Happy Birthday Darwin!

In case, you weren’t yet aware, you’re currently caught in a year for scientific giddiness. A year where a collective hurrah can be heard from those who make it their business to hypothesize, analyze, and formulize. 2009 is the year of Darwin. It’s a double whammy – his 200th birthday, and also the 150th anniversary of the publishing of the “On the Origin of Species.” Both celebratory events because, if you remember, Darwin is the dude that said we were descended from apes, themselves descended from this and that creature, and so on, and so on – all in a game of biological choose or lose that whilst demonstrating the elegance of science, also clearly stuck it to the word of God. Seriously folks, some of the church goers are, as the unholy might say, pissed.

So it’s a sort of comeback year for Darwin with friends and enemies alike – much like the recent Britney Spears’ comeback year. You see, Darwin was always big, always relevant, always a guilty pleasure that drew people in – but here we go, right now, with the onslaught of news, the barrage of events, the never ending gossip, all converging to a point that begets a sensory overload, a prelude to a spiral of unwanted bad publicity.

So what to do? How can Darwin and his aficionados navigate these PR potholes? How can Darwin avoid a proverbial shark jumping? Well, lucky for him, I’ve taken the time to carefully study the cultural pulse – I’ve done this by reading reams of text from People magazine, watched hours of lip service from Entertainment Tonight, and submitted myself to near obsessive browsing of the Perez Hilton vaults. And from this careful analysis, I present here a few things that Darwin lovers must, at all costs, avoid. Too much is at stake here people – this is no less than the “year of science.” Let’s not screw it up by over exposing our most dear icon.

To begin with, we must spurn the lure of exploitive prime time television cameos. Sure, there is money to be made here – television executives are likely salivating at the idea of Chucky D. making subtle appearances such as the “man in need of a haircut” during an episode of Gossip Girls, or cued in as “yet another confusing clue” in a Lost subplot. It might even be viewed as an opportunity if Darwin were to make the ranks as one of Barbara Walter’s most fascinating persons of the year. But Gossip Girls people! Is there no shame? And can you imagine the poor naturalist’s head tackling a question such as “if you were a tree what tree would you be?” I suppose the only exception to this piece of advice, is the prospect of being a contestant on Survivor: that is if it were to be shot on the Galápagos Islands, and only if he is careful not to be the first voted off.

Here’s another one: do not entertain, under any circumstances, a new line of Darwin fashion accessories. You may think that there is an obvious natural products angle, and you might even be cool with the selling of items like organic cotton neckties or stylish feces beads. However, it’s a slippery slope between those kinds of respectable products and something like Darwin sanctioned honey flavoured lip gloss. (And FYI – to the scientific academia, nothing says public relations catastrophe like honey flavoured lip gloss).

And what about playing that expert card? Darwin could be synonymous to many a lucrative subject. Don’t get me wrong – a book deal about natural selection makes perfect sense. Maybe even an educational slide show filmed as a documentary and narrated by Al Gore with help from a chorus of finches could work. But do be cautious – the expert angle can get a little unwieldy. You wouldn’t want him to over capitalize on free holiday cruises, moonlighting as an authority on nature and boats. The Love Boat imagery alone would attract ridicule. As well, disturbing word on the street has it that Darwin may be the next Dog Whisperer type. Apparently the memos circulating have all said something to the effect of, “Didn’t he sail on a boat called the Beagle? Isn’t a beagle a dog of some sort?” But ask yourself, how could this possibly look good to the cause of science? Also, “dog” spelled backwards is “god”, and the last thing we need is another rhetorical bullet for the creationists to fire.

Finally, please try to refrain from working the imagery of Charles Darwin into the end of year Yuletide festivities. I know this will be difficult. I am the first to admit that he would be the perfect hire for that Santa at your local mall. He’s got the beard, he’s amicable, he likes animals, he doesn’t drink, and did we mention the stylish feces beads that could be given in lieu of candy canes? But it just wouldn’t work – talking biology is not the same as going “ho ho ho!” Really now, the children will only be disappointed. In fact, I’m pretty sure that a mere mention of the word “invertebrate” might even bring some of them to tears. Besides, sooner or later, Darwin would have words about that Rudolph character. What’s up with the flying deer anyway: and can anyone think of a biologically sound explanation for that glowing nose. In any event, that debate could get ugly. And a wrestling match between Darwin and Santa Claus? Talk about classic jumping the shark.

(A final edit of this, looking quite different, appears at McSweeney’s)