One Big Family Celebration

In tandem with Surviving, Penn and other local institutions will be offering a host of events for the Year of Evolution in 2008-2009, which marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (February 12, 1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

“The Darwin bicentennial is a world-wide event which will be celebrated at many institutions of learning,” says Dr. Howard Goldfine, professor of microbiology in the School of Medicine, and co-chair, with Dr. Michael Weissberg, assistant professor of philosophy, of the Year of Evolution committee. “Philadelphia and Penn is a great place to have this happen. We have a strong, vibrant scientific community with deep interests in evolution and its
consequences in biology. In addition we have a long history in evolution.

“In the mid-19th century, Philadelphia was one of a few major intellectual centers in America. Joseph Leidy [M1844, professor of anatomy and founder of Penn’s department of biology] corresponded with Darwin, and Samuel S. Haldeman [professor of natural history at Penn from 1851 to 1855] provided important evidence on variation in species that Darwin had read and cited. Edward Drinker Cope [who studied medicine at Penn and served as professor of geology and paleontology] and Ferdinand V. Hayden [professor of geology and mineralogy, for whom Hayden Hall is named] explored the West and provided many fossils to Leidy and other paleontologists, which showed that species appear and disappear in the fossil record and that this record is very deep and ancient.”

Scholars such as Donald Johanson (director of the Institute for Human Origins), Spencer Wells (director of the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project), and authors E. Janet Browne (Charles Darwin: Voyaging and the Power of Place) and Kenneth R. Miller (Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution) are scheduled to participate in some Year of Evolution events. And the Penn Reading Project has selected a book on an evolutionary theme (Your Inner Fish, by former faculty member Neil Shubin) for incoming freshmen to read and discuss during their orientation weekend in September.

Among the institutions partnering in the effort are the Philadelphia Zoo, offering an up-close look at our living primate relatives, and the American Philosophical Society, which will mount an exhibit on Darwin’s work. The Mütter Museum will provide a special evolutionary perspective on its medical collection; the Franklin Institute’s IMAX theater will show related movies; and the Academy of Natural Sciences will have an exhibit on geneticist Gregory Mendel’s work. Monge, despite having her hands full with the Surviving exhibit, making casts, and teaching, has also been instrumental in the citywide efforts in planning the Year of Evolution.

When Charles Darwin first arrived at the synthesis of his observations that became his theory of evolution, the evidence was already piling up. Since then, the case supporting it has become ever more airtight. “Evolution is one of the core tenets of modern science,” says Weisberg. “Rapid progress in all of the life sciences—from molecular genetics to HIV prevention—depend on evolutionary principles. Basic scientific literacy requires a working knowledge of evolutionary principles. But I also think that evolutionary biology helps us understand more about who we are as a species and our relationship to the rest of the life on this planet.”

Weisberg calls the discovery of common descent— one of the basic evolutionary principles—“one of the most important discoveries in all of science. And to me, it leaves us with a beautiful image,” he concludes. “All the life on this planet is connected. We are all literally one big family.”—B.B.

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