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Vol. LXI, No. 23
November 13, 2009
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Darwin Symposium Explores Naturalist and His Works

Charles Robert Darwin, age 45 in 1854, by then working towards publication of On the Origin of Species
Charles Robert Darwin, age 45 in 1854, by then working towards publication of On the Origin of Species

Though Charles Darwin died more than 120 years ago, the recent Darwin symposium showed that his groundbreaking On the Origin of Species and his theory of evolution live on in the minds of scientists, scholars and the public. As the pinnacle of a year-long series of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, the Oct. 1 symposium brought together leading scholars and scientists to discuss the legacy of this book.

Titled “Finished Proofs?” (and held on the anniversary of the day Darwin finished the proofs of his book), the symposium traced the legacy of Darwinian evolution and explored why it has been so successful as a scientific pursuit yet relatively unpersuasive among other groups. This meditation on Darwin’s critics and supporters was intended to “illuminate the many ways in which ‘proof’ has been understood in the last 150 years,” said David Cantor, deputy director of the Office of NIH History (which organized the symposium, along with the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division).

Speakers highlighted past and ongoing debates and applications of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Janet Browne, a historian of science from Harvard University and noted Darwin scholar, kicked off the day by charting the changing attitudes toward Darwin from his burial in Westminster Abbey to his evocation in debates on evolution and creationism. Michael Ruse, a philosophy professor from Florida State University, provocatively asked whether Darwinism was past its sell-by date, before concluding that it was not. Barry Werth, the best-selling author of Banquet at Delmonico’s, described the complex reception of Darwinian evolutionary theory in the United States. Dr. Eric Green, NHGRI scientific director, explained the application of evolutionary theory to new models of genome sequencing.
Symposium organizer David Cantor (l) joins members of the recent Darwin symposium, including (from l) Barry Werth, Nathaniel Comfort, Dr. Maxine Singer, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, Janet Browne, Dr. Eric Green, Joe Palca and Michael Ruse.
Symposium organizer David Cantor (l) joins members of the recent Darwin symposium, including (from l) Barry Werth, Nathaniel Comfort, Dr. Maxine Singer, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, Janet Browne, Dr. Eric Green, Joe Palca and Michael Ruse.

The symposium closed with a panel discussion of Darwin, evolution and the problems of public education led by Dr. Maxine Singer, former president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; National Public Radio science correspondent Joe Palca; Nathaniel Comfort, biographer of Nobel laureate Dr. Barbara McClintock; and Dr. Alan Guttmacher, acting director of NHGRI. The discussion showed how “proof” continues to mean different things to different groups—part of the reason why Darwinism remains a divisive issue to this day.

Panelists and audience members also considered how to respectfully engage and educate the broader public on Darwinian evolution. Collaborating with churches, staffing schools with teachers with scientific backgrounds and clearly relaying the scientific process and what among scientists is currently considered scientific “proof” were among the approaches discussed.—Sejal Patel NIHRecord Icon

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