British Celebrate Charles Darwin but Are Still Skeptical of Evolution

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, evolution is still a hard sell to many.

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LONDON—On Thursday, February 12, a large crowd gathered around a huge iced fruitcake topped with 200 candles in a park in central Shrewsbury to sing "Happy Birthday, Dear Charlie." The honoree? Shrewsbury's most famous son: Charles Darwin. The candle-blowing is the photo-op part of a celebratory, monthlong Darwin Festival in the naturalist's hometown, a series of events that also include lectures and guided walks.

Shrewsbury, a historic market town set among the rolling hills of England's West Midlands, is hardly alone in using the occasion of Darwin's bicentenary to pay him tribute. Nationwide, Britain is pulling out all the stops to honor not only the man who first expounded the theory that natural selection is the basis for millions of years of evolving life on Earth but the coincidental 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species. A year's worth of commemorations and events will essentially make 2009 the Year of Darwin in the United Kingdom.

"It's a fantastic response," says Bob Bloomfield, director of Darwin200, the umbrella group for many of the planned activities. And why not? he asks. "Darwin's ideas have influenced virtually every aspect of human thought," from science to art to religion. The man who revolutionized modern biology and his legacy "are a huge national heritage" worthy of all the attention.

Darwin's stern visage already adorns the back of the 10-pound note, but this week the government issued a new 2-pound coin that features Darwin and a chimpanzee—a visual reference to his theory that man and ape have a common ancestry. The Royal Mail is issuing a series of six stamps to commemorate Darwin. And British composer Michael Stimpson is premiering throughout the year a new, four-part classical work inspired by Darwin's life.

Already underway since November and running until mid-April at London's Natural History Museum is the special exhibit Darwin: Big Idea, Big Exhibition, and through March the museum has also scheduled a series of evening discussions. On Friday, English Heritage is reopening Down House to the public: Located just southeast of London in Kent, it's where Darwin lived for the last 40 years of his life. It now includes a new, permanent exhibition, and the government is lobbying UNESCO to make the house and grounds a World Heritage Site. Cambridge, where Darwin attended the university, also has several events scheduled, including a lecture series, a cross-disciplinary art exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and a weeklong festival in July. And throughout the year, the BBC is broadcasting a series of television and radio programs examining his life and work.

Proud though Britain may be for having produced such a famous, pre-eminent, albeit controversial, scientist, Darwin's theory of evolution is a hard sell here—even though the United Kingdom is a rather secular society where church attendance has fallen to negligible numbers. A January ComRes poll taken for the religious think tank Theos found that 51 percent of Britons say that evolution alone can't explain complex life, and 32 percent believe that life on Earth began within the past 10,000 years—a basic tenet of creationism.

While disdainful of the Darwin celebrations, calling them an effort by atheists and humanists "to give Charles Darwin a sainthood," Randall Hardy, spokesman for Creation Research UK, claims that efforts to promote Darwin and natural selection in Britain have backfired because a growing number of Britons now embrace creationism. Perhaps that's why proponents of creationism and intelligent design have scheduled only a handful of relatively low-profile counterevents—though Hardy's group has a lecture set for Saturday night at a Shrewsbury church. Bloomfield agrees that it's "a fair point that a good proportion of society does not accept evolutionary biology" and that much of the public, regardless of personal views, has only a "very shallow" understanding of the theory.

Which is why many of the planned events—though certainly designed to entertain—clearly are intended to also raise public acceptance of Darwin's theory and the strong preponderance of evidence supporting it. The Wellcome Trust, a medical research charity, is donating kit boxes of experiments to every secondary school in Britain "that illustrate the evidence for and contemporary examples of evolution."