Finding a wormhole to travel into the 21st century, Charles Darwin, author of "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” celebrated his 203rd birthday Sunday with a cake and an overflow crowd of well-wishers in Concord.
Darwin, also known as actor Alex Walker, described his journey from failed medical student and unsuccessful village pastor to noted scientist at the First Parish as a larger-than-anticipated crowd of about 115 packed into the parish hall. Watch him in this video.
The event was sponsored by the Concord Area Humanists. It was the first “Darwin Day” in Concord, said Pat Everett, a member of the group. He noted that Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day: Feb. 12, 1809.
Long-time humanist and Medford resident Ellery Schempp said events celebrating Darwin’s life and work are held at this time of year in many places, supported by as many as 700 clergymen and women who see “no conflict between science and religion,” said Schempp.
Schempp is the man behind the 1963 Supreme Court decision, Abington v. Schempp, which said compulsory Bible reading in public school was unconstitutional.
At age 23, Darwin said he was offered a spot on the “Beagle,” a ship on a five-year scientific voyage, and set out over the strenuous objections of his family. Darwin said he had always been interested in geology, and thought he’d further his studies on the Beagle.
But sailing from island to island in the South Pacific, he noticed that birds, in particular, made small physical adaptations to better suit their environment that did not translate to the species as a whole. From those observations, he reasoned that changes in a bird’s beak, for example, are dependent on environment and competition for resources, and they can change, or evolve, over time.
“Darwin’s finches were tailored to their environment,” said Schempp. “It was the beginning of his understanding of how species evolved.” He said birds are believed by many to be the precursors of dinosaurs that lost their feathers among other adaptations.
The “Origin of Species” was published in 1859, and generally well received, Schempp said. “The churches at the time generally accepted the theory. It wasn’t until 50 years later that opposition arose in the religious community. They thought it was against the Bible.”
“I felt the stories of creation were unsatisfactory in explaining the glorious diversity of life that I saw,” said Darwin. He said he did not have an “aha” moment, when evolution hit him all at once, but rather his ideas “gradually dawned on me.” He took copious notes on his observations, even sent birds with different characteristics back to his native England as proof of his ideas.
Mary and Chic Daigle from Carlisle said Darwin’s presentation was “clear and easy to understand.”
“I almost believed it was him,” said Mary, of Walker’s performance.
Auburndale resident Elizabeth de Rivera agreed. She liked that Darwin “worked within the scientific community.” She said he would have been comfortable around animal husbandry as the family were “gentleman farmers,” and bred livestock.
Betsy Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.