UW News

February 12, 2009

The Burke Museum and others celebrate Charles Darwin on the occasion of his 200th

Tonight the Burke Museum is throwing a birthday party for one of those scientists whose name is known by everyone — scientist and nonscientist alike. This is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and later this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book, On the Origin of Species, that guaranteed his place among the greats.

To celebrate the occasion, the Burke has invited three speakers to illuminate the enduring legacy of Darwin’s life and work. The celebration will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at the museum, and it’s free.

Darwin is, of course, best known for positing the theory of evolution — a theory that has since been universally accepted by scientists and extended in many directions. But Darwin’s ideas shook the world beyond science.

“There are plenty of scientists whose work has some cultural impact, but not like Darwin,” said Mott Greene, a historian of science who will be one of the speakers at the Burke. “He’s one of those big ones, like Einstein and Newton — the kind who stop the world in its tracks and make people think about how things work.”

Darwin’s idea was that species evolve over time by a process of natural selection; traits associated with survival and reproduction increase in frequency and traits associated with reproductive failure decrease.

“What the theory says is that a species isn’t a permanent entity,” Greene said. “It’s a strongly marked variety of something that’s in motion to being something else. That’s the part that’s been so hard for the culture to swallow — the fact that there is no stability in the world on any time scale. There’s some short term stability but not long term.”

Of course, there has also been a religious objection to Darwin’s ideas, but Greene said that objection has largely been confined to England and America, where there are more people who view the Bible as literal truth. In most of the rest of the world, he said, those who revere the Bible have always seen it as allegorical, making it perfectly possible for evolution to coexist with religion.

It’s also true, Greene said, that the really big conflict between religion and evolution — at least in this country — didn’t happen until the 1920s, more than 60 years after Darwin published his theory, because that’s when it began to be included in high school biology textbooks. Why so long? Because, Greene said, Darwin didn’t really understand how inheritance worked. That remained for Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, to explain. And although Mendel did his work in the 1860s, it was largely forgotten until around 1900, when it was rediscovered and the work extended.

By the time evolution and genetics were well established enough to appear in high school textbooks, it was the 1920s, “and that’s when everyone went ballistic,” Greene said. “And that’s where it’s stayed ever since. The controversy over evolution is mostly about what’s going to be in high school biology textbooks.”

Mark Terry, another of the speakers at the Burke, is a longtime teacher of high school biology and one of the creators of an integrated approach to the teaching of evolution. At the Northwest School, a local private school where he teaches, faculty in the sciences are joined by faculty in the humanities and even art to create a yearlong curriculum that looks at evolution through many lenses.

“We think our students should see evolution as one of the great integrating ideas in science,” he said. “We teach it in such a way that at first they don’t get genetics, so they’re confused. We leave them hanging. Then we spend the rest of the year studying genetics and let it be a test of evolution. We ask, does it look like genetics works with Darwin’s ideas?”

At the Burke, Terry will be talking about ways evolution impacts a person’s life, and he’ll use one of the examples he uses with his students — wisdom teeth. Humans, he said, have the genetic code to produce wisdom teeth, but there isn’t enough room in their jaws to accommodate them. That’s why so many people — including his students — have to have theirs extracted. Terry asks his students to bring him the extracted teeth, and over the years has amassed a good-sized collection. He compares them to other primate teeth he has in his lab, and he talks to his students about why humans still have them.

Jon Herron, a UW lecturer in biology who is the coauthor of a textbook on evolution, is the third speaker at the Burke. He’ll be talking about developments in biology that would have delighted Darwin if he could have lived to see them. The first two have to do with inheritance, which, as noted earlier, Darwin didn’t understand. Herron will describe two experiments that demonstrate the current mastery of genetic principles that Darwin could only guess at.

The final development he’ll be discussing deals with the speed of natural selection. Darwin, Herron said, thought that evolution by natural selection happened so slowly that we’d never be able to witness it over the course of a human lifetime. But these days, there are many cases of it happening quickly enough to be seen.

Herron will bring an example that’s close to home — the work of Katie Peichel from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Peichel collected specimens of three-spined stickleback fish from Lake Washington and compared them to samples collected in 1957, a time when the lake was murky from years of waste being dumped into it. The 1950s fish were lightly armored, which offered little protection from predators but allowed them to move more swiftly. By the time Peichel collected her specimens in 2006, the lake had been cleaned up and the sticklebacks had become more visible, leading them to develop heavier armor to protect themselves.

The Burke event is just one of many celebrations of Darwin going on around the world throughout 2009. The British government has minted a 2-pound coin featuing Darwin’s bearded head facing the head of a chimpanzee, a Darwin exhibit is making the rounds of museums (it’s currently at the National History Museum in London) and the University of Cambridge will hold a festival in his honor in July.

“One of the things that’s interesting about Darwin,” Greene said, “is that 150 years since he wrote On the Origin of Species, the culture has not assimilated the central lesson yet. That’s the reason we keep talking about Darwin.”


The UW’s Natural Sciences Library has prepared an exhibit for the Burke celebration featuring books authored by and about Darwin.  Also included will be a poster depicting his 5-year voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle.  There will be information, too, about “The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online”, which includes the largest collection of Darwin’s handwritten manuscripts and private papers.

Curators from the Burke will display contemporary species and fossil remains of flora and fauna which influenced Darwin’s work or were named in his honor, including fossils of a giant ground sloth, mammals from Chile, Darwin’s finches, bugs, barnacles, earthworms and fossil flowers.

The Burke’s event isn’t the only one celebrating Darwin. The UW Bothell Interdisciplinary Research Forum presents a forum at 3:30 p.m. on Evolution as a Viral Meme. Featured will be Gray Kochhar-Lindgren on cultural analysis, Mike Gillespie on philosophy, Becca Price on biology, Rob Turner on geology and Colin Danby on political economy. It’s in room 030 of UW2.