General Information:

Q: What is One Book One Northwestern?
A: The One Book One Northwestern project is a community wide reading program hosted by the Office of the President at Northwestern University (read President Bienen's letter here). It is modelled after the successful Seattle Reads program developed by the Seattle Public Library in 1998. It aims to bring together individuals with different backgrounds to share and discuss a common topic.

Q: What is this year's book?
A: To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday (February 12th) and the 150th anniversary of his famous study, On the Origin of Species, this year’s book is David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

Q: What type of events are part of One Book One Northwestern?
A:  A central theme of One Book One Northwestern is creating a common conversation across the campus. Not only can you read the book, but the program involves numerous events (movies, lectures, discussions, arts shows, etc …) that provide an opportunity for individuals to gather and discuss Darwin, evolution, society, and religion. To learn more about all the opportunities, visit the Calendar of events.

Q: Who participates?
A:  Everyone! Many of the program’s events are open to the public. You can find a copy of the book at most bookstores or online, and the President’s Office provides a free copy of the book to all incoming Northwestern undergraduate students. Throughout the year there will be updates to the website and information, including regular Essays written by Northwestern faculty.

Q:  Aren't evolution and Darwin topics only biologists talk about?
A:  Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection as the mechanism for evolution revolutionized not just biology, but how we understand life – not just human, but all life. It is the cornerstone of modern-day biology, and doctors and public health scientists employ it to predict changes in diseases. It also helps us understand where we came from, and where we (as humans) are going. It has impacted art, religion, and politics, and most everyone has heard of Charles Darwin at some point. It is indeed, one thing we can all come together to discuss.

Q:  What are some other One Book One Northwestern books?
A:  Northwestern’s One Book program started as a Weinberg College of Arts and Science program, with all entering new students in the college receiving copies of Antigone in 2005. A year later the college selected Othello. Last year was the first time the program went campus wide to include all Northwestern schools, with Go Tell it on the Mountain.

Q:  What will next year's One Book One Northwestern book be?
A:  Good question!

Darwin, Evolution, and Science

Q: Who was Darwin?
A:  Charles Darwin was a biologist and is most famous for his work on evolution and Natural Selection. You can learn more about Darwin in our About Darwin essay.

Q: What is evolution and how did Darwin come up with it?
A:  The concept of "Biological Evolution" refers to average changes in the traits of populations of organisms over time, without regard to cause. Traits that evolve may include general appearance, anatomy, chromosome number or structure, biochemistry, physiology, nucleotide or amino acid sequences, or behavior. Evolution of one sort or another was supported by various biologists prior to Charles Darwin's work, but Darwin provided a workable mechanism (Natural Selection) for Evolution.

Q: What is Natural Selection?
A:  "Natural Selection" is the process through which much of biological evolution is believed to occur. Selection ("Artificial" or "Anthropogenic" if human induced, "Natural" if occurring without human interference) is a process in which some individuals predictably provide (on average) more genes to the next generation than do other individuals in a population, due to genetically-caused versions of traits that they possess. Selection may occur because a trait variant increases life span, or litter size, or mating frequency, or predator avoidance, or foraging efficiency, or any other aspect of an individual's biology that increases its number of surviving offspring (and thus genes) entering the next generation. Darwinian Natural Selection can cause traits to change over time (that is, to evolve) in an adaptive manner.

Q: What are the differences between facts, hypotheses, and theories?
A:  A fact is something that can be proven empirically and shown to be correct. For example, the observed phenomenon of an apple falling from a tree to the ground is a fact. In science, facts can be objectively and verifiably measured.

Hypotheses and theories are statements that describe the relationships among groups of facts. In everyday language the terms hypothesis and theory imply speculation or a guess, but in scientific usage the meaning is nearly the opposite; they express the results of logic, evidence, and understanding.

A hypothesis is a tentative but testable explanation describing the causal relationships among a limited set of facts, otherwise known as observations or data. For example, “All objects with mass attract each other, therefore a small object will be attracted towards a large object,” is a hypothesis about why a small object, the apple, falls toward a large object, the Earth. Good hypotheses provide insight into how they can be tested and proved false as well as be accepted. This is the principle of falsification.

A theory covers a much wider range of conditions than a single hypothesis. A theory may embody several hypotheses and describe a set of interacting relationships among many observations. Theories have been rigorously tested and have withstood much investigation according to the principle of falsification, as is the case with Newton’s Theory of Gravity. When data suggest a theory is in error it is modified or overturned.  Any currently accepted theory is scientists’ current best understanding of nature.

Q:  What is social Darwinism?
A:  Social Darwinism is not a product of evolutionary theory at all. Rather, it has its roots in the economic and political thought of nineteenth-century Western Europe, especially in the earlier work of population theorist Thomas Malthus and political theorist Herbert Spencer, as well as in the eugenic theories of Charles Darwin’s cousin and contemporary Francis Galton. The catch-phrase “survival of the fittest,” often associated with Darwin, was in fact coined by Herbert Spencer. The term "Social Darwinism" was first used in the1860's and '70s by political theorists as they allied their existing thoughts with the new scientific theory proposed by Darwin. Social Darwinism holds that competition (among individuals, groups, societies, or nations) does and should drive human social evolution. In its early forms it embraced unregulated and unconstrained laissez-faire capitalism. In its later forms it argued that in order to gain competitive advantage societies should encourage reproduction by those considered to be the strong, the intelligent, and the healthy, and discourage reproduction by those considered to be the intellectually compromised, the ill, the weak, and by other groups deemed not to reflect the social ideal.  Philosophers criticize Social Darwinism for committing the naturalistic fallacy (the idea that what "is" in nature implies what "ought" to be in human society). Political and social theorists charge Social Darwinism with promoting unjust, violent social movements, including racism, colonialism, eugenics, and Nazism, among others.

Darwin himself was opposed to the idea that human society should or could be improved by selective breeding. Admitting that the vaccinations for diseases such as smallpox that save the lives of the physically weak are “highly injurious to the race of man” in one sense, he nonetheless insisted that the sympathy that inspires us to care for the ill is of greater importance to humanity than mere physical perfection: “Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”** Darwin also considered how sympathy and the desire to care for others could evolve.

**Darwin, C.R. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. 2nd ed. rev. London: John Muray 1882, 134.

Religion and Society:

Q:  Does evolution deny God or religion?
A:  Evolution makes no reference to the existence of God, since it addresses how organisms change over time and not why. It also makes no statements about the value of any person’s religious belief, nor whether science and religion can (or should) coexist. Evolution and Natural Selection describe how populations and species change over time, and how individuals in those populations are better adapted to the environmental conditions for survival and reproduction.

Q:  What is creationism?
A:  Broadly defined, creationism is the belief that God or the gods created the universe. Most theistic religious traditions embrace some form of this claim.

Creationists, narrowly defined, hold the additional belief that God created animal and plant species and human beings just as they are today. Hence, strict creationists argue against evolution. Young Earth creationists add that the story of creation told in the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible is a literal account of creation and that the age of the earth can be calculated from dates and time spans given in the Hebrew Bible.

Consequently, strict creationists are wary of the conclusions of evolutionary biology and paleontology.

Q:  What is Intelligent Design?
A:   Intelligent Design (ID) is a form of creationism. It embraces the theory of evolution of living organisms, and it holds that an intelligent, purposeful, conscious being planned or permitted this process as a means of creation. Adherents of many religious traditions would agree with ID on these points, and they might even cite the complexity of organisms as inspiration for their beliefs.

However, ID makes an additional claim that the existence of an intelligent designer can be proven scientifically. Thus, ID parts company with religious traditions that hold that belief in the existence of a god of evolution is a matter of faith and not of a scientific proof. It also parts company with scientists who argue that there is no experiment or test that could prove the existence of an intelligent designer.

On one hand ID embraces a form of evolutionary theory and accepts a kind of scientific method. But on the other, it disagrees fundamentally with most scientists and most religionists about the purposes and limits of scientific inquiry.

ID arose in response to the 1987 Supreme Court Ruling, Edwards v. Aguillard, which declared that the teaching of “biblical creationism” as science in the schools violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The term was first published in 1989 in the high-school biology textbook, Of Pandas and People, in order to avoid specifying the nature or identity of a designer. The Discovery Institute, a non-profit educational foundation, has promoted ID actively in recent years.