Biology Professor Colin Purrington

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Pictures supplied by Colin Purrington

The Gazette sat down with associate professor of biology Colin Purrington to chat with him about the 200th anniversary of Darwin Day, a holiday taking place February 12th to celebrate the birth of biologist Charles Darwin and, more importantly, the understanding and proliferation of his ideas. Along the way, we discussed how Charles Darwin came to acquire a “posse” (if you don’t understand now, read on), and his thoughts on early science education (or the lack thereof) in America.

Daily Gazette: Obviously, being a biology major in some respect, myself, I probably have a higher familiarity with the ideas of Darwin and evolution than the average person, but for people reading this article — what is Darwin Day, and why is it important that we celebrate it?

Colin Purrington: It’s important to celebrate Darwin day because so few Americans tend to accept evolution. We don’t need a round Earth day, right? We don’t need a Heliocentrism day. There are probably lots of scientific facts that don’t need their own day… even though there was a time where you could have been burnt at the stake for believing in Heliocentrism. Religion got over that, and now we can have the earth going around the sun. But, evolution is extremely unpopular among most Americans. Gallup did this poll this in 2005, wanting to know how many people accepted various explanations of the origins of humans. And only twelve percent of Americans believe that humans evolved without supernatural intervention. Twelve percent! And if you imagine that same breakdown for any scientific fact, your jaw would drop. And a lot of biologists accept that twelve percent and just say well, we’ll eventually educate the public. but I think that if we mapped out the acceptance of evolution over time, it’s staying flat or going down. I would even guess it’s going down in the United States. And I think that’s awful. A couple of years ago I decided that teaching evolution on the college level was going to influence probably 24 students per semester… and that’s not going to change anything unless Swarthmore students start having more babies than they usually have, if you catch my drift. It’d be great if you could get in on that.

DG: Give me a little bit of time.

CP: So, anyway, Darwin Day is a time where biologists can make this feeble attempt to promote evolution as this scientific fact that is fun and shouldn’t be burnt at the steak. I’m not sure if these Darwin Day events help a great deal, but at least we try.

DG: We discussed prior to the beginning of the interview this phylogenetic tree cake [comprised of 30 smaller cakes], and I’m sure that there are other events— what else is going on outside of Swarthmore, where I would at least think that—

CP: Well, you ’gotta cover Swarthmore first. So, these will be handed out (pulls out tattoos)—since you’re interviewing me you get to keep one. There are a lot. I have a couple of volunteers already who are going to help me pass them out while people are getting cake. This one is the sketch he made in his notebook in 1837, it’s a famous little sketch—the first tree showing how all life is connected, descent with modification. And he wrote in his notebook [underneath it] “I think,” which has become a bit of a rallying cry. And this photo was taken of Darwin in 1881 right before he died. — These tattoos will come off with 2-3 showers, but if you don’t shower, it might last the whole semester, so you can tell who is a real fan.

DG: So what else is going on?

CP: Carl Buell, who does illustrations for any science book that is trendy and amazing, volunteered to create a 6 foot Charles Darwin painting for me. It’s going to be an older Darwin in his traditional black wool cape… he’s going to have a slight glint and maybe just a slight smirk, and I’m going to print him on the Biology department poster paper—all six feet of him—and attach him to poster board and stand him up.

DG: Next to the cake?

CP: Yes! (takes out camera) So, I take photos, and I’m going to have people take really awesome photos with Darwin. Hugging him, kissing him, holding their eyes — I think that’d be the perfect theme.

DG: Hear no Darwin, see no Darwin, speak no Darwin?

CP: Yeah. Anything they want to do is going to be encouraged. All of those photos will be uploaded to my Flickr site where people can then download and disseminate these photos of Darwin.

DG: Through families and friends, Facebook friends… To non-Swarthmore demographics who might not otherwise be exposed to Darwin?

CP: Right, right. I don’t know if posing with an old man with a scary beard is cool, but when you get something that is so uncool as that, it becomes a bit cool, and maybe people might accept evolution. So, while the students at Swarthmore who are posing are probably on board with the whole evolution thing, their parents, their sibs… maybe not so much. This sends out little tendrils of acceptance. Same as the Darwin tattoos.

DG: So we’ve got the Darwin photo op, we’ve got the cake we’ve got the tattoos, what else is there to know?

CP: I’ve got about ten other institutions involved, groups making temporary tattoos, I’ve got a whole bunch of people who want this Darwin [cutout]… it’s going to be a hot item. I kinda want museums to do this every year. This is going to be a prototype of what a Darwin day party should be. I had some of my students last semester promise that they’d set up a party at Olde Club, and I’m setting aside tattoos for them. I’m not sure what they want… I don’t go to Olde Club so I’m not sure what’s appropriate. But there might be a few geeks who’d want to do that, right?

DG: At Olde Club, depending on… what is available… you can always draw people to it, if I can be a little obscure in my language.

CP: I think that’s how they left it, too — I’m happy to help and I don’t really need to know. Maybe Mr. Darwin can make an appearance.

(We discuss more the proliferation of Darwin Day celebrations. A choice comment: “I’m hoping that this will be somewhat viral… that in 2010 when they are having their Darwin Day parties, it’ll be nothing without a full-fledged Darwin, because, oh my god, how could you not have a full-sized Darwin?”)

DG: So, before, you said the word “viral.” So, sort-of anecdotally, a friend of mine went to Cornell [University] once, and there are these stickers posted around their Bio building like very proud graffiti, and that these stickers say that “Darwin has a Posse.” I was curious as to the genesis of the sticker… how did you come up with this viral meme?

CP: I was sitting in my office thinking about what kind of image could I make that would have a viral nature, that people would like to have, and I knew that I was a bad enough artist that I couldn’t come up with something by myself, so I stole the idea from Shepard Fairey who had the Andre the Giant version. I was a graduate student when that sticker was first made. I shopped around on the internet looking for the best image of Darwin for it… aiming so that it would recognizable enough for biologists but grumpy enough so that people would be interested in Darwin. Funny slash stupid. I wanted it to be funny for kids so that kids wouldn’t object to seeing Darwin. Every time I see the sticker online in some form I favorite it so I can keep track of it. This one is my favorite.

DG: What was the evolution of this like? Did you see this meme evolving before you?

CP: It was a hoot. I thought that fellow geek friends would probably like it, but people who have never, never thought about Darwin or cared about Darwin write me back and say that they’ve found this sticker and printed them up by themselves to give to their kids to take to school.

DG: That actually brings me to my next question… you’ve mentioned kids and elementary school teachers, and on your website you demonstrate an interest in early science education. What are the unique deficits in how science is taught, specifically in America, and why do you think this exists?

CP: I guess I have to think of how to word this delicately. Science education should start with zeal in elementary school, but the problem is that elementary schools don’t have to have a science major to teach elementary school, so there’s a justifiable reluctance by elementary school teachers to teach those topics wherein they feel out of their expertise. I think that’s a shame… I think that even if you have some teacher who doesn’t know anything about the facts of science, they can still teach the scientific method and have fun doing it. Teaching kids that science is a process would really help us as a nation… taking a more reality-based, evidence-based approach to problems.

DG: And what’s the specific problem with evolution?

CP: Even if kids really like it, and they do, teachers are terrified of being fired. If they go in and teach young Jimmy about natural selection and evolution, young Jimmy goes home and explains that to their parents and his parents get the teacher fired, because that view of where life came from and how it changes often conflicts with what the parents might say at home. So, teachers, even if they like science, like evolution and understand that you could still accept evolution and believe in God… they don’t want to tread on that sensitive issue.

DG: I don’t know if you feel that you’re qualified to answer this sort of question, but what are the most important ways through which we can get to a place where teachers won’t get fired for teaching evolution? Is there anything that can be done in the present to change this?

CP: To get the teaching of evolution into elementary school science standards. At the state level, there’s a state board of education, and this group sits around a table and puts a document together as to what has to be taught 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and so on. Each state is different, so there’s going to have to be one state that does this first and has some success in it. Teachers enjoy doing [evolution], and students learning about the origin of life on the planet. They’re going to have to show, if only anecdotally, that it works. Educationally, it works! You can start them out on chemistry and physics, but, gosh, kids love biology first! Or, at least I did. Love of animals, maybe love of plants if you’re weird like me, then, when you get a little bit older, you’re interested in how things explode: planets, maybe chemistry and physics later. It’s the awe of why things are so darn cute. It shouldn’t be a problem for teachers to use that as a hook to explain [evolution].


  1. What's wrong with 31% of people in the Gallup poll saying that humans were created by an evolutionary process that God guided? While that's not a position that can be empirically tested, it does acknowledge evolution and doesn't require intelligent design arguments. I have a hard time with CP saying these folks are like believers in a flat Earth.

    Are those 31% really rejecting a scientific fact, as CP would say? If a God created the physical laws, matter and energy that allow for evolution and then let evolution take it's course, that sounds like guiding to me, but it doesn't entail rejecting Darwin's tenants (random mutation, natural selection, etc.) I personally don't see "Humans evolved from non-human ancestors" and "God created humans by guiding evolution" as mutually exclusive.

  2. Does Professor Purrington have any advice for how we can talk to kids in our own family about evolution? My cousins go to school in a fairly conservative area and I'm afraid they'll never be exposed to evolution, they'll just grow up thinking it's a ridiculous ill-conceived notion of heathens, like so many people in the area where I grew up. I'm not actually that good at talking to kids, so I understand that broaching the topic with mention, of, say, my cousin's favorite animal is great…but where do I go from there? ("Hey Emily, I know you like monkeys, but do you know how monkeys EVOLVED?" Somehow I don't think her mom would approve, and Emily wouldn't be too hooked either..)
    Any suggested resources? Great kid-oriented books that discuss evolution? Etc. I think evolution is amazing and fascinating and incredibly important to learn about, so I would really like to be able to talk about it with my cousins.

  3. J –
    There is a beautiful book by Steve Jenkins called Life on Earth ( that has wonderful pictures and a good, relatively non-threatening take on Evolution. The Swarthmore Public Library has a copy, so you can look at it there if you would like. Also, I'll try to find our copy and bring it to the Darwin party on Thursday for viewing as well.

    I think that Colin also has a nice list – scroll down to see the list of books suggested for science teachers.

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