By Thomas Guengerich
SOCORRO, N.M., Feb. 9, 2009 – New Mexico Tech faculty, staff and students will be celebrating a significant scientific day Thursday and Friday, Feb. 12 and 13. Darwin Day is an international celebration of the life and work of the supreme English naturalist Charles Darwin.
Biology professor Dr. Rebecca Reiss started the local celebration in 2005 and has organized the celebration ever since.
“The idea is to have a discussion about science, education and evolution,” Reiss said. “To make people realize that evolution is real, that it’s science.”
The celebration kicks off Thursday, Feb. 12 – Darwin’s actual birthday – with a special talk by Dr. Jonathan Wolfe, Executive Director of the Fractal Foundation. He will present "Fractals and the Evolving Patterns of Nature," at 4 p.m. in Workman 101.
The Friday celebration kicks off at noon with a birthday cake, followed by the speakers from 1 to 5 p.m. For a detailed schedule, visit infohost.nmt.edu/~biology/Darwin.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on Feb. 12, as well as the 150th anniversary of the initial publication of On the Origin of Species,” his seminal work that first proposed the concept of evolution.
“On the Origin of Species was absolutely critical,” said Dr. Dave Johnson, New Mexico Tech dean of graduate studies and geology professor. “It changed the biological sciences in ways we can’t even recount. We’d still be in the dark ages if he hadn’t done that. This is a chance to get into a group setting and brag on science a little bit.”
Johnson will be among the speakers on Friday, Feb. 13. He will give his annual update on “Assaults on Science Education.” Reiss will discuss genetics and evolution in “Why It’s Good To Be a Mutt.” She will focus on diversity in nature and the importance of understanding genetics as more and more bioethical issues are raised by modern genetic research.
Other speakers include Reiss, astrophysicist Dr. Eileen Ryan, Dave Thomas of IRIS-PASSCAL, paleontologist Dr. Donald Wolberg and Jesse Johnson of the Coalition for Excellence in Science Education.
Ryan will talk about “Asteroids: Their Impact on Evolution.” Her discussion will not only talk about the history of asteroid impacts on Earth, but also the potential for future impacts and how they might alter our future.
Thomas will discuss “The Age of the Earth.” Johnson will offer a student activist’s perspective on evolution and science education.
Reiss said one of the main focuses of Darwin Day at Tech is to challenge the concept that evolution is a belief system.
“Evolution is a scientific theory developed from a wide variety of disciplines,” she said. “It’s a collection of facts. I don’t believe in evolution because it’s not a belief system. It requires no leap of faith. That’s the key. We’re not asking people to jettison their spiritual beliefs. Many scientists who are quite religious teach evolution and research evolution and they understand the separation of science and religion.”
Jesuit Priest Father George Coyle, former director of the Vatican Observatory, is a notable evolutionary scientist, Reiss said. He is among the religious leaders who see the distinction between scientific discovery and religious belief.
“A major misinterpretation of evolution is that it explains how life arose,” Reiss said. “It actually does not. Evolution explains how life changed over time after it arose.”
Johnson and Reiss said the theory of evolution should not be considered to be contradictory to or competing with religion.
“Evolution is not the big, scary thing that some people think it is,” Reiss said. “Some students come into my class – especially genetics – thinking that this will contradict their faith. They realize that it neither contradicts, nor attempts to contradict their faith. With education, we can show people that it’s not a threat to their belief system.”
“Intelligent Design and Creationism are untestable hypotheses,” Reiss said. “Those concepts may be appropriate in classes for comparative religion or philosophy. They have no place in science.”
Johnson said Darwin Day is a logical time to sound the warning that scientists need to be vigilant about not allowing creationism to be taught as a science.
“I’m our resident, nasty evolutionist,” he said. “Science depends on the process of continuously subject theories to scrutiny and testing. Anything that doesn’t satisfy those challenges is thrown out. Feelings don’t change science.”
In a class he team-teaches on geobiology, Johnson gives two lectures on evolution. He’s found that more than half of incoming students learned nothing about evolution in high school.
“This tension over teaching evolution has gone on since Darwin published On the Origin of Species,” Johnson said. “And for the last 30 years it has resulted in many high school biology students learning nothing about evolution.”
As a scientific discipline, the study of evolution and genetics is constantly being refined, Johnson said.
“Lots of people like to talk about Darwin’s Theory,” he said. “But, in fact, if I personally use that term, it’s to honor the man. It’s not to say that we are practicing the same theory that he spoke of 200 years ago. The study of evolution is a vibrant and thriving enterprise. Darwin wasn’t right about everything. Many aspects have been modified. Like everything, evolution is growing stronger through testing and over time.”
– NMT –