Celebrating the Origin of the Species

It was the end of an era; a time of rapidly changing population, politics, and cultural norms. Those who had been securely at the top of the economic and social structure were seeing immigrants and lower-class workers upending their time-honored hold on privilege and power. Demographics were shifting. New technology was changing how people lived, traveled, and communicated. Change was everywhere, and accelerating. And people felt a sense of dislocation from all that change.

In the midst of this unsettled pool of shifting tides and times came, also, new ideas. Radical ideas about rights, social obligations, and environmental science. Ideas that sparked great controversy, excitement, and outrage. For some, the new technologies and ideas were the dawn of an exciting new era. For others, they represented an ominous threat to moral living and world order.

But while the parallels are remarkable, the ideas sparking all that controversy weren't about global warming, gay or civil rights, immigration or universal healthcare. And the year wasn't 2009. It was 1859. The Illinois senator who would become President was still a senator, the house was not yet divided, and Queen Victoria was still on the throne. And the big environmental science idea being debated was Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species.

Thumbnail image for Charles_Robert_Darwin_by_John_Collier_cropped.jpgThis fall marks the 150th anniversary of Darwin's earth-shattering tome (2009 is also, coincidentally, the 200th anniversary of his birth). So that would be reason enough to pay some extra attention to the matter. But given some of the parallels in terms of the forces and currents at play, a closer look at Darwin's work, the controversy it sparked, and its social, scientific, and long-term impact, could offer some interesting insights on current-day issues and debates, as well. Of course, Darwin's thoughts on evolution themselves are still being debated, 150 years later. So his work is as much current events as it is history.

Such was the thinking of Phil Terry when he set up the Darwin 150 project: a free, multi-part lecture/reading group/social networking event stretching from now until November 24th, the actual anniversary date of Darwin's publication. Terry is the founder of the non-profit organization Reading Odyssey, which has as its goal "getting adults to re-engage their intellectual curiosity through reading and discussion of great books and ideas," according to volunteer coordinator Kendall Crolius. The all-volunteer organization sponsors virtual reading groups of the classics ... which made the Darwin project a natural fit.

Wednesday evening marked the kick-off event for the fall series: a live web-cast/teleconference lecture by Harvard Professor Everett Mendelsohn on "The World Before Darwin." (An audio recording of the lecture is available here, the webcast will be available on the Darwin150 project website within the week.) For 90 minutes, I got to feel like I was back in college again, curiously absorbing new information, presented by a master lecturer. And I learned more than I think I ever knew about Darwin and the world he inherited.

The series includes four more free lecture/discussions by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Weiner, Professor Sean Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, the legendary E.O. Wilson, and a final panel presentation on November 24th by Gerald Edelman, Paul Ekman, and Terrence Deacon. Some of those lectures can be attended in person, as well as via the web or telephone. In addition a virtual reading group led by Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephanie Aktipis will read Darwin's Origin of the Species, starting in early October. And for those looking for something a little lighter, there's also the project's Facebook campaign, which has the goal of gathering 1 million members by the anniversary date.

In an era awash with quick sound bites, flip commentary, and instant reactions, the reasoned,  thoughtful discussion about Darwin, his world, and his work was like slipping into a refreshing pool of quiet, measured reflection. It also reminded me that we are not the first, nor will we be the last, to live in controversial, changing, or turbulent times filled with progress, backlash and conflict. Fortunately, it seems we also have amazing survival instincts. Including the ability to evolve and adapt to keep pace with the changing world around us. And that, for sure, is something to celebrate.

(Photo: Flickr User kevindooley and Wikimedia Commons)