Darwin Day Profile: Dr. Robert Stephens

Pictured from right to left: Dr Robert Siegel (Stanford), Jon King (Director of the Darwin Bicentennial Celebration in Shrewsbury in 2009), Dr Robert Stephens, and Dr William Durham (Stanford)

Dr. Robert Stephens came up with the idea for Darwin Day in 1993 and co-founded the Darwin Day Program with Amanda Chesworth. Below is an interview with Humanist Network News editor Maggie Ardiente on the early days of Darwin Day and his thoughts on the future of teaching evolution in the United States.

HNN: How did you first come up with the idea of “Darwin Day”?

Dr. Stephens: As a cell and molecular biologist I had learned about Charles Darwin both as a student and from my personal interest in evolutionary biology. Those who come to know Darwin from both his own writing and from that of his friends, realize that he was a gentile and companionate man with extraordinary skills of observation and reason that he used so effectively, as an extraordinary naturalist. In addition, Charles and his wife Emma had ten children but in spite of the fact that they knew the pain and extraordinary grief of losing three of them at an early age they maintained a warm and congenial household. For me, they exemplified the ethical and moral values as described in “Humanism and its Aspirations.” Therefore, on a Sunday morning in November of 1993 when a group of about eight to ten members of the Humanist Community at Stanford University met in a room on the 2nd floor of the Tresidder Union building at 10:00 AM to brainstorm the topic of developing events that could be celebrated, on an annual basis to highlight Humanism, I was thinking of Charles Darwin. Some of the members of this group were Arthur Jackson, Sonja Bex, Sandy and Floyd Gardner, Sena and Alex Havasy and Carl Angotti. Initially, ancient pagan celebrations such as Shawnee and Saturnalia were mentioned and were being discussed when I suggested the possibility of initiating a “Darwin Day celebration!” I recall that the room grew quiet and thoughtful as I began to discuss the deficiencies of ancient rituals to our need for a more meaningful focus for the purpose of bringing attention to Humanism. An animated discussion ensued about Darwin and we decided, before the meeting was over, that we should pursue the creation of an meaningful celebration to honor not only Darwin’s life and his accomplishments but also to recognize his far reaching contributions to all branches of modern biological sciences.

In January of 1994 I became the President of the Board of Directors of the “Humanist Community at Stanford,” as our Community was known as, in those days, because we held our weekly Forums at 11:00 O’clock on the 2nd floor of Tresidder. Early that year I determined that our Community would need additional money if we were to initiate the Darwin Day Celebration as well as acquire an office and computers to modernize the way we functioned. A grant writing committee was established, and by midyear we had submitted an application to the James Hervey Johnson Trust for about $37,500, of which $5,000. was to fund the first Darwin Day Celebration! In August that year we heard from the Johnson Foundation and they had funded our entire request including the $5,000 for Darwin Day! This was a red-letter day for the Humanists at Stanford. I was very pleased because it meant that we could now produce a significant Darwin Day event!

HNN: When did the first Darwin Day event take place?

Dr. Stephens: Subsequently, the first Darwin Day committee was formed to plan and carryout the very first Darwin Day Celebration. The Chairwoman, appointed by the Board, to head our committee was Sandy Gardner, other members of the committee, included Arthur Jackson, David Harris, Sonja Bex, Mary Wight, Carl Angotti, and others, including myself. We had trouble deciding on the date for our event but eventually settled on Saturday April 22, 1995. We wanted this to be a seminal event in one of the large auditoriums at Stanford. This meant that we had to obtain a prominent speaker with name recognition — our committee discussed various people and settled on Donald Johanson, the discoverer of “Lucy” and at that time Dr. Johanson was the President of the Institute of Human Origins and a member of the faculty at Cal Berkeley. Sandy wrote and asked him if he would be our speaker and to everyone’s delight he accepted — we were off and running. This was an exciting time for our Committee and our Community! A beautiful 2 X 3 foot poster was designed and made by Sonja Bex, (I still have this poster in our library). This large poster was reproduced in 8 X 11 inch posters that were place on billboards throughout the campus on the weeks before the event. In addition, we commissioned a piece of computer art to be produced by Myrrh, a prominent local artist, that she titled “Ever Since Darwin, Everything Evolves.” The auditorium that we reserved at Stanford for our First Darwin Day Event was Kresge Auditorium that holds approximately 650 people.

On the day of the event we permitted “tabling” along the sidewalks leading up to the auditorium. A number of organizations took advantage of this opportunity and along with our Humanist’s table there were several others, such as Christian and sports groups. To Dr. Johanson’s credit he arrived early and went out to talk with those at all the tables encouraging them to come inside for his lecture. To our committees satisfaction the Auditorium was filled to the doors with many also standing and siting in the isles. After the EVENT our committee had planned a reception in the lobby of the auditorium and many students and attendees engaged in conversations with our speaker. Fortunately our committee was able to conclude that we had, had a very successful first Darwin Day!!!

After the event I personally thought that the Humanist Community could become the agent to expand the concept of an annual Darwin Day Celebration to other Chapters of Humanism throughout the country so that it would become associated with Humanism.

During the following year my personal views on the potential importance of Darwin Day matured and I hoped that the celebration could eventually develop into an annual, national and eventually international event as a way of educating the general public about the importance of Darwin’s legacy, not only to science but also to the current understanding of our very existence!

As fortune would have it, the speaker at our second DDC was Richard Dawkins shortly after he had received the “AHA Humanist of the Year Award.” Richard spoke in an even larger auditorium — the Memorial Auditorium that holes over 1000 people and it too was another major success for DD. For me however, the important part of this event took place at the reception when I had a chance to talk to Richard about extending DDC to an international audience. He was enthusiastic about the idea and put me in touch with Helena Cronin at the London School of Economics where she had a program known as Darwin@LSE . I contacted Dr. Cronin, and when Lola and I were on vacation at Oxford University a few months later she put me in touch with Dr. Patrick Bateson at Cambridge University where Darwin had graduated from just before he sailed on the Beagle, and Dr. Steve Jones at University College London. Eventually all three of these individuals agreed to be on our Advisory Board — but I digress.

By the third year in 1997 I had become less involved with the Humanist Community and they had to begin meeting for their Sunday Forums away from the Stanford Campus — never-the-less they were able to continue to draw impressive speakers for their DDC. The third year they had Paul Berg, followed by Robert Sapolsky and Michael Shermer, etc. (This information and more can be found on the Humanist Community’s Web-site.) Nevertheless, I did not abandon my dream of developing an international DDC!

In the the summer of 1999 I was very fortunate, in that I had been interested in CFI’s University program the “Campus Free-thought Alliance” and had been communicating with Amanda Chesworth who, at that time, was worked for Paul Kurt’s organization however, DDC had never been mentioned. As chance would have it Amanda and Mat Cherry were coming out to the West Coast on a promotional tour and would be driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco — so, I made arrangements to have dinner with them in Menlo Park. I recall this dinner so well, because of what happened at that it. We met at Fontana’s Restaurant on El Camino Real and within minutes after being seated the name of “Charles Darwin” came into the conversation. It turned out that Amanda was also a fan of Charles Darwin. Her father was a Professor of Geology at Guelf University in Ontario, Canada, and he had introduced Amanda to Darwin through Darwin’s Geological work — you may recall that I also grew up in Canada, in London, Ontario and so we two Canadians were discussing Darwin that evening:-) Amanda and her father had actually had a special Darwin program in Toronto in about 1989.

Before the evening was over Amanda and I had agreed to cooperate — I would provide financial support to assist her and others, including Eric Snyder, Gabriel Carlson, August Brunsman, Erin Vaughn and others at the U of Minnesota to establish a 501c-3 Corp. for the purpose of promoting the newly formed SSA. The clear intention was, that every SSA Chapter that was formed would have a Darwin Day Celebration as one of their significant yearly functions. Within weeks Amanda had proceeded with plans to promote both SSA and DDC.

From 1999 until late 2001 we were sorting out problems that arose with both SSA and DDC with some success but also with some frustration. In the summer of 2001 Amanda’s husband who was a geologist, who worked for the government, was transferred to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and she and I decided to form another nonprofit Corp in New Mexico with which to promote DDC. The Board for this new 501c-3 consisted of myself as President and Chair, Amanda, and Massimo Pigliucci. Amanda was also the Director of DDC at that time. In 2002 Arthur Jackson also became a member of the Board. DDC expanded rapidly and in 2002 we published an impressive book edited by Amanda and titled “Darwin Day Collection One.”

From the beginning of this effort my approach was to encourage other groups to sponsor and develop the actual Celebrations while we were the promoters that developed an informational Web-site and registered events as they were sent to us! Amanda was very effective in whatever she undertook and I could not be more pleased with the way that she was able to work with everyone to accomplish a rapidly expanding recognition of Darwin Day, Most unfortunately, however, after the Book was published in 2002 Amanda began to display serious health problems and in addition her husband was being transferred to Alabama. Eventually it became necessary for me to dissolve the non-profit in New Mexico and reincorporate it in California.

At this point in the development of DDC we formed a new five member Board of Directors and they were Ben Wade, Treasurer, Arthur Jackson, VP, Dr. Mary White recorder, Dr. Robert Siegel, member, and myself as the Chair and Director. In this capacity, my office became DD Central, and I worked directly with the Web-site design technicians at Stanford University to create a new effective website. Eventually, David Harris was hired to maintain our Web-site and refine its characteristics . To promote rapid expansion and communication from 2002 to 2004 we purchased large numbers of email addresses of specific individuals at institutions that we thought would be interested in developing DD celebrations. Unfortunately this practice was discontinued in 2005 because it became illegal to purchase large numbers of specific email addresses. Nevertheless, the number of Events increased rapidly each year reaching over 700 in 2006.

At this juncture, and at my urging, our board began to deliberate about finding a new home DDC that would be able to provide greater longevity than our small, non-profit organization could provide for DDC. It was eventually decided to make DDC available to IHS because it was our Board’s view that IHS was more proficient with electronic communications that our concept of DDC promotion required. It was also recognized that Darwin’s 200th birthday was just 2 years away thus the new agency would find it a very advantages time to expand DDC! I was surprised in 2007 when IHS imploded and at that time I communicated with both Larry Jones and Roy to work out a plan for DDC be offered to AHA! With AHA’s acceptance I was pleased that DDC had finally found its rightful home!

HNN: Are you pleased to see how Darwin Day has evolved (pardon the pun) over the years into a major celebration for humanists, atheists, and freethinkers?

Dr. Stephens: Yes, of course — it’s been very rewarding to see how DDC has expanded over the past decade. I can think of no other project that I could have participated in that would have been able to contribute as much to the fundamental values of Humanism. When one understands Darwin the person in addition to what he accomplished with his theory and mechanism of evolution I can think of no one else in science who has contributed so much to the philosophy of Humanism.

While I understand that we Humanists are all atheists and hopefully freethinkers — for me at least, these two words do not hold the same vision for our culture as does Humanism. Thus at least for me Humanism is preferred over the other terms because the philosophy of Humanism has a long history that starts with the ancient Greek philosopher whereas the word atheist and freethinker are comparatively uninspiring.

HNN: It’s often said that the United States is “losing the race” in math and science achievements among young people compared to countries like China. What do you think this means for the future of science education in the United States?

Dr. Stephens: The path that the US has taken for the past 30 years has been very concerning but I do see that voices are coming to the forefront that recognizes that both of these subjects must be taught a by getting our students involved with hand-on problem solving methods in both fields. There was an excellent article in the SF Chronicle on Sunday, Nov, 13 — by David Perlman, their Science Editor about Bruce Alberts and his views on teaching science and math. Alberts led the National Academy of Science some years ago but is still very active so, I’m optimistic that the “no child left behind program” will soon be left behind!

HNN: There are a number of Congress members who see evolution as “just a theory.” What do you think our movement can do to change this?

Dr. Stephens: Individuals who make this dismissive statement are ignorant of modern biological science but their ability to continue to find support I believe will begin to diminish rapidly in the near future. In fact this may be influenced by the current “Occupy Movement.” However, I do think that AHA may be able to develop such impressive Darwin Day programs that they can serve to educate both our citizens and the members of Congress. Perhaps AHA is developing the clout to provide an annual DDC that would be noticed by the entire country! This would be most inspiring!


HNN: What do you think will happen to the “intelligent design” movement?

Dr. Stephens: It appears to me that the “intelligent design” movement has probably reached its zenith but I’m still worried about, what I refer to as the “religious vote” in our country. The potential for this in the 2012 election may be greater today than at any time in recent memory. It remains to be seen if the overt religious antics of Republican candidate will translate into votes that will sweep them into office in 2012! If this should happen, the “intelligent design” movement could see renewed attention.

HNN: What else can humanists, atheists, and freethinkers do to support science and evolution?

Dr. Stephens: I would contend that perhaps the most effective tool that AHA could employ is to use evolution and modern scientific knowledge to change minds. As you will see in my answer to your next question, it was certainly science that gradually made me see the light.

If AHA could produce an annual star-studded spectacle — using Darwin and evolution as a centerpiece (February in an excellent time of the year to do this) for its face-to-the-nation movement — I truly believe it would raise the profile of Humanism.

For me the term atheist is what I would refer to as a dead-end word. Yes, I realize that I’m an atheist but the word itself does not tell you anything about my nature. It says nothing about my ethical values or my compassion and empathy for my fellow human beings. Likewise the term Freethinker is very similar to the the word atheist — it does not say much about my involvement with my fellow humans! Of course, as a scientist one’s ability to think and ponder the possibilities related to one’s research is crucial but it is the philosophic dimension that the term Humanism carries with it, that is missing.

For me, Humanism has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy and if the phenomenon of Christianity had not come along — I think it is reasonable to suggest that Science and Humanism would have continued to developed naturally out of the ancient Greek culture. It seem reasonable, under this scenario, to suggest that the concept of evolution would have been developed much earlier than Darwin’s theory in the 1850′s — and it is clear, that an understanding of evolution destroys the myth of Adam and Eve, thereby also destroying the need for the myth of, God having to send his only begotten son to redeem mankind from their sin. I hasten to explain however, that you and I would not be here to contemplate this matter if that had happened :-)

HNN: Were you raised in a traditional religious household, and if so, what?

Dr. Stephens: The answer I suppose is yes but my mother’s side of the family was much more religious than that of my Fathers. I can still remember mother reading bible stories to me before I was old enough to go to school — it was an easy indoctrination. I had five siblings and we all went to Sunday School on a fairly regular basis and so I accepted the religion of my mother without serious questions arising. The church we were associated with was the United Church of Canada — it was an alliance between some of the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations. In my late teens I began to take singing lessons and became a tenor soloist in choirs. My music teacher was the organist at a large Baptist Church in London, Ontario, Canada and he had me doing all the tenor solo work for a few years before I moved to Los Angeles where I attended a Church of Christ college — Pepperdine College. Pepperdine had a very fine music department that produced operas and for three years I was the tenor soloist in these productions, however, I had changed my major from music to Science in my sophomore year. During these years I attended the Sunnyside Baptist Church and the First Presbyterian church of Los Angeles where I also sang religious solos. In 1957 Lola and I were married and that fall I began Graduate School at Cornell University in Ithaca NY. We attended the Presbyterian church there and both of us sang in the choir.

As I have mentioned, I had become a science major and by this time my knowledge in science began to conflicted with my religious experience but Lola and I had been church goes and we simply continued to go to church. I completed my MA at Cornell and returned to USC in Los Angeles for my Ph.D. — where I had obtained a Genera Secondary teaching credential several years earlier. Lola and I returned to the First Presbyterian Church where we had been married two years before and the administration asked me to join them and I became an “Elder.” After completing my Doctoral work at USC in cell and molecular biology Lola and I loaded our 3 small children into a friend’s car and headed to the LA airport and flew back to Yale Univ. where I spent a post-doc year. During that year we attended a Presbyterian church sporadically in Wallingford Ct. and the following year in 1965 I landed a position at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park Ca. At that time we began taking our children to Sunday school at the First Presbyterian church of Menlo Park and both Lola and I began singing in the choir there — even though I began to sing solo’s again, my understanding of religion had changed and I was no longer interested in singing words that seemed so foolish to me and our children were not eager to go to Sunday school. While Lola’s rejection of religion was slower than mine at this point she was also letting go of supernaturalism.

We found new interests in a variety of activities and of course we were parents of 3 children who were of the age that they required a great deal of attention as they were getting ready to start school. Our family also got involved in local politics and I ran for the City Council in Menlo Park. For a period of about 15 years our family did not identify with any church or other community organization.

HNN: When did you decide to identify as a humanist?

Dr. Stephens: In the early 1980 I became aware of Humanism and Lola had written a paper on Erasmus who was known as a Humanist and who attempted to reform the Catholic church during the Renaissance as I recall. However, it was not until the mid to late 1980′s that I read about a Secular Humanist Convention to be held in San Francisco and I decided to go to this event. I found it very difficult to local Secular Humanist group to meet with but finally found one in San Jose. This group met monthly in a private home but within the year they decided to meeting at the basement of a UU church on First street in San Jose. The membership of this group was about 25 but after the move to the UU church it began to lose members until, within a year there were not enough of us to continue. One of the members however, was attending a group of Humanists that met on Sunday mornings and he invites us to come and visit this group. It turned out that this was the group the Arthur Jackson came out from AHA headquarters in the east — Boston maybe, in the late 1970 to form. It was now 1989 and this group was meeting at Stanford University. My friend and I began to meet regularly with them. Eventually, Lola joined me and we both attended fairly regularly and became supporting members so I have identified with Humanism since the late 1980′s.