November 24, 2014

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Darwin’s theory of evolution gets due at Case Western Reserve

CLEVELAND — Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has to go through its own survival of the fittest.

To commemorate Darwin’s theory outlasting the scorn of 19th century clerics and the skepticism of the 21st century public, Case Western Reserve University is planning a celebration of Darwin.

The celebration in 2008 and 2009 will coincide with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his landmark “On the Origin of Species.”

“You could say Einstein influenced people’s basic understanding of the universe, but I think Darwin’s impact was probably greater, in that he changed our view of what man is,” said Dr. Neil Greenspan, a pathology professor at the Case Western Reserve University medical school.

The British naturalist proposed in 1859 that evolution was the process by which new species of life arise. Today, most scientists embrace evolution through natural selection as the cornerstone of biology.

Although the scientific evidence in support of Darwin’s groundbreaking idea continues to pile up, opponents still push to have creationism-tinged alternative ideas about the origin of life taught in public schools. Polls show lay people have significant doubts about evolution, with a majority of Americans believing that God created humans in their present form.

Case Western plans a series of lectures by prominent researchers and other events to make clear the enduring soundness and profound impact of Darwin’s concept.

Collaborating with various Case schools and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, planners are inviting evolution-oriented speakers such as molecular biologist Sean Carroll, who’s using DNA evidence to probe the origin of the first animals 600 million to 700 million years ago.

The Darwin committee also has invited U.S. District Judge John Jones to speak at Case. In a precedent-setting 2005 trial involving the Dover, Pa., school district, Jones ruled that the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional because intelligent design is fundamentally creationism, not science.

Jones’ courtroom deputy Liz O’Donnell said Monday that the judge is scheduled to speak at Case in September 2008.

Intelligent-design proponents contend that life is too complex to have occurred by chance, requiring instead the guidance of an unnamed supernatural being. Three years before the Dover case, intelligent-design backers unsuccessfully tried to challenge the teaching of evolution in Ohio classrooms as the best explanation for how life arose.

Two veterans of the effort to beat back the Ohio intelligent-design movement — Case physics professor Lawrence Krauss and philosophy lecturer Patricia Princehouse — are on the Darwin committee. But Greenspan insists the celebration’s focus will be science, not politics.

“For someone who has an open mind,” he said, “the hope would be that they’ll see the evidence behind the fundamental ideas Darwin put forward 150 years ago is overwhelming.”

After years spent sailing to exotic locales aboard the HMS Beagle to observe nature’s dazzling varieties of organisms, Darwin proposed that this diversity of life resulted from evolution via natural selection. Randomly occurring traits like an especially sharp beak or tough hoof that give their bearers a survival advantage over competitors are passed along to subsequent generations, where they become more common.

As time passes and these adaptations accumulate, fine-tuning a population of organisms for their specific surroundings, the creatures eventually become so different from their ancestors that they constitute a new species.