Amid controversy and praise, cities around the world are preparing to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Robert Darwin’s birth in 1809 — and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work, “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1859. WSU will join in celebrating Darwin Week Feb.16-20 on the Pullman campus.
Michael Webster and Carol Anelli with a cast of a dinosaur skeleton in the Connor Museum at WSU Pullman. (photo by Becky Phillips, WSU Today)
Monkey Girl
A number of events will be open to the public, including a lecture by keynote speaker Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist. Humes has written seven critically acclaimed non-fiction books — most recently, “Monkey Girl,” the story of the 2005 Dover, Pa., school district trial concerning the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory.
Darwin Week co-organizer Michael Webster hopes the events will highlight the importance of Darwin’s work in biomedical and environmental areas — as well as bring clarity to an issue he feels has been tragic in its divisiveness. The debate between evolution and religious faith has, in many cases, “caused a big rift — forcing people to choose sides when they shouldn’t have to,” he said. “Few other areas of science are as misunderstood.”
Webster, professor in the School of Biological Sciences and director of the Conner Museum, grew up as a Baptist and teaches evolutionary biology at WSU.
“Although I’m no longer a practicing Baptist — for reasons unrelated to science — I am not an atheist,” he said.
“Darwin’s contributions to science and society are unparalleled,” said Webster. “Few other thinkers have had such impacts in such a wide diversity of fields. His thinking on evolution revolutionized biology and the way we think about life on Earth. It is very relevant to our everyday lives.”

Epigenetics stretch

Indeed, while Darwin’s theory is controversial among skeptics, scientists themselves are being asked to stretch their understanding of evolutionary biology through the recent discovery of epigenetics — which says that animals and plants can “evolve” outside of DNA mutation. In fact, epigenetics may suggest more rapid evolutionary change than was formerly considered possible.
Birthday cake at Owen Science Library
“It’s not just about dinosaurs or if we came from monkeys,” Webster said. “We can’t fight disease or conserve species without understanding evolutionary theory.”
Darwin Week co-organizer Carol Anelli, associate professor in the department of entomology, agrees.
“It is important for lay people to understand the applications of evolutionary theory and why it matters beyond an academic realm,” she said.
Anelli — who was raised Catholic and today considers herself to be agnostic — feels that having to accept one side or the other is a false dichotomy.
“Many internationally famous scientists in evolutionary biology are deeply religious,” she said.
As an example, she cites Francis Collins — former director of the Human Genome Project. In an article written for CNN in 2007, Collins says: “I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those world views … neither, apparently do the 40 percent of working scientists who claim to be believers. I have found a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith.”
“Darwin Week is an opportunity for people to come and hear about something that is highly controversial in their lifetime — to hear about it in a new way and to formulate their own opinions,” said Webster.
“Civil discourse is important,” added Anelli. “Maybe a lot of people are afraid it will be a fistfight — but we are hoping we can open eyes and discuss this in a civil way.”
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Darwin Week events – open to the public
Feb. 17:
Discussion, “Evolution, Science & Society,” 7 p.m., CUE 203.
Feb. 18: An evening with Edward Humes, 7 p.m., CUB 220.
Feb. 19: “Judgment Day,” film about intelligent design trial, 7 p.m., CUE 203.
Feb. 20: “One Million Years B.C.,” 1966 movie, 7 p.m., CUE 203.
Museum, library exhibits
• Darwin’s voyage of discovery, insights from his explorations aboard the “Beagle,” Conner Museum.
• The Darwin you didn’t know about, Owen Science & Engineering Library.
• Evolution and education, an ongoing dialogue, Brain Education Library.
Display at Brain Education Library
• Artifacts of Darwin, including an original signed 1863 letter by Charles Darwin and an 1873 edition of “The Origin of Species,” Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Holland-Terrell Library.
• Darwin and scholarly communication, CUB-Terrell Library connecting hallway.
• Darwin’s effect on the social sciences and humanities, Holland-Terrell Library atrium.