Darwin/Chicago 2009: Looking Back to 1959

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Sir Julian Huxley speaks in Rockefeller Chapel, 1959

As discussed yesterday, the Darwin/Chicago 2009 conference marks not just the anniversary of Darwin’s birth and most famous book (The Origin of Species) but also 50 years since a landmark evolution conference was held at the University of Chicago. Like this year’s gathering, the 1959 conference was meant to both look back at Darwin’s life and ideas and look forward to the future of the field his theory created: evolutionary biology.

To commemorate this historic conference, the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library has put together a great web exhibit with video and audio from the Darwin Centennial conference in 1959. Encylopedia Brittanica Films produced a film of the conference, and you can watch several video clips from that film and listen to audio excerpts from three presentations – in addition to songs from the Darwin musical commissioned for the meeting.

From the film footage available on the website, you can see that the style of the conference in 1959 was very different from what will occur this weekend. Instead of individual talks and Powerpoints, the scientists participated in panel discussions on topics such as The Origin of Life and Man as an Organism – the latter of which was held on Thanksgiving Day. One clip shows overflow crowds that couldn’t get into Mandel Hall (where the panels were held) sitting in other University buildings and staring off into space as they listen to the audio of the conference. This weekend”s overflow crowd will be able to stare at their computer and follow along right here on the blog, if you’ll forgive the plug.

Then again, some things weren’t so different between 1959 and 2009. Tension between evolution and religion was intact: Sir Julian Huxley, the renowned zoologist considered to be one of the main architects of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology, gave a lecture in Rockefeller Chapel entitled The Evolutionary Vision which, according to Regenstein librarian David Pavelich, “proposed that religion, being subject to the laws of evolution, was fast becoming obsolete and would eventually evolve itself out of existence.” The religious opposition to Darwin’s theories was acknowledged by University of Chicago chancellor and professor of philosophy Lawrence Kimpton, who likened Darwin to John Stuart Mill as advocates of free thought and liberty:

“Darwin, in his own sphere and his own action, produced an independent defiance of the pressures of his day, challenging the rigidity of thought and temper with a naturalistic theory shocking to the entrenched supernatural explanation of biology. The outrage and the distortions that erupted immediately, persisting well into this century and even in this country, are measures of Darwin’s independence.”

Also in audio clips:

  • Sir Charles Galton Darwin discussing his grandfather’s legendary voyage observing and collecting specimens on the H.M.S. Beagle, including a reading of what Darwin wrote in his journal the first time he ate a banana.
  • Archaeologist Louis Leakey on the search for fossils of human ancestors – “You hear people say ‘what has Africa created to the human race?’ It contributed the human race.”

In lighter fare, check out the songs from the Darwin musical, Time Will Tell, premiered at the conference. They are very 1959, and are probably the only songs you will ever hear with lyrics such as “this gastropod has quite an odd phylogeny” and “Alas, to his sorrow, he generally finds/That pre-conceived notions of various kinds/Have already helped them to make up their minds/And the facts will only confuse them.” I could see that as the theme song for quite a few evolution blogs, actually.

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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