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Darwin Day: Mix of fun, education

Jennifer Sprouse • Feb 9, 2013 at 10:06 PM

The theory of evolution was taught through exhibits, lectures and kid-friendly activities Saturday in Northeast Tennessee, as people came out to the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center’s Gray Fossil Site to participate in a day dedicated to Charles Darwin.

Formally known as Darwin Day, the event is an international celebration of the English naturalist and usually takes place on Feb. 12, however, Blaine Schubert, director of the Center for Excellence in Paleontology and its Natural History Museum, said the event was set for Saturday in order for more people and museum visitors to celebrate Darwin’s achievements.

“We’re looking at what his theory was and that is natural selection, but we’re also looking at what have we learned since that time, since Darwin’s original ideas,” Schubert said. “So, (there’s) a wide variety of different talks that have to do with science, science outreach and how we understand the changes that have occurred since Darwin’s original ideas.”

He said the day started out with a lecture by Dr. Joseph Baker, from ETSU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, who spoke on “Darwin, the Bible and Public Response to Evolution: From the Scopes Trial to the 21st Century.”

“The Scopes Trial is actually a trial that happened right here in Tennessee that sort of helped make Tennessee famous in not ... a great way in the past. What it had to do with is the teaching of evolution. There was a law at one time that you couldn’t teach evolution in the state of Tennessee,” Schubert said. “This was in the 1920s, so it brought a lot of worldwide publicity actually to the town of Dayton, Tennessee.”

At lunchtime there was an evolution discussion led by Schubert, Steven Wallace and Jim Mead.

Some of the topics Schubert said that were discussed were human evolution, transitional forms, scientific creationism as well as intelligent design.

Dr. Mick Whitelaw, with ETSU’s Department of Geosciences and Natural History Museum, led a discussion on “What’s in a Name? Fifty Fun Ways to Name a Fossil.”

Schubert said the discussion had “to do with scientists finding things new and describing them and giving them some kind of unique name. It’s one of those fun aspects of paleontology or being a biologist is that if you find a new species you get to name it. Those new names could be basically anything, but there are rules that go along with that.”

The day’s final lecture was “Stellar Evolution and Its Impact on the Evolution of Life,” which was presented by Dr. Don Luttermoser from ETSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Along with the various lecture series, there were also activities designed for kids, including comparing and contrasting the skulls of a human and a chimpanzee, as well as learning about natural selection by examining bird beaks.

“What we’re finding is that a lot of people are coming in today to learn about evolution or because they have questions about evolution. I think the first talk really brought in a lot of people because they wanted to hear about what is the public response, what is the public perception of the teaching of evolution,” Schubert said. “We had a full house. We were actually packed all the way. It’s a really fun day. Lots of kids, lots of adults. All ages are here.”

Adam Sayers, along with his son Jack, 4, and his daughter Lyla, 1, were on the top floor of the museum participating in some of the kids’ activities.

“I wanted to ... come and enjoy it for myself and educate myself on the topic a bit more, but also expose Jack to another aspect of it,” Adam Sayers said. “The interactive games and things downstairs are absolutely fantastic.”

Sayers, originally from England, said it was his family’s first trip to the museum and that the Darwin exhibit was something they decided to check out.

“It was actually the event, Darwin Day, that inspired us to come out today. Being from England, he is obviously one of our ... national treasures. He’s ... one of the greatest ever Britains. He’s ... obviously a great figure in history, played such an important role in what we know about the planet today and life itself today.”

Carmen Arendt’s son, Felix, was learning a little about beak morphology at one of the centers, after visiting some of the other activities earlier.

“We went and we looked at the ... prehistoric man skulls and put them in oldest to youngest order and he really liked doing that,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to show my son science in action.”

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