By Jeremy Biello
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Cleveland State University saw its fourth annual Darwin Day celebration. Held one week after the father of evolution’s birthday, Darwin Day is meant not only as an appreciation of Charles Darwin’s contributions to science, but also as a tool to spread awareness on the topic of biological anthropology.
The event showcased Denise Su, a paleoecological reconstructionist expert from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as its invited speaker. Su began the lecture on the timely significance of Darwin’s findings, followed by an explanation of her work and what it tells us about ourselves.
In 2015, Kathryn Olszowy, an assistant professor of Cleveland State’s anthropology department, started the university’s first Darwin Day. Now, in its fourth year, the event has started to gain serious momentum.
Junior Manny Gomez, who double majors in anthropology and biology, helped organize and spread publicity for the event.
“We’ve gradually been getting more and more people,” Gomez said. “We’re starting to get a group of people coming back each year.”
That group even includes some Cleveland State graduates returning to join in the planning and promotion of Darwin Day. By 11:30 a.m., room 947 of Rhodes Tower was nearly filled with students, professors and curious members of the general public wishing to learn more about where we came from and where we are going.
A majority of students present were either anthropology majors or taking some anthropology classes, where some first got wind of the occasion. Freshman Anna Bratton, however, arrived without a declared major in search of a deciding factor.
“I’m hoping this is going to narrow it down and see if this is really what I want to do with my future,” Bratton said.
Su’s lecture was packed with the kind of insights that can only be found through actually doing the work. It could have been broken into two parts.
The first half consisted of an appreciation of Darwin’s contributions to our conceptualization of the human being. At the time, human beings were still seen as something separate from the animal kingdom — not that some folks in the modern age don’t still think this way.
Through Darwin’s studies, evidence appeared suggesting a long lineage of proto-humans. This new understanding, over many decades, then built the field of study Su chose to promote in the latter half of her talk.
As a paleoecological reconstructionist, Su’s work is centered around the collecting of fossils and their resemblance, essentially like a big organic puzzle. Touching on this topic, she gave interested students a close glimpse of what awaits them in field school.
The presentation included some pictures documenting the six weeks researchers spend in the field collecting data. The images looked something like an overstocked camping trip or a researcher’s commune. Coves of scientists arrive in Land Cruisers filled to capacity with equipment for miles worth of walking and scanning the environment for fossilized bones, leaves and footprints as evidence of what lived around the sights long before us.
The work is long and stressful on the body and mind, but Su assured the group that the most strenuous stuff is saved for students assisting the researchers. Strenuous grunt work like packing, unpacking and cleaning all the supplies after a dig is their first lesson. The long hours in intense climates like Africa and China, where most of Su’s research has taken place, hold extraordinary pay offs, however.
Explanations of our biological origins emerge from findings as small as teeth, which can explain early human diets by their markings and dents.
“It’s really important to understand our origins,” Su expressed. “Because it gives us a road map to understand where we’re going.”
The event closed with a lunch of sandwiches, vegetables and soda chowed down over a conversation on the next step. Su offered more insight to the students in regards to their futures in anthropology and which tracks in graduate school are best to travel.