Every year, on the 12th of February, people all over the world are invited to celebrate Darwin Day and his renowned theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory earned him a place in history as one of the greatest scientists in history and also the scorn of religious people.
I went down to Singapore with a small group of Malaysians to join the celebration organised by the Humanist Society of Singapore (HSS).
We arrived in Singapore late Saturday afternoon, just in time to freshen up to join a group of hospitable humanists for dinner. At a Japanese restaurant close to Clarke Quay, we talked about cameras, Facebook, Whitney Houston, and rock climbing. Surprisingly, no one talked about Darwin!
Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England on 12 February, 1809. He graduated from Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts before embarking on a 5 year voyage aboard HMS Beagle serving as a naturalist. After studying the animal specimens he brought back from his sea voyage around the world, he came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. He expounded this theory in his book, On The Origin of Species, was sold out when it was first published in 1859. His theory made him a superstar of science and Darwin Day has been celebrated all over the world since Darwin’s death in 1882.
On Sunday morning, the small group of Malaysians visited the Art Science Museum and strolled through an exhibition of The Titanic and Cartier watches. Then we made our way to Toa Payoh where the Darwin Day celebration was held. Like typical Malaysians, we were late. But the kind Singaporeans patiently waited for us before starting.
As we rushed into Harmony Room at One People Singapore, the first thing that caught my eye was cookies laid out on a table. Each cookie was decorated with either a “Darwin fish” (a fish with legs) or a finch (a bird studied by Darwin).
Two speakers presented two interesting topics for the audience. Through the magic of the Internet, Terence Tan hooked up video conferencing via Skype for a group of Malaysians who had organised Hari Darwin in Bangsar so they could see the celebration in Singapore.
Dr John Elliot, an Associate Professor from National University of Singapore, presented a talk titled Can Morality Evolve? He described how humans attain consciousness via a gradual process starting about 5 million years ago. Humans naturally do good things and not evil because it is beneficial to their own survival. Good deeds are usually reciprocated. This can also be found in the animal kingdom where vampire bats will share their meal with those unlucky to find a meal knowing, in future, they would receive a favour in return.
After the first talk, we were given a short break. Everyone quickly made a beeline for the Darwin Day cookies! It was gone in a matter of minutes and I did not get a chance to take one.
While at the break, I met with Liyan Chen, one of the organisers, and asked her why she helped organise Darwin Day. She told me, “It is to remember the man who contributed so much to our understanding of ourselves as human beings.” I agree; it is mind blowing to realise we evolved over millions of years.
I asked Mark Kwan, a member of the HSS, if there were any resistance to Darwin Day and he told me, “Many religious organisations oppose the idea of evolution, preferring to believe man was created by God. For me, I prefer to see the evidence before I call it fact; and evolution is fact.”
After the break, Dr John Van Wyhe, a senior lecturer of Biological Sciences & History in National University of Singapore, debunked some commons myths surrounding Darwin. Many people think Darwin was so afraid for his theory that he kept it secret for 21 years; this is not true. Another myth says Darwin recanted his view that man evolved from apes and accepted the story of God creating human beings. Again, this is not true.
Then, I was invited to say a few words and I took the opportunity to thank the HSS for being a gracious host. To give them an idea of what is happening in Malaysia, I invited Colin Shafer, a lecturer at Taylor’s College, to give his views on scepticism in Malaysia. He said many Malaysians would readily believe something without first checking out the facts and without thinking it through. Nevertheless, groups like Unscientific Malaysia are promoting science and scepticism.
All too soon the event came to an end and we parted ways promising to connect again on Facebook until the next Darwin Day.