistant professor of geology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, during 1994-1999. I was a well-known (at that time, former) defender of evolution education and gave Darwin Day talks in Cincinnati in 1998 and 1999 and in St. Louis in 2000. The first two were sponsored by the Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and the third by the Rationalist Society of St. Louis. In St. Louis, I was joined by Dr. Pigliucci. We gave separate talks; among other things, I spoke against debating Creation Scientists while Massimo spoke in favor (he frequently debated Creationists). I believe he subsequently came to agree with me about this issue. After I moved to Midland, Texas, I gave Darwin Day talks in 2001 and 2002 at the nearby University of Texas at the Permian Basin in Odessa where I was a senior lecturer, but the tradition did not take hold there. I have never spoken subsequently for a Darwin Day celebration, much to my regret. People in West Texas are just not that into evolution. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In addition to the usual presentations, lectures, and symposia, Darwin Day celebrations sometimes have whimsical events. These include dinner parties with primordial soup and Galapagos tortoise (both imaginatively faked, I assure you), reenactments of the Scopes Trial or the debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, concerts with evolutionary lyrics substituted in well-known songs (Gilbert and Sullivan tunes are especially popular), comedy routines, poetry readings, plays (The E-Word by friend Sharon Sparlin will be performed in Austin in May), museum exhibits, and events for children. In the late 1990s, Dr. Stephens and Amanda Chesworth co-founded an organization to promote Darwin Day. A website was created by Chesworth to list the events. The current promotion and website is run by the "Darwin Day Celebration" in California, still headed by Dr. Stephens. Both Amanda Chesworth and Massimo Pigliucci are old friends of mine, but I never met Robert Stephens.

Now, let's turn to Houston. Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle's SciGuy, has already written a short blog column about the upcoming Darwin Day in Houston, and he wrote a longer news article about how scientists use evolution to develop new technologies. This latter article lists a few of the events in a resources sidebar. A complete list is here. The most important ones for the public are the following:

"Politics of Teaching Evolution in Texas"
McMurtry Auditorium, Duncan Hall Rice University,
6100 Main, Houston, Texas
Wednesday, February 11, 2009, 7:00 p.m. FREE

Darwin/Lincoln Birthday Celebration
Houston Academy of Medicine-Texas Medical Center Library,
1133 John Freeman Blvd., Houston, Texas
Thursday, February 12, 2009, 8:30 am - 5:00 pm FREE

Birthday Cake and "A Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus"
University of St. Thomas, 3800 Montrose, Houston, Texas
Thursday, February 12, 2009, 12:30 pm, 3:35 pm. and 5:00 pm

Francisco J. Ayala, Ph.D., University of California, Irvine
“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion”
Houston Museum of Natural Science, One Hermann Circle Drive, Houston, Texas
Tuesday, February 24, 2009, 6:30 pm

Claudia Stevens
"Blue Lias, or the Fish Lizard's Whore"
University of Houston Main Campus,
Jose Quintero Lab Theatre (Entrance 16 off Cullen Blvd.)
Thursday, February 26, 2009, 7:30 pm

George V. Coyne, S.J., Vatican Observatory
“The Dance of the Fertile Universe: Evolution or Intelligent Design?”
Houston Museum of Natural Science, One Hermann Circle Drive, Houston, Texas
Tuesday, March 3, 2009, 6:30 pm

David A. Wheeler, Ph.D., Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine
“From Genes to Genomes--Evolution or Revolution in Medicine”
Houston Museum of Natural Science, One Hermann Circle Drive, Houston, Texas
Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 6:30 pm

Jill Pruetz, Ph.D., National Geographic
“Redefining Chimpanzees: How Savanna Chimpanzees Inform Our Understanding of Human Evolution”
Houston Museum of Natural Science, One Hermann Circle Drive, Houston, Texas
Tuesday, March 24, 2009, 6:30 pm

Dan Graur, Ph.D., University of Houston
“The Darwinian Genome: Telltale Signs of Evolution in Your Chromosomes”
University of Houston Main Campus, Houston, Texas
Wednesday, April 22, 2009, 11:30
FREE Contact Carolyn Meanley, 713.743.9781 for a reservation by April 10, 2009.

Note that these presentations continue through April, and that a fellow-blogger on Evo.Sphere, Dr. Dan Graur of the University of Houston, is a speaker in April. Some are free and some have a small cost. If I lived in Houston, I would not miss the talks by Ayala, Coyne, Wheeler, Pruetz, and Graur. I've left off some excellent presentations that are part of a Rice University continuing education course that has a registration fee of $135. More information about all of these presentations can be found on the Darwin 2009 Houston website.

The "Politics of Teaching Evolution in Texas" on February 11 is an interesting panel discussion at Rice. This is my topic, and I have been the foremost expert on this issue in the state since 1980, so I wonder why I wasn't invited to participate, particularly since I am a Rice grad. The organizers probably think I'm still a grad student, although I have been  a college and university professor for 22 years. The participants will discuss my usual topics: developing  science curricula standards and adopting science textbooks, how the political process in Austin affects these issues, and what the stakes are for Texas prosperity and its economic future.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 February 6