This Feb. 12 marks the 196th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth!
The day has special significance for America's nearly 30 million nonreligious people. In the humanist community, Feb. 12 is "Darwin Day."
"Darwin has become an all-purpose icon for humanists, who champion reason and science while rejecting superstition and dogma," said Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies in Albany, N.Y. "Darwin is the definitive rebuff to fundamentalism."
In 2004, a Gallup poll found that only one-third of Americans believe Darwin's 19th century theory of evolution is a credible scientific theory. The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form roughly 10,000 years ago.
Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D., a professor of evolutionary biology at SUNY-Stony Brook and author of the Web column "Rationally Speaking", is shocked by how few Americans have a basic understanding of evolutionary biology and the nature of science in general.
"If people had a better understanding of both we wouldn't be embarrassed in front of the rest of the world by cases such as the one currently going on in Dover, Pa., where administrators are walking around local classrooms talking about 'intelligent design' and other nonsense," he said.
Pigliucci's course on "Evolution, Creationism and the Nature of Science" is available at the Continuum of Humanist Education, the online school of the Institute for Humanist Studies.
Though an unofficial humanist holiday, Darwin Day has been steadily gaining popularity in the humanist community since it first appeared in the early 1990s. Not long after the event took hold, the International Humanist and Ethical Union decided against making Darwin Day an official holiday. Board members at the time argued that humanists should not ape saints days or elevate humanist heroes to the status of secular idols.
Yet many humanists simply see Darwin Day as a way to celebrate scientific thinking and progress. Humanists are quick to note that science has evolved since the time of Darwin. But that, according to humanists, is a tribute to Darwin and to science.
"Science should be celebrated as something that makes our lives better –- just like family, love, nature, civil rights and the many other things we already celebrate," said August E. Brunsman IV, executive director of the Secular Student Alliance.
The Secular Student Alliance is an Ohio-based nonprofit educational organization. This year, the SSA supplied Darwin Day idea packets to more than 50 college campus affiliates. Serious ideas include lectures and debates. Some lighthearted possibilities include hosting an Evolution Banquet with Primordial Soup, or wearing ape costumes and handing out parodies of the disclaimer stickers that have appeared on biology textbooks in some states. The stickers were recently found to be an unconstitutional violation of the first amendment.
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