Darwin's ape Given its scope and depth, one might expect that St. Ambrose University's Darwin Project started with a big idea. After all, 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the original publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, as well as the 200th anniversary of its author's birth. (Both he and Abraham Lincoln were born on February 12, 1809.)

But according to Rich Legg, a professor of biology at St. Ambrose, the yearlong project had modest beginnings. Legg thought that given those anniversaries, it might be fun to do a reading of the play Inherit the Wind, which deals with the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

It turns out that Kristofer Eitrheim, chair of the university's theatre department, is a fan of the play, Legg said, and had been planning to stage it soon anyway.

"That got the whole project started," Legg said. "This started to take on a life of its own."

The result is more than a dozen events over the academic year, ranging from lectures to an art exhibit to concerts, all dealing with Darwin's theory of evolution. (See below.)

And if you think that evolution is a concept that's not relevant outside of biology, then you're the target audience for the Darwin Project.

"What we're trying to do is just get the notion of Darwin out there and how this idea has penetrated a lot of different disciplines," Legg said.

"Evolutionary theory really provides a way of looking at the world," he continued. "There is the general perception that this is this academic thing off on the side that's a peculiar ... explanation for biological phenomena."

But "it's a very simple idea that's a useful structure for interpreting a lot of what we see." he said. "It's very easy to apply, even for a layperson. ... These are not complicated ideas. And even those of us who don't understand or know much evolutionary theory really do apply many of the principles in our ordinary lives when we evaluate phenomena."

That idea - that evolution can inform almost any study of human endeavor - is the reason that Legg sought David Sloan Wilson to kick off the Darwin Project. The self-described "evolutionist" (as opposed to "evolutionary biologist") will speak on September 15 in St. Ambrose's Rogalski Center.

In his 2007 book Evolution for Everyone, Wilson opens: "This is a book of tall claims about evolution: that it can become uncontroversial; that the basic principles are easy to learn; that everyone should want to learn them, once their implications are understood; that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together."

Wilson is making the case that evolution is both essential and accessible, which is what the Darwin Project argues, as well.

Darwin Project Events

For its year-long Darwin Project, St. Ambrose University has scheduled lectures, forums, performances, and exhibits. For more information on these events, visit http://web.sau.edu/darwinproject.

Lecture: David Sloan Wilson, "Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives." September 15, 7:30 p.m., Rogalski Center Ballroom

Exhibit: "Paths of Desire." September 23-October 24, Galvin Fine Arts CenterA Catich Gallery

Forum: "Are Humans Really Special? The Evolution of Empathy & Language." September 26, 4 p.m., Cosgrove Hall Faculty Dining Room

Theatre: Inherit the Wind. October 3-5, Galvin Fine Arts Center Allaert Auditorium

Lecture: The Reverend George Coyne, "The Dance of the Fertile Universe: Did God Do It?" October 8, 7 p.m., Rogalski Center Ballroom

Forum: "Science & Religion." October 24, 4 p.m., Cosgrove Hall Faculty Dining Room

Concert: "The Creation." November 9, 6 p.m., First Presbyterian Church (Davenport).

Forum: "The De-evolution of American Politics" and "Origins & Ends: Darwin & Natural Right." November 14, 4 p.m., Cosgrove Hall Faculty Dining Room

Lecture: Michael Ruse, "Darwinism & Christianity: Can the Two be Reconciled?" November 12, 7 p.m., Rogalski Center Ballroom

Exhibit: Darwin Caricatures. February, St. Ambrose University Library

Film: Inherit the Wind. February, St. Ambrose University Library

Performance: "Bioenergetics: Sonic & Visual Textures." February 6, Galvin Fine Arts Center Allaert Auditorium.

Forum: "Darwin & Imperialism." February 27, 4 p.m., Cosgrove Hall Faculty Dining Room

Forum: "Wordsworth, Darwin, & the End of Nature." March 27, 4 p.m., Cosgrove Hall Faculty Dining Room

Lecture: Jim Cook, "But Is It Science? Victorian Reactions to Darwin's Theory." Wednesday, April 15, 7 p.m., Rogalski Center Ballroom, Section 1

Also in this week's issue: "The Psychopathic Chicken: Evolutionist David Sloan Wilson Kicks Off the Darwin Project at SAU," by Jeff Ignatius. 

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