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Examining Darwin On His 200th Anniversary

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, around the world, people are celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution by natural selection fundamentally reshaped our understanding of how life evolved on this planet. NPR's Joe Palca has just returned from reporting trips to England and Kansas, as part of NPR's coverage of the Darwin bicentennial. Joe, welcome back.

JOE PALCA: It's great to be here.

BLOCK: Before Charles Darwin comes on the scene, had anybody been writing or thinking about evolution?

PALCA: Well yeah, they had, and it's fair to say that people knew that species changed somehow. I mean, the prevailing thought was that all species were sort of put here by a creator, and they were here for a certain amount of time, and then they went away, but that was all set in stone. And people began to think, well, maybe there's some wiggle room about that. Maybe nature does have some role.

But nobody had figured out the mechanism, and it was natural selection - this idea that over millions of years, nature could favor varieties that were more successful. That was Darwin's insight.

BLOCK: And, 150 years since the publication of "On the Origin of Species" -what was the original reaction to it when it came out?

PALCA: Like any new idea, there was reluctance - not just theologically but from the scientific community. There were people who said, oh, this can't be. But pretty quickly, Darwin won over the scientific community. And what's been interesting is in the 150 years since the publication - I mean, he published when the gene was not even a concept in his world - and since then, molecular genetics, molecular biology, has actually found the mechanism for the things he was proposing 150 years ago. See, he was more right than he actually knew at the time.

BLOCK: We mentioned that you're just back from England. Are there big Darwin-doings over there?

PALCA: Oh my goodness, it's Darwin, Darwin, Darwin. There are stamps. There are coins. There are lecture series, BBC programs. My favorite, which I confess, is a knitting group, which is knitting something in honor of evolution, and quilters who are making a quilt of tapestry of the voyage of the Beagle. So, I mean, they're definitely into this over there.

BLOCK: Why not? Why not quilting? You also went, we mentioned, to Kansas to cover the Darwin bicentennial. Why Kansas?

PALCA: Well, you know, I'm actually involved in a project to, sort of, track down all 1,250 copies of this first edition of "On the Origin of Species"…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: How's that going, Joe?

PALCA: Slowly. But there are three copies in the Kansas City area. And I thought maybe there's some there. I thought it was kind of interesting because, you know, Kansas has sort of had a reputation as being a place that's been a little less comfortable with the notion of evolution. There have been fights about teaching evolution or this alternative, which is creation science of a sort, called intelligent design.

Anyway, there's been fights about this, and I thought well, is there a copy in Kansas? And sure enough, there is. And I think what you see is that institutions of higher learning, universities, have embraced Darwin almost 100 percent. And it's a social discomfort - not a scientific, not an educational discomfort - with Darwin that I think, really, was playing out. So, I went there to sort of look into that a bit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.