Even though Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has been around for close to 150 years, it’s still a source of controversy —mainly because some folks don’t like the idea that mankind may have evolved from apes, a hot-button MacGuffin that distracts people from the many scientifically proven instances of biological evolution. (See the case of the peppered moth.) In some ways, it’s even more controversial today than it was in Darwin’s time, at least when it comes to the Bible Belt. Which is why back in 2000, when the S.C. Board of Education was crafting scientific standards for school-age children, College of Charleston biology professor Robert Dillon had cause for concern. But instead of raising a ruckus at the Statehouse, Dillon started Darwin Week.
“You can go to Columbia and you can march up and down carrying signs and protest and carry on, which you don’t want to do, but what do you want to do?” Dillon says. “What’s the direction to go? What’s positive?”
Starting Thurs. Feb. 7 and running until Wed. Feb. 13, Darwin Week will take over CofC, bringing in experts from all sides of the debate for lectures, heated discussions, movie nights, and more. Past speakers have included biologists, paleoanthropologists, cosmologists, and geologists, each talking about the impact of evolution in their fields. “We try not to have really narrow scientific seminars where scientists just talk to scientists,” Dillon adds. Instead, the information will be presented in a way that an 18-year-old freshman or a 45-year-old insurance salesman can understand.
And while the basis for the week is science, there are also events that deal with other effects of Darwinism, whether on education, politics, or the scary R-word: Religion. “You will hear other opinions,” Dillon says. “No matter what your position is, you will hear the opposite at some point in Darwin Week.”
For some people, the week touches a nerve, although that doesn’t happen now as often as it did in the early days. “People would get upset by the things being said and speak up during the question and answer sessions,” Dillon says. “We would sometimes have people handing out flyers and pamphlets before and after.”
But as Dillon points out, the controversy over evolution isn’t based in science — scientists accept evolutionary theory. Instead, it’s cultural, so the week’s organizer always makes sure to include a religious component, often held at area churches. Those can make for the week’s most contentious. Last year, a Church of Christ creationist from Tennessee held a presentation at the Second Presbyterian Church, which Dillon says attracted many Bible thumpers from the area. It was a heated discussion. For 2013, the major drama may go down at the Circular Congregational Church on Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m., when University of Chicago professor and famed atheist Jerry Coyne speaks with Lutheran School of Theology professor Lea Schweitz, addressing the question “Are Science and Faith Incompatible?” It’s not a debate per se, as much as it is “two people with strikingly different opinions sitting side-by-side discussing the same topic,” Dillon says.
Earlier that day, Coyne will host Darwin Week’s marquee event at 4 p.m in the School of Sciences and Math Auditorium. “Jerry Coyne is one of the finest evolutionary biologists working today,” Dillon says. “He’s going to give a scientific seminar called ‘Why Evolution is True,’ and that will be 50 minutes of the finest science that you can hear.” And if that doesn’t appeal to you, maybe the lecture on zombie ants by Penn State professor David Hughes will instead; it’s scheduled for Mon. Feb. 11, 4 p.m. at the School of Sciences and Math Auditorium.
Dillon hopes Darwin Week can help attendees gain not only a scientific understanding, but also an appreciation for the tremendous impact that Darwin has had on science and culture.
“The majority of our audience is probably undergraduate science majors who don’t have any problem with evolutionary theory,” Dillon says, “but there is an outreach effort, and the point is to reach people who may not know a lot about it, who may not have formed any preconceived notions, who may be interested in hearing the broader questions addressed.”
For more information and a complete schedule, visit dillonr.people.cofc.edu/darwinweek.html. Admission to all events is free, but seating is limited.