This assembly marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin on November 24th 1859. It tells the story of a book which has greatly influenced the development of science and provides opportunity for further discussion
Resources: A Leader and two Readers. (The script may be adapted for use by a single presenter)
Leader: Today (November 24th – adapt as appropriate) is/was/will be the 150th of a very important book. It was written by Charles Darwin and it’s got rather a long title (show title).
The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, orthe Preservation of Favoured Races
in the Struggle for Life.
We’ll just call it ‘The Origin of Species’. To find out why this book is so important, let’s fly back through three hundred years. We’re in school and the teacher is asking questions.
Reader 1: (The teacher) Stand up, child. Tell me. Why do camels have humps and why do those strange creatures we call giraffes have such long necks?
Reader 2: (The pupil) Camels humps are made of fat and flesh which help camels survive for weeks in the desert without food and water. Giraffes have long necks so that they can get their food from tall trees.
Reader 1: And why should that be so?
Reader 2: That is how God made them at the creation of the world.
Reader 1: And when did God first make the world…
Reader 2: In the year 4004 BC. (2)
Leader: Nowadays nearly everyone believes that the world is much much older than that. The man who proposed the world was created in 4004 BC was working from the Bible. Since then many new discoveries have changed the way we think and the way we live. And one of those big discoveries is described Charles Darwin’s book ‘The Origin of Species’, first published on Sept. 24 1859.
Leader: So who was Charles Darwin and what did he do?
Reader 1: Charles Darwin has born in 1809 in Shropshire. He was always interested in natural science, and at Cambridge University he spent a lot of his time studying plants, and insects. Then he got the big break that was to change the course of his life – and the world.
Reader 2: A ship belonging to the British Navy, HMS Beagle, was due to visit South America, charting the coastline and making maps, and Charles was offered the post of ‘naturalist’ – an independent travelling scientist. He enjoyed five amazing years sailing round the world, making observations and collecting specimens.
Reader 1: What he saw made him think hard. Shells up in high mountains showed that the land must once have been deep under the sea. He wondered about the remains of strange fossil creatures. How did they relate to animals that are alive in his own day? Clearly the world was much older than many people still thought.
Reader 2: Then there were the living creatures. What was the relationship between the wonderful animals and bird that lived in different parts of the world? Why were there such huge tortoises in the Galapagos Islands? And why did finches on one island have beaks that were slightly longer than those on another? Darwin made notes, but it took him a long time to think of an answer.
Reader 2: In those days most people believed that different species – distinct forms – of birds and animals had been made by God at the creation of the world. You could of course introduce changes within species through careful breeding – producing different kinds of cattle or dogs or horses. Darwin called this ‘artificial selection’. But one species of creature could never develop into another. Or could it?
Reader 1: Darwin noted that most of the countless creatures that were born would lose out in what he came to call the ‘Struggle for Life.’ Was it possible that those giraffes hadn’t always had long necks? What if giraffes with shorter necks had lost out in the struggle for existence and so become extinct? Then, over many many generations, it could be possible for one species to develop into another – and for some of the fossil creatures he’d found to be directly linked with birds, fish and animals that were alive in his day. Darwin argued that these changes took place by adaptation over many generations through what he called ‘natural selection’ This ‘big idea’, which we now call ‘The Theory of Evolution’, was revolutionary when published in 1859.
Leader: So how did the general public react?
Reader 2: When he published ‘The Origin of Species’, Darwin left out one big question. If birds, fish and animals could evolve through natural selection, then what about human beings? What if, instead of being uniquely created by God, men and women had developed from so-called ‘lower creatures’? What if apes and humans, which if you think about it have many similarities, had a common ancestor? This idea seemed to contradict the Bible story of the creation of the first people: Adam and Eve. Some Christians, who take this story literally, still find it hard to accept that the theory of evolution can apply to people as well as to animals.
Others see the story of Adam and Eve as a parable – a simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson. They believe that that evolution and religion could co-exist – that a ‘creator’ could have made and developed life by means of evolution. Darwin never said that his theory meant that there was no God. So you do not have to be an atheist to accept the theory of evolution.
Some people found other reasons to be worried with his book. Darwin had spoken of ‘favoured races’ and used the expression ‘the survival of the fittest’. (3) Did this mean that ‘unfit’ parents should be prevented from having children? Could ‘lower’ races of people be neglected or even exterminated? Such questions were hotly debated in and after Darwin’ day – but we mustn’t blame him for the fact that some people have tried to twist the meaning of his theory.
Leader: And what did Darwin’s fellow scientists make of his ideas?
Reader 1: Not all scientists were convinced at the time, because there were gaps in his argument. Why, for example, were some giraffes born with slightly shorter necks? After Darwin’s time, the study of heredity helped to explain how such variations could come about. And in the twentieth century, the new science of genetics – with its discovery of DNA – has shown us why we share many characteristic which we can pass on to our children, and this knowledge means that we are all going to benefit from better medical treatment which would never have been possible without Darwin’s discoveries.
Leader: No doubt about it: the theory of evolution has changed the way we live and what we believe. But how does it relate to faith in God? Please think about this question as we listen – first to a passage from the end of Darwin’s book, and then to a prayer from the book of Psalms in the Bible.
Reader 1: ‘It is interesting to (look at) an entangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with curious insects flitting about and with worms crawling through the damp earth and to reflect that all these…forms, so different from each other and dependent on each other… have been produced by Natural Selection… There is grandeur in this view of life…From so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful have been and are being evolved.’ (4)
Reader 2: O Lord, our Lord,your greatness is seen in all the world!When I look at the sky, which you have made,at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places what are human beings, that you think of them?Yet you made them inferior only to yourself;you crowned them with glory and honour.You placed them over all creation:sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too;the birds and the fishand the creatures in the seas.O Lord, our Lord,your greatness is seen in all the world!
1) ‘The Origin of Species’ is available online at www.talkorigins.org/faqs/origin2) This date was calculated by Archbisshop James Ussher (1581-1656) and printed in many Bibles. (See, e.g. The Pelican History of the Church: Vol. 3, ‘The Reformation’ by Owen Chadwick, p.225). This view had been almost completely abandoned by 1997. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ussher_chronology) 3) ‘The Origin of Species’, ch.34) ‘The Origin of Species, end of chapter 14, abridged.
5) From Psalm 8 (Good News Bible translation.
This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009
About the author: John Coutts has worked as secondary school principal in Nigeria, taught RE in Scotland, and has been involved in teaching and teacher training at the University of Greenwich. He currently works as a freelance writer, poet and performer.