Darwin Day Celebration: The International Recognition of Darwin, Science, and Humanity

By Stephens, Robert J. | The Humanist, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Darwin Day Celebration: The International Recognition of Darwin, Science, and Humanity


Stephens, Robert J., The Humanist


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CELEBRATIONS are an important part of every culture. They provide a tradition and a common bond to be shared among all those who make up their culture, permitting them to experience a meaningful connection with one another and to the principles to which they subscribe. Unfortunately, most celebrations are based on ancient traditions that are relevant to only a specific country or culture, and ancient traditions have often been, and continue to be, the source of serious conflicts. At this juncture in history, the world has become so small and interdependent that we need a global celebration to promote a common bond among all people.

Why is Charles Darwin's work so important to the development of a mutually caring global community and to the establishment of a new global tradition?

Darwin's lifelong work has been instrumental in paving the way toward solving the vexing problems haunting our world and threatening our survival. If we persist in the rigid support of diverse ancient tribal mythologies--what are commonly called religions, some factions of which harbor desires for global domination--we will surely pay an enormous price.

Darwin's theory of evolution by the mechanism of what he named "natural selection," together with the monumental amount of supporting evidence he compiled to demonstrate its validity, provides our modern culture with a coherent scientific explanation for the diversity of life on this planet. This explanation of our origins has been greatly strengthened by recent genomic research, making it possible for all of us to set aside our numerous mythologies and, in their place, appreciate our common humanity.

Prior to the publication in 1859 of Darwin's famous book, On the Origin of Species, almost all scientists acquiesced to the power of the church and interpreted scientific observations through the lens of religious dogma. To do otherwise invited persecution by the church, including the serious charge of heresy for which one could face death by fire. According to Darwin scholar Janet Browne, at the time of the famous debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, held in the Natural History Museum at Oxford University on June 20, 1860, Wilberforce was considering bringing charges of ecclesiastical heresy against one Braden Powell, a member of the clergy and Oxford professor of geometry, for having refuted Paley's traditional evidence for the existence of God--known as "Natural Theology." Furthermore, Powell had favorably mentioned Darwin's Origin of Species in an article in Essays and Reviews saying it was "a masterly volume, a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favor of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature." However, as Browne says, Powell had the good grace to die before the Bishop could bring charges against him.

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Nonetheless, Wilberforce had made it known to friends that he was out to "crush Darwin" before the debate took place at Oxford. He had already submitted a scathing review of On the Origin of Species for publication in Quarterly Review the following month (July 1860). To Thomas Huxley's credit, however, Bishop Wilber force became the laughing stock of the debate and as a result the long-standing question of whether theologians or scientists had the right to explain the origin of living beings was settled and science had prevailed. Thus, the debate that was delivered to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science became a seminal event, leading to the separation that now exists between modern science and theology. In addition, the debate left the door open for the development of a more inclusive philosophy with which to guide the ethical behavior of all humans, particularly that of modern humanism. Scientists were henceforth free to interpret their empirical evidence using the laws of nature, without fear of reprisals from Church. …

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