I was tied up Friday night and couldn’t get out to enjoy the downtown festivities. I got a message from that day from Brian O’Meara, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UTK, who suggested that I check out the monster-sized puppets, saying they would be downtown hanging out for First Friday. I suggested he take some photographs and write a post about the puppets their purpose. That brought up the topic of “Darwin Day in Tennessee,” the centerpiece of which this year is a lecture Tuesday night on the UT Campus. Here’s what Brian had to say:
The first Darwin Day in Tennessee was in 1997, started by then UT professor Massimo Pigliucci (now at City University in New York), making it one of the earliest, if not the first, Darwin Day events, which is now an international movement. Its goal is to communicate information about evolutionary biology to the broader public. Evolution lies at the heart of modern biology, and is one of the best-supported theories in science, yet it is subject to a lot of misunderstanding. There are religious controversies about evolution, but Darwin Day is focused on just presenting the science about how our world works, leaving discussions about any potential religious implications to others.
Darwin is well known as the discoverer of natural selection, but Wallace independently came up with the same idea. His letter to Darwin about this discovery prompted the normally cautious Darwin to finally go public with his ideas and their work was presented at the same time. Wallace was also an expert on distributions of animals and plants: biologists still talk about Wallace’s line, which separates fauna found in Australia from those in Asia and which comes about due to deep channels causing water barriers to remain even as sea levels fall.
Last year, Darwin Day TN commissioned two wearable puppets of Darwin and Wallace. The Darwin Day events draw a large audience from UT, and the teacher workshop draws teachers from around East TN, but we wanted to draw in more participants from the larger Knoxville community, and one hope was that these puppets would help attract attention and spur discussion. They are being deployed both on campus and downtown, including First Friday.
Darwin Day runs multiple events for outreach. This year it will have a keynote talk about Alfred Russel Wallace at 7 pm on Tuesday, Feb. 11 in the UC Auditorium by Harvard Lecturer Andrew Berry. There will also be lunchtime talks about Darwin and humans at 12:30 on Tuesday by Andrew Berry and about past issues with teaching evolution at 12:30 on Wednesday by Nick Matzke, a postdoc at UT who is a former staff member of the National Center for Science Education. There is also an information booth on the UT campus, a teacher workshop, and various movie screenings (the Darwin Day website has more information).