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Celebrating Charles Darwin’s legacy

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Two-day event features talks on science, art, children’s books

graphic with text 'darwin day 2023'

​​​

​UD’s celebration of Darwin Day, an international event honoring the naturalist’s birthday, will cover two days (Feb. 15-16) with speakers discussing Charles Darwin’s work in formulating the theory of evolution as well as other scientific topics. ​

With all the controversies and political debates that seem to surround such issues as how to teach students about science and evolution, parents might wish there were some informative and engaging books on the subject for young children.

As it turns out, there are. A lot of them.

“I looked at an array of children’s books about Charles Darwin, and I’m very impressed with what’s out there,” the University of Delaware’s Margaret Stetz said. “They promote virtues such as curiosity and open-mindedness in general when discussing Darwin’s scientific work. They encourage young people to trust facts, learn from history, be courageous thinkers and go beyond the worlds they know.”​

Stetz, who is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and professor of humanities, will speak about the subject as the opening keynote speaker for UD’s annual Darwin Day events this month. Her talk, “Pop Goes the Beagle: Darwin for Children,” will be held from 4:30-6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 15, in Morris Library and is free and open to the public.​

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covers of children's books

​UD’s Margaret Stetz will discuss some of the many children’s books about Darwin that, she says, encourage youngsters to be curious and courageous thinkers.​

UD’s celebration of Darwin Day, an international event honoring the naturalist’s birthday, will continue on Thursday, Feb. 16, with four additional speakers. Their talks encompass Darwin’s work in formulating the theory of evolution as well as other scientific topics.

When Stetz is asked if there are many books for youngsters about Darwin, she goes to her shelf and returns with an armload of colorful and illustrated works. The stack, she says, “is just a sampling of what’s available.”

The books she will discuss in her talk range from child-friendly biographies (My Friend Darwin), explanations of evolution (The Tree of Life), Darwin’s work (What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World), a coloring book and even some fantasy time travel (Anna and Evan Meet Charles Darwin).

Stetz said she became interested in the subject because of the way science has increasingly become politicized, while “what children learn in classrooms and in libraries is also under hostile scrutiny.” Her survey of recent British and American books for children will explore what authors are teaching young readers about Darwin and the role of science in the past and present, she said.​

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“I’m tying my topic to issues of censorship and the ways in which science and scientists are being presented,” she said. “I think the kinds of books I’ve found go beyond Darwin and biology and can encourage children to get interested in science, and careers in science, more generally.”

The focus on science is central to International Darwin Day celebrations worldwide.

At UD, the two-day event is organized by Karen Rosenberg, professor of anthropology and director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, and John Jungck, professor of biological sciences and of mathematical sciences. The University has been marking the celebration for 10 years, and Jungck and Rosenberg say they’re especially pleased that the speakers always represent various academic disciplines and attract a diverse audience from campus and the community.

“International Darwin Day offers an excellent opportunity to showcase how an intellectual revolution in one discipline has had so many ramifications in almost every other subject in academia,” Jungck said. “It affords us an opportunity to gather in an interdisciplinary community to share some of the ramifications of evolutionary thinking — Darwin's legacy — and how Darwin altered the way we view ourselves and the place we have in this universe.”​

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Darwin Day speakers at UD

Charles Darwin

​Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) was an English naturalist whose scientific theory of evolution by natural selection became the foundation of modern evolutionary studies. As Brittanica.com reports, Darwin formulated his bold theory in private in 1837–39, after returning from a voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle. It was not until two decades later that he finally gave it full public expression in “On the Origin of Species (1859),” a book that has deeply influenced modern Western society and thought.​

In addition to Stetz’s talk on Wednesday, Feb. 15, four experts will speak and answer audience questions on Thursday, Feb. 16. The talks, free and open to the public, will be held in Room 215 of the Patrick T. Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (ISE) Lab.

The speakers and their topics are:

3:30-4 p.m., Will Kenkel, assistant professor in UD’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, will speak about “Monogamy: What’s Love (and the Placenta) Got to Do with It?” Kenkel will address questions of human monogamy and reproduction and explain them via the evolution of another of humanity’s core features: our large brains.

4-4:30 p.m., Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, professor emerita in UD’s Department of Art History, will discuss “Cezanne and His Land: Geology, Meaning and Aesthetics.” Athanassoglou-Kallmyer specializes in the history of 18th- and 19th-century European art with emphasis on the art and culture of France from the 1780s to the early 1900s.

4:30-5 p.m., Mary Bowden, assistant professor of environmental humanities in UD’s Department of English, will speak about “Darwin’s Botany and Plant Animation in H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon.” Bowden specializes in British literature of the long 19th century, focusing particularly on environmental topics.

5-6 p.m., Fred H. Smith, Darwin Day’s Distinguished Lecturer, will deliver the talk “An Afternoon with the Neanderthals.” Smith, University Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University, provided this summary of his topic:

Neanderthals have long been considered the epitome of the dumb caveman. Early ideas emphasized not only their physical, but also their perceived behavioral and intellectual inferiority compared to modern humans. Among the differences emphasized were those relating to language, symbolic behavior, technology and morphology. Recent discoveries find no evidence to assume inferiority in intelligence on the part of Neanderthals. We now know that Neanderthal morphology reflects adaptation to the harsh, cold environs of western Eurasia during the Pleistocene rather than primitive inferiority. Both the Neanderthals’ morphology and behavior provide insight into why these well-adapted people were ultimately replaced by early modern humans.​

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​​ Article by Ann Manser, photos courtesy of Margaret Stetz, International Darwin Day, Fred Smith and Illinois State University
Published February 08, 2023​

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Two-day event features talks on science, art, children’s books
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Celebrating Charles Darwin’s legacy