10 Simple Ways to Mark Darwin’s Birthday

By Wendy Thomas Russell | February 11, 2013 | 8 comments

Featured on BlogHer.comEvolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.

By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin’s 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it’s still banned today in some schools.

Tomorrow — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin’s 204th birthday. And it’s practically the only secular holiday we’ve got. So let’s celebrate!



1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.

2. Make a toast. Darwin’s name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they’re too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.

3. Drop the “theory.” As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase “theory of evolution” so often is because, during Darwin’s day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading.

4. Check out this little guy. The LA Times had a great little story that ran yesterday on a creature known as the “hypothetical placental mammal ancestor.” It’s a small, furry-tailed creature believed to be the common ancestor of more than 5,000 living species — including whales, elephants, bats, rodents and humans. Check it out. They even have a full-color rendering of the darn thing.

5. Watch this six-minute clip of Richard Attenborough explaining the Tree of Life. It’s a quick but extremely effective snapshot of how humans and every other life form on Earth evolved from the same pool of bacteria some 300 million years ago. And note how the rodent they feature, as the first mammal, looks pretty much exactly like the one in the LA Times article above. The clip was taken from “Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life,” a BBC Production made to mark Darwin’s 200th birthday.

6. Check out Leonard Eisenberg’s website evogeneao.com — a shortened version of evolutionary genealogy. It’s a great site for parents and teachers, and has a link to this amazing Tree of Life graphic that is awfully fun to contemplate. (Click on the site to get a bigger version.)




7. Visit a natural history museum.

8. Find a Darwin Day event going on in your region.

9. Go on a nature hike. Everything you see, whether it’s a slug, cat or a bird, do what Eisenberg would do and talk about how that creature is literally, our cousin — 275th million cousin, perhaps, but a cousin nonetheless.

10. Read one of these books:

Charles Darwin by Diane Cook

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steven Jenkins

Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino

Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Lawrence Pringle

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton


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  1. Jessica says:

    Just discovered your blog! Love this post! I have some of the books you listed–they’re great!
    I highly recommend Jennifer Morgan’s series: Born with a Bang (how the universe was formed); From Lava to Life (how Earth came to be); Mammals Who Morph (evolution story)

  2. Tammy says:

    Great discussion! My question is more basic. I’ve shared a number of the books you’ve recommended with my son, and loved them. However, these pics are small and don’t get big when I click on them. I’d love to find them at my library. Any chance of seeing them in a list form?

  3. Rich Wilson says:

    Take a free online university course on genetics and evolution
    I’m in the middle of the current semester and loving it.

    To the books I’d add either Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” or Dawkins’s “The Greatest Show on Earth”. I’ve read the latter, and almost done the former. I’ve come to the conclusion that American Schools to a horrible job of teaching evolution, because even people who accept it have a lot of misunderstandings about it.

    Which leads me to…

    Oh, no, #3. No! Evolution IS a theory and will always be a theory. The problem is that people don’t realize that ‘theory’ can refer to things that we know to be true. And we have to be careful with gravity. Gravity is both a law and a theory. That there is an attractive force between objects that depends on their masses and distances apart is a law. WHY they do so is a theory.

    Just point out that ‘scientific theory’ refers to how things happen. We know we have a wide variety of life on this planet. Evolution is HOW this diversity came to be. Hint: God didn’t do it.

    • Charlie says:

      Rich, I’m with Wendy on #3. It’s time to retire “theory.” We on the science side need to get better with our use of language. We need to understand that there is a difference between scientific and popular vernacular. We need to be better about communicating the scientific world to a broader audience, including our kids. Yes, evolution is a scientific theory. You and I both know that one of the definitions of “theory” is “a well-substantiated explanation repeatedly confirmed by observation.” But “theory” also has other definitions, like, “an unproved assumption.” On one hand it is completely true to say evolution is a theory. On the other, it is completely false to say evolution is a theory. Call it a theory, and a handful of scientists will nod and agree, and so will a whole bunch of creationists – and both will be technically right. So unless we are speaking at a symposium of biologists, we do ourselves no favors in describing evolution with such an ambiguous word. In 99% of contexts, evolution doesn’t need any modifier at all. Just call it “evolution.” No need to add “the theory of.” We’re not getting paid by the word, and it doesn’t make us look any smarter. For the record, I have absolutely no problem calling evolution a fact. That statement is completely true. And unlike “theory,” the word “fact” does not suffer from an ambiguity problem.

  4. Chris Bartley says:

    Nice list, Wendy!

    For your #3 above, if it’s a situation where it’s inconvenient or incorrect to drop “theory”, then one could at least point out that gravity is also a theory. ;-)

    Another might be to try to get in the habit of saying “non-human animal” instead of just “animal”. Felt weird at first, but now it feels weird if I don’t. And my daughter doesn’t even blink now whenever she hears me say it (of course, maybe she’s just ignoring me altogether ;-)

    Other goodies…

    A zoomable tree of life, created by some folks at the U of Texas (the gigapan.com site lists me next to “Taken By”, but I had nothing to do with it other than being a fan and uploading to GigaPan):


    It shows only about 3000 species, but is still awesome…especially the “you are here” label. :-)

    If I recall correctly, I’m pretty sure you’re not a huge fan of Dawkins’s _The Magic of Reality_ book, but I think his discussion and the illustrations in the evolution/natural selection part is fantastic (especially the stack of photos three miles high and the 185-millionth great grandfather…a fish!). His _The Ancestor’s Tale_ is also a gem, but not easy enough for kids.


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