Scientists celebrate evolution on Darwin’s birthday

By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

Darwin Day came in a big way last year — with hundreds of Feb. 12 celebrations noting the bicentennial birthday of evolution’s icon all over the globe.

Perhaps not as many events will come this year, for the 201st anniversary on Feb. 12, 2010, of the birth of Charles Darwin. The International Darwin Day Foundation notes only 91 scheduled, but “more are likely coming,” says Michael McCamman of the American Humanist Association, which lists the events.

Scientists, meanwhile, are still celebrating evolution in their standard way, by doing science and extending Darwin’s ideas.

“What he thought happens over great lengths of time, we’ve found happens daily and hourly,” says Princeton’s Peter Grant. Grant and his wife and colleague Rosemary, have for more than 35 years studied the creatures of the Galapagos Islands, particularly Darwin’s Finches.

Darwin famously collected those same finches on his 1835 visit to the island aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, finding with some surprise on his return to London “a most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, form of body and plumage: There are thirteen species,” he wrote in his journal. He had thought them all the same species of blackbirds, until informed otherwise by an ornithologist, John Gould.

Darwin’s finches, and many of the other creatures he observed on his voyage helped inform his 1859 On the Origin of Species (celebrating its 151st anniversary on Feb. 12 as well), where he laid out his idea of species evolving from earlier ones by natural selection, the inheritance of successful traits by offspring. He noted the variation in beak size from island to island, adapted for the food prevalent in each location for each species, from the Large Ground Finch, equipped with a powerful nutcracker of a beak, to the needle-nosed Warbler Finch, primed for picking up small seeds.

The Grants’ work is best known…

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