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CFI/Los Angeles Celebrates Darwin’s 200th Birthday with Readings, Plays, Lecture

News & Comment

Jim Underdown and Bob Ladendorf

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

More than 300 Southern Californians celebrated the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin by crossing the threshold at the Center for Inquiry/Los Angeles and attending three special events, crammed into just a few days, enthusiastically presented by CFI staff, volunteers, and participants.

Before the gatherings at the Steve Allen Theater, CFI/Los Angeles announced Darwin Aloud, an international project collecting video from around the world of people reading from On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s groundbreaking book outlining evolution by natural selection. This planet-wide gesture honoring the father of evolution will be edited into a short film this spring in Hollywood. See for more details.

On Darwin’s birthday (February 12), more than 100 people crowded into a theater-in-the-round for a staged reading from an episode of Meeting of Minds, Steve Allen’s PBS series that brought together famous historical figures. The reading was the companion piece to the episode staged last year involving the same characters.

Five noted television and movie actors played Darwin, Galileo, Emily Dickinson, and Attila the Hun discussing and debating their ideas with moderator Steve Allen. Reprising their characters from last year were Oscar nominee Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as Galileo; Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as Attila, and Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me) as Emily. Portraying Darwin this year was Charles Shaughnessy (The Nanny), and bringing Steve Allen to life was Gary Cole (The West Wing). Directing the episode again was Frank Megna, and it was again co-produced by Diana Ljungaeus and Bob Ladendorf.

Steve Allen’s son Bill attended the performance. Jayne Meadows, Allen’s widow, could not be present but sent a warm note (read by Cole as Steve) praising last year’s production and wishing us the best for this year’s performance. The reading was followed by a champagne toast led by CFI/Los Angeles Executive Director Jim Underdown and a Darwin birthday cake.

The following Sunday morning, author David Contosta spoke to more than 100 attendees at CFI/Los Angeles and in Orange County about his new book on Darwin and Lincoln (born on the same day as Darwin in 1809). Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin (Prometheus Books) was nominated for the Lincoln Prize for the best book about Abraham Lincoln in 2008.

Rounding out the week’s events on Sunday afternoon was a performance of A Dangerous Descent, playwright/biochemist Colin Cox’s Garden-of-Eden clash between Adam, Eve, and Adam’s first wife Lilith (yes, first wife.) The three find a pocket watch and dive into a scorching argument about whether it was intelligently designed or not. Even the primarily CFI-minded audience had to hang on for dear life as the three (fictional) characters blazed through an array of arguments that spanned both centuries and many branches of learning. More than a hundred attended, including the noted actor Michael York.

It was a truly exhilarating week at CFI/Los Angeles honoring the life and ideas of the scientist whose work has withstood the test of time—and creationists.

Jim Underdown and Bob Ladendorf

Jim Underdown is the executive director of CFI/Los Angeles and Bob Ladendorf is its chief operating officer.