A Dispatch from Darwin Day

| Thu Feb. 12, 2009 8:24 AM EST

Christians have Christmas. Atheists have Charles Darwin's birthday--a date that has inspired months of zealous non-worship in the lead-up to today’s fete of his 200th. Before midnight the world will have witnessed some 600 Darwin Day events, from the Darwin Day Barbecue in Melbourne, Australia, to the Darwin Day Rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the Darwin Day Evolutionpalooza, a gathering last Sunday in the basement conference room of the San Francisco Public Library, where 100 guests of the local atheist club ate birthday cake and heard the Charles Darwin Backup Singers belt out “The Twelve Ages of Evolution,” a Christmas-inspired ditty that ended with the Pleistocene era’s shopping list of "bisons and humans, hawks and higher primates, horses and whales, conifers and mammals, bipedal dinosaurs, reptiles, trees, and insects, spiders, mites and sharks, land plants and fish!" And the list went on.

Other than taking place in America's most Godless major city, San Francisco’s D-Day was notable for the presence of the mutton-chopped Darwin himself, who took to a podium in a chiffon scarf tied like a cravat and thanked the crowd for "all your great efforts in channeling me into the 21st Century." Forthwith began the kind of autobiography that could only come from a scientist--a mostly dry, rambling affair occasionally enlivened by Far Side jokes. "I have a friend who was Unitarian," Darwin said at one point, without mentioning that he was raised as one, "and the Klu Klux Klan burned a question mark in front of his house."

Evolutionpalooza, which was advertised on Facebook with a drawing of hominids evolving into a man carrying a birthday cake, is the brainchild of atheist author David Fitzgerald, who’d shown up wearing the classic walking fish shirt. "I hesitate to venerate Darwin too highly, to make him sound like he's our prophet," he told me. "There's already so much baggage attached to that kind of thing." But, he added, Darwin was a convenient rallying point in the effort of group’s 1,000 members to counteract the Religious Right. And they certainly had cause to party: President Barack Obama had proclaimed during his inauguration speech that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” This followed by Darwin’s bicentennial hinted at sunrise over a decade of darkness: “I have never been more optimistic about seeing Atheism being accepted in America,” Fitzgerald said. “The more we learn, the less plausible any one of those religions out there seems.” 

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That wasn’t exactly the message of Evolutionpalooza’s keynote speaker, Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education. “I speak for atheists and Baptists and college professors,” she told me. “I’m ecumenical.” Still, Scott, who’d waived her typical speaker fee for the event, clearly had a soft-spot for the Darwinists. She mentioned how the young Darwin earned his nickname, Gas, for his love of blowing things up (“My hero,” sighed a teenage girl sitting behind me). “Then he got into his barnacle stage,” she went on. Her time began to run out. “When I have a smart crowd like you guys I just cut to the chase: Natural Selection is adaptive differential reproduction.”

The homily finished, the festivities moved on to the equivalent of the church talent show. A placard that said “real quotes” was held aloft as one Pammy Mae Paluxy took her best stab at a Southern accent: “To say the Bible was written by men and may contain inaccuracies completely contradicts the word of the Bible,” she said, among other things. Next came a skit between a professor of “paleotheology” and a “scientific” proponent of Intelligent Design (Professor: so the “Intelligent Designer” could be, say, Martians, or Ancient Astronauts or just maybe an immortal, omniscient, all-powerful, super-being and his son and some sort of holy ghost?). Finally came a spirited match of Evolutionary (The Big D for 1000: “Darwin said he has seen enough of this institution throughout. . .” Buzz: “What is slavery?”)

When the official program ended, 78-year-old David Mandell of Silicon Valley wound through the crowd offering shrink-wrapped copies of his book, Atheist Acrimonious. “It means angry, an angry atheist,” he explained. A shirt heavy with buttons advertised the website of his local atheist chapter, godlessgeeks.com. “My personal opinion is agnostics are atheists in the closet,” said Mandell, who also wore a cap with the spinning-atom symbol of the American Atheists. “If you want to get them out, you have to get them to take a big emotional step forward.”

Mandell turned to a man in a shirt that said: “Winning Souls for Darwin,” and asked, “When are you going to buy my book?” 

“Maybe later; I’ll be God on Friday,” said the man, whose name was Marc Perkel. On Friday he expected to receive a trademark on the religious use of the word “Reality.” Perkel handed me a business card for his Church of Reality (slogan: “If it’s real, we believe in it”). His church doesn’t hold services, which led me to ask how he filled his 1,200 congregants’ spiritual needs. “Well, at this point I really don’t,” he said. “We’re still in development. We’re always in development.  A purpose of the Church of Reality is that we believe in positive evolution.”

For the moment Perkel was more concerned with debunking the competitors. “I can pretty much prove that God doesn’t exist,” he said. “If He exists, why is He hiding? If God is hiding and I don’t believe in God, then it’s God’s will that I’m an atheist. So atheism is still the right answer.”

Things were winding down by then; I joined Darwin on his way out. He was carrying a plastic terrarium containing a western hognose snake that he’d used in another talk earlier that day. I asked what it was like being the world’s most famous biologist. “I find it fun, gratifying, and satisfying,” he said as we left the library and walked past gawkers. His real name was David C. Seaborg and he was the son of the Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg, who’d discovered plutonium. He was planning to appear at two or three more Darwin events, including a debate at the museum of natural history in Santa Barbara where Fitzgerald would play a creationist. I asked why he didn’t just invite real creationists. “I don't want to; It’s just much more fun to do it this way," he said.  “[Fitzgerald] gets it; he gets the science. With a real creationist it gets very convoluted.”


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