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campus scene


Down and dirty, yet cosmic
Prof. Kyle Nichols, landscape scientist
Art and design that jumps of the page Fox-Adler Lecturer Barry Moser
Teaching is a gift, in more ways than one David Porter takes new Tisch Professorship
Bringing the constitution into the classroom Prof. Beau Breslin wins teaching prize
Autumn greening North Woods and other eco-projects
Hispanic heritage Author Junot Diaz keynotes Raices observance
Tracing Darwinian disquietude Phi Beta Kappa talk on evolution in pop history  
Campus opens up for big weekend Celebration Weekend welcomes families and alumni    
Sportswrap Fall sports highlights


Tracing Darwinian disquietude

A “Darwin industry” took root soon after the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, and it’s still going strong, according to distinguished science historian Betty Smocovitis. Not only has the father of evolutionary theory been praised and panned in some seventy biographies; he’s been the center of cartoons, ads, and comic songs. With 2009 marking his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of Origin, Skidmore invited Smocovitis as its Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar this fall. A professor of history and zoology at the Uni­versity of Florida, she met with Skidmore classes and gave a public lecture on Darwinian references in popular music.

Darwin’s theory rocked the scientific world; because it was so widely popularized, it also rattled the mindsets of laypeople. Its blurring of the line be­tween animal and human and its nonconformity with Biblical timelines and Creation stories were “profoundly disquieting” for many people, Smocovitis said. Discussing some examples—and playing vintage recordings—of parlor songs about Darwinism, she argued that their silliness and satire subverted the authority of the ideas and may have relieved people’s anxiety about them. Challenging Darwin’s challenge to long-held religious (and often racist) assumptions, sheet music and early gramophone records popularized songs like “You Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me” and “In Darkest Africa.” (Click here for the link to an audio clip.)

Over the years, of course, people have grown more comfortable with the implications of evolution. Still, Smocovitis recounted how the University of Chi­cago’s academic symposium for the 1959 Year of Darwin made headlines with its musical-comedy production Time Will Tell. And she cited this year’s touring performance by anthropologist Richard Milner in Darwin Live and in Concert, featuring songs like “When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish.” Perhaps homo sapiens will take awhile to evolve beyond its last vestige of ambivalence? —SR