NEWS

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February 3, 2009

Darwin's birthday celebrated in Rockefeller

Professor Russell H. Tuttle, head of the undergraduate anthropology department, delivered a sermon Sunday in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of his famous publication, "On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection." A similar service was held fifty years ago.

Darwin, who lived during the 1800s, was a scientist whose most famous contribution to science was his theory of natural selection, a method by which animals and plants could evolve. The theory of natural selection was the first viable theory of evolution, and it sparked a debate that lasts to this day between secular and religious worlds. Many people believe that both evolution and the teachings of Christianity are irreconcilable.

But Elizabeth Davenport, dean of the Rockefeller Chapel, hoped that the service in some small part would help to dispel this notion. Sunday was a chance “to celebrate the many ways of knowing,” she said, including that of faith and of science.

The service included a reading from "Inherit the Wind," a play about the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was tried and convicted for teaching evolution in his classroom during the 1920s. The most prominent feature, however, was Tuttle's speech.

Tuttle paid homage to Darwin, acknowledging his skills as a person and as a scientist. He recognized that Darwin himself never sought out conflict with the church, nor acclaim nor prestige within his own fields. He was, Tuttle said, a “modest, wise, honest, humane, and honorable person,” in addition to being “unarguably the greatest biologist of his time.”

Tuttle did not ignore what he felt were Darwin’s failings. He argued that while Darwin did not himself participate in eugenics, or the practice of eliminating “weak” humans from the genetic pool, he was undoubtedly on that path. He also criticized Darwin, who was never a devout Christian and especially lacked faith after the untimely death of a beloved daughter. Imagine, Tuttle said, “what might be have accomplished if he had taken into account the teachings of Christ.”

Davenport closed the sermon by commemorating Darwin, saying that his ideas allowed us “to change our understanding of ourselves as human beings and as God’s children.”