Darwin Week showcases 200 years of science

By Austin Miller, @AMiller_DE

Some people get a cake or presents for their birthday, but there is not much to give someone who is turning 206 years old and dead.

Each year on Charles Darwin’s birthday, the university hosts its own version of International Darwin Day to celebrate his discovery of the theory of evolution and the advancement of science and education.

A group of SIU scientists began celebrating Darwin Day in 2006, but have turned one day into an entire week of festivities.


Daniel Nickrent, professor emeritus in plant biology, was part of SIU’s first Darwin celebration. Nickrent spoke at the last two mini-symposiums, including a presentation based on evolution in peoples’ own neighborhoods.

Nickrent, who has a Darwin poster in his office, said it is important students take notice of evolution because it is the basis for all science and is relevant every day.

Students do not have to sail to the Galapagos Islands, as Darwin did, to understand evolution, though. There, he researched different animals, finding striking similarities among various species.

This led Darwin to develop the theory of evolution, which he wrote about in his 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” Other scientists of the time thought all species had remained largely unchanged since their creation.

The best example of Darwin’s theory is when he studied finches on the Galapagos. Each island had different species of the birds. Some had short, round beaks best adapted to eat seeds and nuts. Others had long, sharp beaks, which allowed them to eat insects and worms. All the birds adapted throughout history to available food sources on each island.

Nickrent said evolution happens in all aspects of life.

“[Evolution] is right here in Carbondale, or Murphysboro or wherever,” he said. “If you have an inquisitive nature and a good eye, you can see things happening in your own yard.”


One example is the size of dandelions, he said. Those pesky, yellow weeds are a nuisance to many lawn aficionados. Dandelions in an open field are often tall, but in a personal yard, they are smaller. The shorter plants continue to reproduce because lawn mower blades miss them.

“It is a very simple, little experiment that takes place in everyone’s yard,” he said. “There’s evolution right there.”

Flowers in a yard may not seem important, but the evolutionary processes are a facet of life regardless of size. This occurs on a microscopic scale.

This time of year is flu-season, where people sniffle, cough and wheeze.

Nickrent said hand sanitizer kills 99 percent of germs and bacteria, but ones that survive and mutate continue to reproduce and create new illnesses. New medicines are created to combat each new virus. It is a natural selection process altered by mankind.

Nickrent said it is not just survival of the fittest, but reproduction of the fittest, too.

Each year, Darwin Week has a guest speaker. This year’s is Brian Switek, a paleontologist and writer from Salt Lake City.

Switek was named one of Twitter’s eight coolest geeks on Headline News, a list including Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Kevin Horn, a graduate student from Erie, Pa., studying zoology, coordinates the guest speakers. He said he likes working with the community to show how exciting science is, so he looks for speakers who do that.

“We try to use the clues we have now, in the present, to reconstruct this past history,” said Horn, a graduate student studying zoology. “We can put this puzzle together and figure out how living things got to where they are.”

He said about 200 to 300 people attend the main speaker’s presentation.

Studying dinosaurs provides cooperation among different sciences, and evolution is the building block of those sciences, Switek said.

“Fossils are wonderful,” he said. “They raise so many questions about the long history of life before, and our ability to understand those creatures keeps me endlessly fascinated.”

Switek is hosting two lectures Thursday. The first is, “Crash Course in Science Story Telling,” and will be at noon at Guyon Auditorium. The second is, “Darwin’s Fossils: Evolutionary Tales in Deep Time,” at 7 P.M. at the Lesar Law Auditorium.

Austin Miller can be reached at [email protected]