August 25, 2008

Case Western Reserve University Explores the Legacy of Charles Darwin

University plans year-long celebration of public events across the schools and departments


Charles Darwin and evolution—the man and his ideas such as natural selection—will be highlighted at Case Western Reserve University this coming academic year. The university will celebrate Darwin’s legacy and influence during the 2008-09 Year of Darwin and Evolution.

The celebration overlaps with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on February 12, 1809, the same day President Abraham Lincoln was born. The 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s influential book, On the Origins of Species, occurs later in 2009.

Instead of a one or two-day event, throughout the academic year schools and departments across campus have planned activities from lectures to a theatrical event, according to Neil Greenspan, professor of pathology at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and chair of the faculty-driven planning committee for the Darwin celebration.

Greenspan said he and his colleagues on the planning committee want to emphasize the depth and breadth of the evidence for biological evolution and to highlight the broad relevance of evolutionary principles, concepts and methods to science and other disciplines.


“Evolution will continue to be relevant to numerous domains of human endeavor and well worth celebrating as one of the most influential ideas in the history of human efforts to understand the world and our place in it,” said Greenspan. Scientists from a variety of fields are seeing support for Darwin’s original thoughts.

“Darwin’s greatest contribution,” offers Case Western Reserve paleontologist and Darwin Year committee member Darin Croft, “is that he provided an explanation for the fossil record, one that is elegant in its simplicity.”

Like Darwin, Croft studies ancient South American mammals. “I’ve always felt an academic closeness with Darwin. Darwin’s exploration of South America on the Beagle was critical for his idea of evolution through natural selection. He, too, collected fossil mammals there,” says Croft.

“Some of the strange animals found in South America, in fact, helped him realize that entire groups of animals once lived in South America but had gone extinct—an observation that pushed him toward evolution through natural selection and away from the world of immutable species,” he added.

Darwin’s thoughts, while acceptable to the scientific community, have met with resistance in other areas.

Greenspan said “the extensive press coverage of the controversies relating to the teaching of evolution tended to obscure the fact that there is effectively no controversy within biology or biomedical science as to whether evolution occurs.”

He added that the debates surrounding the public education curriculum fostered such misconceptions as that evolution is an essentially random process.

“In fact, evolution via natural selection, at a minimum, relies on a two-step process: generation of genetic differences (that cause variation in traits that can be inherited) and differential reproductive success as a function of that diversity in traits. While the production of variation in genes and in the traits influenced by those genes involves a random element, selection is distinctly non-random. In fact, non-randomness is the very essence of natural selection.”


The Darwin celebration got an early launch as incoming first-year students received David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin as this year’s Common Reading selection—the university’s summer reading selection for incoming first-year students. Quammen’s appearance and talk during Fall Convocation ( ) at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, August 28, in Severance Hall is the first free, public Darwin Year event.

It continues in September with respected author and leading biologist Sean Carroll from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin and Gary Litman, a faculty member in the department of pediatrics from the University of South Florida. Carroll will discuss his work on animal development and evolution on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 6:30 p.m. at Case Western Reserve University’s Strosacker Auditorium (2125 Adelbert Road on the Case Western Reserve University Quad). Litman’s talk is scheduled for the Ecker Lecture at the medical school on Tuesday, September 9, during which he will discuss the evolution of the immune system.

For more information and a list of events for the Celebration of Darwin and Evolution, visit

Posted by: Paula Baughn, August 25, 2008 01:50 PM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, Conferences/Symposia, Events, Faculty, General, HeadlinesMain, Lectures/Speakers, Provost Initiatives, Science

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