Happy Darwin Day! Charles Darwin was born on Feb. 12, 1809, and so Feb. 12 sometimes is referred to as Darwin Day. Here at the University of Calgary we just had our 29th annual celebration of Darwin’s birthday. I wanted to share what we do because we have some great traditions that serve some useful purposes as well as being lots of fun.
Our first tradition is the Darwin’s Birthday Lecture. This is a public lecture by a top evolutionary biologist. It’s advertised widely to the entire campus, and depending on the speaker will also draw in the general public as well. We often draw a couple of hundred people. Our list of speakers over the years reads like a Who’s Who of evolutionary biology (which I think helps us pull in speakers–they hear who’s done it in the past and feel like they can hardly turn us down!) This year it was Graham Bell (who gave a great talk, by the way). Just in the past few years we’ve had Dolph Schluter, Daniel Dennett (big public turnout for that one), David Reznick, Locke Rowe, Spencer Barrett…* The topics vary–some speakers talk about their work, some talk about the history and importance of evolutionary biology.
Our second tradition, in the evening after the lecture, is the Darwin Dinner. This is a catered dinner for the Darwin lecturer, faculty and graduate students in ecology & evolution, undergraduate Ecology majors, and their guests. It’s a social occasion and a lot of fun. It serves a valuable purpose too. It’s a rare chance for the undergraduates to socialize with the graduate students and faculty. The students get to see their teachers as more than just teachers, and the faculty get to see the students as more than just a crowd of mostly-nameless faces. It helps instill a broader camaraderie, too. It reminds us that we’re all part of a shared intellectual enterprise that’s bigger than any of us. Oh, and part of the fun is the venue: a reconstructed pioneer lodge decorated with taxidermy mounts of local wildlife.
Our third tradition is the after-dinner entertainment: the Darwin Dinner Quiz. This tradition has evolved somewhat over the years–as seems appropriate for an evolution-themed tradition! For many years the quizmaster was Gordon Pritchard, a longtime professor in my department and the founder of the Darwin Dinner. Gordon traveled a lot in the UK, and visited many sites related to Darwin and his contemporaries. He’d do travelogues after dinner, showing photos and often asking the audience to guess their significance. I was lucky enough to join the faculty at Calgary just in time to attend the last dinner at which Gordon served as quizmaster. A couple of years later I volunteered to take over the role, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I can’t really do the sort of travelogues Gordon did, so the quizzes have become more like British pub quizzes, with me combing my various books on Darwin for nuggets about which I can ask hopefully-entertaining questions. I’m proud to be able to do my bit to help carry on the great traditions Gordon started.
A while back, Meg talked about the importance of “the little things” for promoting lab bonding and morale. A good coffeemaker, lab lunches, etc. Our Darwin Day traditions function as “little things” for the ecology & evolutionary biology group as a whole.
So, how do you celebrate Darwin Day?
*We haven’t yet managed to rope in Rich Lenski, but I’m hoping we’ll manage it one day.