Darwin’s Birthday Celebrated

Elisabeth Tone

On Thursday, February 12, six brave souls endured the freezing temperatures and driving snow to dedicate the “Darwin Thinking Path” at the top of the old ski hill. This cold hike was followed by a birthday party complete with cake in Cunniff Commons of the Robert H.N. Ho Science Center, in celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.

Thursday’s events were a culmination of a week of lectures and movies meant to honor the “life and legacy” of the famous naturalist, according to a campus-wide e-mail.

Darwin’s four-day birthday celebration began on Tuesday with a brown bag lunch titled, “Darwin, Plants and Tropical Biodiversity.” Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine Cardelús spoke about Darwin’s theories of evolution in the context of her research on the effect that global warming has on plants and animals in the Costa Rican rainforest.

On Wednesday, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” the first episode from the PBS film series Evolution: The Triumph of An Idea, was shown in Love Auditorium. The movie presented Darwin’s ideas to faculty and students, including those in Core 152, who study Darwin’s Origin of Species in their Challenge of Modernity class.

On Friday, paleontologist and book author Dr. Donald Prothero of Occidental College gave the Science Colloquium on the subject of, “Darwin and Evolution:What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.”

Thursday, however, was arguably the most eventful day of the week, most likely because February 12 is Darwin’s actual birthday. The small, hardy crowd at Thursday’s trail dedication truly reflected the concept of “survival of the fittest” that English philosopher Herbert Spencer developed in response to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

During the Fall 2007 semester, students in Professor of Geology Connie Soja’s Core Distinction class brainstormed ways in which the Colgate campus could commemorate Darwin on his upcoming birthday. Liddy Kang ’08 was responsible for suggesting that Colgate dedicate one of its paths to Darwin as a thinking trail, much like the trail that Darwin walked each day while he pondered life’s mysteries and problems.

“I imaginedDarwin’s thinking pathas a looped path on which Darwin could lose himself in his thoughts as he walked,” Kang said. “As Connie [Soja] described Darwin’s thinking path in class, I thought it would be great if Colgate could have one. I remembered, for example, that some of the best ideas I had for my freshman year papers were discovered when I was walking from East to Frank by myself, lost in thought.”

A sign marks the beginning of the Darwin Thinking Path, and on it, a quote by Darwin says, “Get up your steam, if this weather lasts, and have a ramble – the glorious scenery must do everyone’s heart and body good.” The path itself is not very long, but there are three additional signs along the trail that offer more of Darwin’s wisdom.

Colgate Carpenter and Mason Kirk Breitenstein and other staff in the Buildings and Grounds Office had planted the signs’ posts in the ground back in November, before the ground froze and was covered with snow.

Despite the fact that few people were willing to withstand Thursday’s cold temperatures for the trail dedication, Kang was proud to witness the realization of her idea.

“For me, the Darwin Thinking Path presents an alternative to mainstream consumer culture’s lack of respect for reflection,” Kang said. “My hope is that Colgate students, faculty and administrators will use the path to help them reflect on themselves and their beliefs. This will hopefully reduceunhealthy stress and conflict on campus.”

In contrast to the meager turnout at the chilly trail dedication, a large crowd of students attended the birthday cake cutting in the Ho atrium later on Thursday afternoon. Thirty student volunteers from the geology and biology departments, including Soja’s geology class “Evolution: Dinosaurs to Darwin,” Biology 211 and the 2008 Wales Study Group baked individual cakes that, when put together, created a giant birthday cake. The cake decorations evolved from images of organisms like mollusks and annelids, to dinosaurs, to mammals, finally ending in the declaration “Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Darwin!” The cake as a whole represented the “web of life,” a modernized version of the “tree of life” that Darwin introduced more than a century ago.

“[G. Kirk Raab ’59 Associate Professor of Biology] Damhnait McHugh ensured that the birthday cake represented the tree of life in its most current rendition,” Soja said.

The tree of life, however, has changed since Darwin’s original conception of it.

“[It] will look different in another hundred years with more research,” Soja said.

Soja also mentioned that she borrowed the idea for the web of life birthday cake from a colleague at Swarthmore College.

Colgate faculty, staff and students all put a great deal of effort into organizing the events of Darwin’s birthday week.

“Co-sponsorship and funds contributed by the Picker Institute, University Studies division, geology and biology departments and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Lyle Roelofs contributed to the success of the Darwin Week events,” Soja said.

Soja was also largely responsible for making sure that Colgate’s celebration of Darwin’s birthday ran smoothly, for she has taught Darwin in her classes for years.

“I’m a paleontologist, and so I teach about Darwin’s ideas because the theory of evolution is the foundation for understanding fossils and what they reveal about the history of life,” Soja said. “I developed and have taught the Core Distinction class on Darwin in three of Colgate’s study abroad programs, but only once on campus.”

Kang definitely recognized all of the effort Soja put into the organization of Darwin’s birthday.

“She [Soja]worked with faculty and administrators to makemy dream become a reality,” Kang said. “She’s shown a lot of courage and determination as she worked her arms off to get the trail ready for Darwin Day.”

The diverse range of people involved in Darwin Week demonstrate just how interdisciplinary his ideas on evolution and natural selection are, and why Colgate students study his revolutionary theories in a wide range of classes, from biology to the Challenge of Modernity.