Monday, November 16, 2009

24 Days of Darwin...

"What does the Origin of Species mean to you today?"

I was in a class on Shakespearian literature during my undergraduate career, taught by a Shakespearian scholar, Dr. Tom Berger. Instead of reading and reflecting on the text, which was obviously wonderfully written, he talked about how the printing press worked during Shakespeare's time. He also talked about how the stages were set up, typical attendance of Shakespeare performances during his life, and other seemingly trivial details about the time when Shakespeare was writing his works. Our exam was not one full of quotations to analyze, but rather included questions like "What planets (and their respective god's) represented each day of the week?" The point of the exercise was to teach us that we needed to understand the popular culture of Shakespeare's time in order to understand his work. Once we understood these things, phrases we thought to have been poetic prose became funny jokes in common vernacular, and we read his works and laughed aloud.

Reflecting on the question, "What does the Origin mean to me today?" I think what I most gain from it is the picture of what a scientist should be. Charles Darwin, much like William Shakespeare, wrote his works for a public audience. Today, scientists aim to publish in Science and Nature, but rarely print their work at a level readable by a high school classroom. In the Origin, Charles Darwin uses examples like pigeons to explain how evolution works. This may be archaic and abstract to readers today, but was a common hobby when the Origin was written. I wish more scientists, myself included, would look to this as an example of how to bring science to the public. To teach and explain new scientific concepts using examples that all society is familiar with, instead of only select other scientists, would help our country to be more scientifically literate.

Trisha Smrecak
Paleontological Research Institution
Global Change/Evolution Project Manager

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