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MSU Biology Dept. Celebrates Darwin Day Ahead of Naturalist's 214th Birthday

 "Darwin Day" is celebrated on Charles Darwin's birthday, February 12th. This year will be Darwin's 214th birthday.
University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin
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"Darwin Day" is celebrated on Charles Darwin's birthday, February 12th. This year will be Darwin's 214th birthday.

This past Thursday, the Murray State Department of Biological Sciences, in partnership with Tri-Beta, the student honor society in biology, and the Watershed Studies Institute, gathered to celebrate Darwin Day—honoring the famed naturalist Charles Darwin—ahead of his 214th birthday. Austin Carter speaks to Murray State professor of biology Dr. Harold Whiteman about the university's celebration and why it's so important to honor Darwin's work and biology in general.

"Darwin Day has been going on since the mid-1990s and has been celebrated throughout the world as a way of celebrating Darwin's work and its importance to biology," Whiteman begins. "On campus, we've probably been doing it for about a decade. We usually bring in a speaker that has a public lecture; then they have another seminar they give to our biology department."

"Before Darwin, people had been thinking about evolution in a general sense for a very long time. What they didn't have [was a] mechanism for how evolution could work. What Darwin did—along with Alfred Wallace, but Darwin gets the most credit—he basically put together examples of how his process of evolution might work, which was called natural selection."

Natural selection, Whiteman explains, is "this idea that organisms interact with the environment, and based on those environmental interactions, that influences who lives and who dies and who reproduces and whose genes are carried onto the next generation. Then, over time, that affects what we see in terms of different kinds of life forms, speciation, behaviors. Darwin didn't know anything about genetics. He didn't know how it worked at that level. It wasn't until much later that was figured out. But he did realize there were these general patterns that were occurring over and over again that were in response to the environment."

"Natural selection in Darwin's work opened the door for so much other science that happened since then—especially biology," Whiteman continues. "It's been critical for our understanding of speciation and how biodiversity has evolved on the planet. And because of that, how environmental factors that are affecting the planet right now operate—things like pollution and climate change and habitat destruction that happen as part of our daily business of humans influences the evolution of humans often through a natural selection process."

"It allows us humans to think about and better respond to those things. We're basically creating these new stressors for organisms that are going to have to evolve. They don't evolve as quickly as we're changing the environment, and that's also influenced what we're doing. From a human-centric point of view, the evolutionary ideas and even natural selection is at the crux of a lot of biomedical work. It's allowed us to develop new vaccines, antibiotics, cancer treatments—all those things that have happened in one way or another come from Darwin's work."

Whiteman says that biology is important because it's "everywhere. Biology is life. The more we understand our own lives, the better. From an individual point of view, we think about how our bodies respond to the environment around us—that might include diseases and things like that—but also how our own health is involved. Biology is involved in all of that. The doctors and nurses that give us health care and work every day to keep us going, all of their training is based in biology."

"Beyond that, we live in an environment that is full of life, and that keeps us going, and that life provides a lot of free ecosystem services, like clean air and clean water. Biology allows us to understand these processes better, appreciate them a little bit more, and hopefully, conserve them."

The Murray State Biology Department, Tri-Beta, and the Watershed Studies Institute celebrated Darwin Day on Thursday, February 9th, with a presentation by the University of Louisville's Dr. Alycia Lackey titled, "Evolution in a changing climate: lessons from amphibians and insects." The next Darwin Day celebration on campus will be in February 2024.

Austin Carter is a Murray State grad and has been involved with WKMS since he was in high school. Over the years he has been a producer for WKMS and has hosted several music shows, but now calls Morning Edition his home each weekday morning.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.