October 18, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Party metazoan

I have always found the idea of continuing to celebrate someone’s birthday after they have died a rather strange concept. However, for Charles Darwin I can make an exception. Today is his 202nd birthday and so celebrations are definitely in order. For those of you who live under a rock, Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection, revolutionizing the biological sciences as well as heavily influencing thought in many of the physical sciences. Darwin’s theory competes with Einstein’s theory of relativity for the title of ‘most widely known and important scientific idea of all time’. As it is his birthday we will gloss over the competition (just for today) and say that the theory of evolution through natural selection is the most important scientific idea of all time (I’m sure Albert would understand).

On this day in 1909 (Charlie’s 100th birthday) the first large scale celebration of his birth took place at Cambridge university. 265 scientists and dignitaries from 167 different countries gathered to discuss recent discoveries concerning the Darwin’s theories. He was also honoured by the New York Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of New Zealand, who held banquets in his honour. Since then the number of Darwin-related events occurring on February 12th has gradually been increasing every year. Since 1980, ‘Darwin Festival’ has been the registered trademark of the celebration of choice at Salem State College, Massachusetts. The British Humanist Association remains loyal to their own tribute ‘Darwin Day’ climaxing with an evolutionary-based public lecture.

There are now countless events held on February 12th every year to commemorate the birth of Charles Darwin. In the USA alone he will be thrown more than 750 birthday parties tonight, with many more here in the UK, beating the Queen by at least 748! If your invitation hasn’t yet arrived, do not fear there is a way to join in with the festivities from the comfort of your own living room. Based on the work of the great man himself, having your own Phylum Feast is a perfect way to celebrate. The aim of such a feast is to create a menu with as much biological diversity as possible, and has been a tradition for many academics since the 1970s. Phylum is the term used to taxonomically classify a group of organisms with a certain degree of evolutionary relatedness. We, as Humans, belong to the phylum Chordata along with all other vertebrate mammals. The Phylum feast must therefore be as biologically diverse as possible with as many different phyla as possible being represented on the menu.

It seems a strange way to celebrate, but in fact the inspiration for these feasts arose from Darwin’s own dietary habits. He co-founded ‘The Glutton Club’ where he and his friends would meet for dinner with the sole aim of tasting ‘birds and beasts which were before unknown to the human palate’. ‘The Glutton Club’ was not a long-lasting tradition as an unfortunate incident with a brown-owl put a stop to their exploits.  Years later, during his voyage of discovery aboard the HMS Beagle, as he collected his unusual animal specimens, those that weren’t stuffed and sent back to England would be cooked and enjoyed by Darwin and the crew. The menu was unusually varied for a sailing vessel in the 1830s, including such animals as iguanas, armadillo and mountain lions. Today, these diverse feasts live on.

To give you an idea of what you may be tucking into tonight, here is a sample menu from a Phylum Feast held at the Queen Charlotte Museum in British Columbia in 1989. The taxonomic phyla are also included as we must learn something scientific today:

  • Minke Whale meat (Phylum: Chordata)
  • Smoked Turkey slices (Phylum: Chordata)
  • Pickled Herring (Phylum: Chordata)
  • Clams) from mouth of the Honna River (Phylum: Mollusca)
  • Commercial escargot (Phylum: Mollusca)
  • Commercial shrimp (Phylum: Arthropoda)
  • Fern fiddleheads (Phylum: Pteridophyta)
  • Onions, rice (Phylum: Magnoliophyta)
  • Spinach (Phylum: Magnoliophyta)
  • Mushrooms (Phylum: Ascomycota)
  • Villi (Finnish Longmilk Yoghurt) (Phylum: Firmicutes)

So, good luck with your Phylum feast. The above menu contains 7 different phyla and I have faith that this can be beaten. Unfortunately, I will be celebrating a 21st birthday tonight (not a 202nd) and so will probably be limited to one, maybe even two phyla. However, with enough planning ahead, Darwin’s 203rd birthday could be the year of the most diverse Phylum feast to date. I will probably need some help in organising this. Any volunteers?