Iowa City’s annual Darwin Day starts Friday

Darwin Day

UI Biology Building East — Friday, Feb. 23
UI MacBride Hall — Saturday, Feb. 24

An 1869 portrait of Charles Darwin. — photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

Iowa City is 900 miles from Washington D.C., but some weeks the distance between the two cities seems even greater. This is one of those weeks.

Iowa City is having its annual Darwin Day celebration, two days of speakers addressing the important issues at the intersection of science and society. Events start on Friday afternoon and run early Saturday evening, with a belated birthday party for the eponymous Charles Darwin on Saturday afternoon at the Hageboeck Hall of Birds in the University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History. (Darwin was born on Feb. 12, 1809, the same day Abraham Lincoln was born.)

Meanwhile, just outside D.C., the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is being held this week. It will be four days of politicians, corporate lobbyists and rightwing activists, many of whom reject established science because it either cuts into their religious beliefs, companies’ profits or ability to attract voters.

Climate change has been a favorite target of conservative ire at CPAC in recent years — climate science was denounced during last year’s conference as the greatest scientific fraud in history at a panel titled, “Fake Climate News Camouflaging an Anti-Capitalist Agenda — and What President Trump Plans To Do About It.”

Climate change is also the focus of this year’s Darwin Day in Iowa City.

James Hansen, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Jacquelyn Gill, assistant professor at the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, will address the science of climate change and what can be done in response. Science education experts, Asheley Landrum and Paul Strode, will discuss how to talk to people confused by or distrustful of science, and the best ways to help students think critically.

Hansen, who is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is a native of Denison, Iowa. He started his scientific career as a student at UI, where he studied under the famous astrophysicist James Van Allen. Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1988 about the human role in climate change is often credited with bringing the topic to the attention of the general public. He’s spent the last 30 years advancing science, as well as the public discussion about climate change, while often being fiercely attacked by climate change deniers.

Image courtesy of Iowa City Darwin Day.

Hansen is a natural fit for Darwin Day. According to the International Darwin Day site, its purpose is to encourage people to “act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin.” Darwin Day was launched in 2001 in New Mexico. Iowa City celebrated its first Darwin Day in 2008.

All Darwin Day events are free and open to the public. The programming kicks off with a reception and art exhibit in the Kollros Auditorium of UI’s Biology Building East at 2 p.m. on Friday.

This year’s CPAC will prominently feature a speaker who rejects Darwin’s legacy and the theory of evolution, as well as another speaker who has often claimed climate change is a hoax. Their speeches may not make sense in terms of science, but their beliefs will definitely have an impact on society.

The first speaker is Vice President Pence, the second is President Trump.