Darwin Day: Rejected and Revived by US Politicians Each Year Since 2011

"People think that Darwin is controversial -- partially because he is controversial."

On February 12, a few American cities from Connecticut to California celebrate Darwin Day to honor the birthday of the 19th-century naturalist whose discerning eye and attention to detail gave us the theory of evolution. But for the past eight years, lawmakers who believe there’s a lot riding on a national Darwin Day have been trying to get the legendary evolutionary biologist recognized on the national stage. Each time, they failed.

Since 2011, 13 different resolutions to recognize Darwin’s achievements have died in the US Senate and House of Representatives. The first of those was introduced in 2011 by California Democrat Pete Stark, who presented a resolution that not only looked to commemorate the achievements of the father of evolution but also aimed to recognize “the importance of science in the betterment of humanity.” Former physicist and New Jersey representative Rush Holt, Ph.D., now the CEO of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, introduced the first of his two resolutions to honor Darwin in 2013. Both were eventually shot down.

“Not many members of congress think about science very much,” Holt tells Inverse. “People think that Darwin is controversial — partially because he is controversial. He has come to symbolize clear thinking and bold scientific hypotheses. That’s what we need to see.”

Since then, two politicians from Connecticut have pushed for a new round of resolutions to create a national Darwin Day: Democratic representative Jim Himes and Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal. Himes and Blumenthal have each introduced resolutions four times between 2015 and 2019. Admittedly, the text of these resolutions isn’t exactly game-changing — they’re just ceremonial. But Holt adds that now more than ever is a time make a statement about Darwin — not only because of what he discovered, but because of the way he discovered it.

“Explodes Like an Empty-Puffball”

To Holt, Darwin is a person who’s such a stickler for empirical evidence that he was unsure of whether his own theory could withstand his analysis — in other words, a person that a nation facing a science crisis can certainly learn from.

In 1854, Darwin became preoccupied with dissecting barnacles at his home in the English countryside, leaving the data from his trip to South American aboard the HSS Beagle, homegrown plant experiments, and observations about pigeon mating remained untouched. He was unsure whether all that data would actually amount to anything, writing, in a March 1854 letter to the botanist J.D. Hooker:

How awfully flat I should feel if, when I get my notes together on species, the whole thing explodes like an empty puff-ball.

Fortunately, Darwin got over his anxiety by September and began outlining On the Origin of Species, intended to sift through years of evidence to see whether his theory could actually be proved. On September 9, 1854, he wrote in his diary that he had finished dissecting barnacles and “began sorting notes for species theory.”

In retrospect, Darwin was wrong about one thing: His theory didn’t blow up like an empty puffball. But in Holt’s eyes, the scientific fastidiousness that led him to those concerns isn’t a bad thing. In proposing a Darwin Day, he hopes that we will all eventually adopt that level of care and scrutiny in our everyday lives.

Darwin notes
On September 9, 1854, Darwin wrote a line in his pocket diary indicating that he was ready to begin work. It reads "September 9th. began sorting notes for species theory .-" 

“I think the general appreciation of how relevant evidence-based thinking is to our lives, our society and our government, is eroding,” he adds. “We have to applaud people who, after suffering approbation and criticism turned out to be right because they followed the evidence. That applies to science, as well as politics.”

“Science, As Well As Politics”

To be clear, there are a lot of vested interests in creating a Darwin Day outside of people who are obsessed with the naturalist or want to champion evidence-based thinking. For instance, the advocacy group American Humanist Association manages the website Darwinday.org and advocates for a secular humanist view of society. There has also, crucially, been blowback about Darwin Day for other reasons. For one, he’s British, and he shares his birthday with Abraham Lincoln, who has his own place in American history. Unfortunately, Darwin’s theories have also been used to justify eugenics (especially some of his comments in The Descent of Man).

But the real emphasis on Darwin Day should be on his empirical process, which actually forms the entire bedrock of the theory of evolution — from fossil record evidence to clear patterns in living species. Evidence, not dogma, is what has allowed the theory to develop over the course of hundreds of years as new discoveries and genetic analysis necessitated tweaks to Darwin’s ideas.

Darwin day
Down House, where Darwin first began work on the Origin of Species. 

Holt is no fool: He knows the Darwin Day resolution will probably never be passed. But every year, he and others like him can use Darwin to put scientific thinking back on the table — particularly when it comes to climate change or vaccine policy. As the data on rising planetary temperatures and the measles outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest can attest, using science to guide policy is just as important in 2019 as it has been when past Darwin Days died in Washington. Himes echoed this idea in his comments about his dead 2017 Darwin Day resolution to the Associated Press:

“At the end of the day, policy has to be guided by facts and truth,” Himes said.

Darwin’s scientific manuscripts comprise nearly 20,000 pages, one of the widest libraries of scientific thought that was ever produced by a single person. The Origin of Species is a testament to what the power of well-collected evidence can do. Holt, at least, believes that this is what Darwin Day has to offer: a time to reflect on what can be achieved when you collect enough evidence and apply that evidence in a careful way.

“You want people who are courageous. Who take their positions after studying the evidence and state those boldly, even if it takes a long time for them to be recognized as right,” Holt says.

So far, individual states and cities from San Diego to Iowa City have adopted their own Darwin Day celebrations, even if they’re independent of federal government action. As far as the new Darwin Day resolutions go, two are currently under review — one in the House and one in the Senate. The prognosis for them isn’t good, but maybe getting them passed isn’t the point of them at all. It’s all about watching them struggle to survive.