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Anthropology club remembers Charles Darwin's 200th birthday

IU Northwest students and faculty gather to consider naturalist's enduring legacy

Across much of the United States, the 200th birthday of evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin has been overshadowed by the celebration of another famous fellow who was born on Feb. 12, 1809 – President Abraham Lincoln. At Indiana University Northwest, however, the birth of Darwin, whose 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” became a keystone of modern scientific inquiry, has always been cause for celebration.

The IU Northwest Anthropology Club holds an annual “Darwin Day” event each February featuring guest speakers, plays, and a birthday cake in Darwin’s honor. This year marked the club’s 11th such event, and more than 30 students, faculty and community members turned out on Wednesday, Feb. 11, to hear presentations on Darwin’s influence on theories of personality and his connection to the slavery debate that raged in the United States and England at the time “On the Origin of Species” was published.

The audience was also treated to a one-act play, staged by Unitarian Rev. Roger Brewin, of the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, and IU Northwest anthropology students Morgan Jacobs and Jim Rutherford, that recounted Darwin’s progression of thought and reasoning as he worked through his groundbreaking theories on the development of Earth’s biological species. Brewin, as Darwin, presented the performance as a series of walks around the naturalist’s property, excursions that Darwin is known to have made daily as he mentally struggled through his ideas and their resounding religious and scientific implications. Jacobs portrayed Darwin’s supportive wife, Emma, and Rutherford acted as narrator.

“I have a flurry of activity usually right around Darwin Day, then I don’t get asked to do it again for 51 weeks,” Brewin, who wrote the piece based on Darwin’s own writings, said prior to the performance. “Consequently, it remains a reader’s play and not a memorized play. Fortunately, when Darwin took his daily walk around the Sand Walk, the gravel path around his property, he always carried a portfolio filled with notes and correspondence. So when I carry my script, there is some authenticity to that.”

Brewin’s play follows Darwin from his early inquiries into why so many animals, such as birds, are divided into multiple species, many with fairly small differences, to his intellectual anguish as he decides whether to publish what he knows will be very controversial theories in the highly religious Western culture of the 19th century. The play also touches on Darwin’s loving relationship with his wife, Emma, and their children, including an eldest daughter who died at age 9.

“This is an interesting character to portray,” explained Brewin, who has also portrayed Charles Dickens and Clarence Darrow, both of whom were accomplished public speakers. “As far as we know, Darwin never spoke to an audience in his life. He never gave one of his papers to any group larger than his own children or a few colleagues. So it’s inauthentic to portray him making a speech. So this is a portrayal of his private thoughts, spoken out loud.”

While Brewin’s presentation touched on the inner Darwin, this year’s keynote speakers looked at the famed naturalist’s impact on larger social or scientific issues. Professor of Sociology Jack Bloom, Ph.D., who is also an adjunct professor of minority studies, discussed Darwin’s work in relation to his concerns about slavery and 19th-century racial theory. One of Darwin’s goals in searching out the origin of species, Bloom argued, was to discount the idea, prevalent at the time, that Africans were a different and lower species of human than Europeans, a position that was used to justify the institution of slavery.

“Darwin knew about slavery, and he was bitterly opposed to it,” Bloom said. “He wrote once, ‘I thank God that I shall never again visit a slave country.’

“The idea that he was taking on was that black and white people are unrelated, that they share no common ancestor,” he explained. “Darwin knew that taking on the origin of human beings would be very controversial, both because of religious opposition to the idea and because of slaveholder opposition to the idea. If Africans are humans in the way that Europeans are, then how can it be right to keep them in this situation?”

This, Bloom explained, was one reason that Darwin’s controversial 1859 book touched only lightly on human evolution. By focusing primarily on animal species such as birds and turtles, he said, Darwin was advancing theories that, on their surface, gave the appearance of innocuous naturalism, but that were clearly applicable to the development of modern humans and distinctly contrary to popular racial theories of the time.

“In Darwin’s view, and this is what was revolutionary, there was nothing biological that prevented (slaves) from becoming equal to their owners,” Bloom said.

Bloom also explained how William Jennings Bryan, the popular orator, progressive activist and three-time Democratic candidate for president, came to oppose and despise Darwin’s theory of evolution, even though his longtime advocacy on behalf of the oppressed would have seemed to place Bryan in sympathy with Darwin’s own beliefs. Bryan was the prosecutor in the famous 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee, in which high school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution to his students in contradiction of state law.

“Why was he so at odds with Darwin?” Bloom asked. “Bryan’s opposition to Darwin, it turns out, was not a deviation from his progressive politics but an extension of them. Bryan abhorred Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection because of his concern about the doctrine of social Darwinism, whereby the existing class system that had enriched the wealthy and impoverished most everyone else … was justified by the supposedly Darwinian notion that life is a struggle for existence, and that species, and presumably societies, strengthen themselves (by allowing) the strong to win and the weak to perish.”

Bloom noted that Darwin neither developed nor advocated the controversial social theory that bears his name, and said the naturalist’s scientific activities were conducted in support of oppressed people, as were Bryan’s political activities.

“Both of them stood with the oppressed,” Bloom concluded. “But they understood what that meant quite differently.”

Wednesday’s event led off with a presentation by IU Northwest Assistant Professor of Psychology Karl Nelson, Ph.D., who discussed Darwin’s work as it relates to theories about personality development. Although Darwin’s work was not directly concerned with personality traits, Nelson said, his theories had significant impact on other work that greatly advanced modern understanding about human personality.

“Darwin did, with his ‘On the Origin of Species’ and other ideas, set in motion several ideas that changed how people thought about personality,” Nelson said. “One of them was the idea of natural selection, the idea that if you survive long enough to reproduce, then your characteristics are more likely to be seen in the next generation and subsequent generations.”

Nelson said that Sigmund Freud, in particular, benefitted from Darwin’s ideas when forming his own theories about human personality and their relationship to what Freud called “eros,” or the life instinct. Freud, Nelson said, determined that human personality was driven by the instinct to survive and to reproduce.

“Freud said that everything, all that you need to survive, all of your motivations, they’re way down there in your subconscious and they’re tied to instinct,” Nelson explained. “You do what you do, you think what you think, you feel what you feel, ultimately because of the instincts driving you. These instincts, these drives, have very direct parallels in evolutionary theory.”

Of course, as modern understanding of genetics, cultural influences and other principles took hold, Nelson said, many of Freud’s more fixed ideas about personality development proved insufficient to explain the complexities of human psychology. But he said that Darwin’s theories about natural selection and the origins of species continue to play an important role in modern investigations into the origin and development of human personality, including theories about the role of evolution in the development of primary personality traits.

“Certain theorists in evolutionary psychology have started to suggest that each one of these five major dimensions of personality – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – is a response to an evolutionary challenge that our ancestors would have faced,” Nelson said. “Openness actually relates to ‘How curious should I be?’ If I am curious enough to try that new berry on the bush, that may be very helpful. I may have just found a new food source. Or I may die. It may have very negative consequences for my long-term survival.

“It’s not that one end of the spectrum or the other is necessarily beneficial for survival, but each one of these may represent a certain challenge that we faced as a species,” he added.

Nelson noted that, while Darwin’s ideas provided a basis for modern investigations into human psychology, Freud, at least, failed to give the controversial naturalist his due.

“He was growing up in a period when Darwin’s ideas were widely discussed and debated, but he didn’t actually give credit to Darwin for anything,” Nelson said. “Although many people claim that Freud didn’t give most people credit for anything.”



Media Contact:

Christopher Sheid

Michelle Searer

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Photo by Christopher Sheid/IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications
Unitarian Rev. Roger Brewin, of the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, portrays naturalist Charles Darwin during a one-act play at the IU Northwest Anthropology Club's 2009 Darwin Day on Wednesday, Feb. 11. Brewin wrote the piece based on Darwin's own articles and journals.

Photo by Christopher Sheid/IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications
Each year, the Anthropology Club's Darwin Day event includes a birthday cake in Darwin's honor.
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