A life-size cardboard cutout of British naturalist Charles Darwin greeted guests as they arrived for the 3rd annual Darwin Day Dinner on Friday, and they were ushered to tables named for various species including the woolly rhinoceros, sea cow, T. Rex, Neanderthal woman and big-eared bat.
The event marked the 202nd birthday of Darwin, who was born on Feb. 12, 1809, and celebrated his contributions to science and human understanding.
"Darwin surely is the greatest single contributor to biological science in the 19th century, and quite possibly ever," said John Levin, who helped establish the Southern Connecticut Darwin Day Committee two years ago. Among the sponsors of the event, which took place in the Continental Manor in Norwalk, were the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County in Westport and the Unitarian Church in Westport.
International Darwin Day celebrations began in earnest in 1995 at Stanford University. Levin said Darwin's birthday is "a fine excuse for a party" for scientists, science lovers and rational thinkers worldwide.
John Hooper, former chairman of the Unitarian Church in Westport's board of directors, said they were gathered not only to celebrate Darwin's birth but also to celebrate life.
Paraphrasing a quote by American anthropologist and philosopher Loren Eiseley, Hooper said, "We're just the latest bloom on a tree whose roots stretch back for three and a half million years."
Cary Shaw, co-chairman of the local Darwin Day Committee, said the event also serves to promote scientific education and celebrate a scientific frame of mind; "The human ingenuity and inquisitiveness that leads to a better understanding of the world through the examination of evidence," said Shaw, adding that some people choose to believe without evidence.
Darwin's theory of evolution is controversial in some religious circles. There are people who dispute Darwin's findings and believe instead in creationism, which holds that the Bible's accounts of the creation of life, particularly those in the Book of Genesis, are factually true. The battle between creationism and evolution theory was first spotlighted in 1925 during the trial of high school biology teacher John Scopes, accused of unlawfully teaching evolution in his Tennessee classroom. The battle continues today in some school districts.
Levin, however, said Darwin's theories are now "the bedrock of modern biology and are accepted fact among scientists ... I believe that Darwin set free the minds of humans to contemplate our place in the universe, unimpaired by superstitions or beliefs based on fancy, rather than facts." Shaw said there are many religious groups that accept science and understand their scriptures as allegorical stories. In addition to the Westport religious communities, other sponsors included the Wilton Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Norwalk public schools' science department.
There were about a dozen math and science teachers among the dinner guests, who numbered about 140. Levin asked them to stand and be recognized. He thanked them for creating the math and science literacy that the U.S. needs to compete in the world and for creating the next generation of scientists.
"As President Obama said last week: This generation of Americans faces its own Sputnik Moment, and it will be through the creativity, ingenuity, and hard work of scientists and engineers that our nation will be able to meet its many challenges," Levin said.
Kristina Bjelko, a science teacher at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, said Darwin's ideas explain a lot about the world around us. "His basic theory was that things change over a long period of time. That's not only true fir animals but also for things as small as molecules," Bjelko said.
Other small things, viruses, took center stage at the Darwin Day Dinner during Yale University Professor Paul Turner's presentation: "Viruses -- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Turner said viruses are biologically successful and yet misunderstood. "I am here to enlighten the public. They are important participants in the earth's ecosystem and they even lead to important human traits such as the proper formation of the placenta and the non-rejection of embryos," said Turner, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
Stephanie and Stuart Ross, of Westport, said they have attended all three local Darwin Day dinners. "I think it's important to highlight science in our society and show that it's interesting and fascinating and worth spending your time reading and learning about the world we live in," Stephanie Ross said.
Dinner guests were also given a science quiz with instructions from Levin that they could collaborate with table mates, but could not use electronic devices to access the Internet or call their children for help with the answers.
Any proceeds from the event will be donated to the National Center for Science Education in California. Last year's event generated $446 for the center.