Darwin celebration expands to three days

Feb. 9, 2011

by Chris Barncard

Forget the finches and orchids. UW-Madison’s 2011 Darwin Day celebration is all about you, Homo sapiens.

This year’s celebration of Charles Darwin’s Feb. 12 birthday and impact on our understanding of the world will jump from one to three days, expanding its workshop for teachers, adding a film and filling the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery with a hands-on tree of life science activity.

The 2011 theme, “Know Thyself: Humans & Evolution,” plays out from Thursday–Saturday, Feb. 10–12, in the choice of speakers, according to Emily Sessa, a doctoral student on botany and chair of the planning committee for Darwin Day, which is presented by the J.F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution.

Jill Pruetz, an Iowa State University anthropologist, will deliver the event’s keynote address on Feb. 11. Pruetz studies chimpanzees in Senegal, documenting their behavior in an environment not unlike the one inhabited by early hominid of humans. Pruetz has watched the chimps hunt with spears and seek shelter in caves.

UW-Madison’s John Hawks, another anthropologist, will talk Feb. 12 about recent comparisons between human and Neanderthal genomes, followed by University of Delaware anthropologist Karen Rosenberg’s presentation on the evolution of the human birth process. Their talks — and the Darwin Day celebration — will be capped by a panel discussion involving all the event’s speakers.

Meanwhile, Saturday morning and early afternoon includes family-friendly science exploration stations built around the sprawling tree of life and spread throughout the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery’s Town Center.

While Darwin Day usually includes special events for middle school and high school teachers, the sixth annual event responds to requests for more by setting aside an entire day — Feb. 11 — to help teachers learn new ways to present developments in evolution science in their classrooms.

Following a morning hands-on sessions, the teachers will sit in on an afternoon scientific symposium open to the public and aimed at a level teachers and students can readily understand, Sessa says.

The symposium’s first speaker, Alan Love, philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, will focus on the logic and structure of Darwin’s theories. The second session is a panel discussion including a handful of UW-Madison researchers.

“We have faculty representing philosophy, botany and genetics, and they’ll all be talking about various aspects for their research and how it relates to human evolution,” Sessa said. “The topics go beyond just the way we humans have evolved to our effects on evolution — like the way human influence has changed the evolutionary path of our food crops.”

Feb. 10 also includes a 7 p.m. screening (in the Wisconsin Union Play Circle Theater) of “Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin,” a 2009 feature film about Darwin starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. A discussion will follow the film.

All Darwin Day events are free, with the exception of the film, where Wisconsin Union Theater ticket prices apply. Registration is required for teacher sessions.

For more information, visit the Crow Institute.