[Charles Darwin]

The Darwin's Day

Phylum Feast

is a shared

potluck meal

composed of

as many taxa

as possible,

celebrated by

naturalists on

Charles Darwin's


12 February,

to commemorate

the relatedness

of all organisms.

Bishops Mills Natural History Centre

back to BMNHC Phylum Feast announcement

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While there's been widespread dispute about a February holiday in Canada, many naturalists around the world have independently come upon the idea of celebrating Darwin's birthday (12 February), which is appropriately done with a meal made up of as many kinds of organisms as possible. Most of our day-to-day food comes from a small number of domesticated Vertebrates and Grasses, but by seeking out and identifying the diverse biotic sources of our diet in this meal, we remember our origin as omnivores, and our relatedness to other lineages.

We first heard the term "Phylum Feast" as a celebration at the end of Malcolm Telford's Invertebrate Zoology course at the University of Toronto in 1972, and memorably participated in such a feast at the end of the U of T Marine Biology course at Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, in 1974 (Prof. Telford briefly recounted the previous history of the Phylum Feast at an English university, but we unfortunately don't remember any of these details). We first marked Darwin's Day with a Phylum Feast on Haida Gwaii in 1989, with a meal that included salvaged Minke Whale meat, smoked Turkey slices, pickled Herring, Soft-shell Clams, commercial escargot, shrimp, & Ostrich Fern fiddleheads, Onions, Rice, Pecans, and Spinach:

12 February 1989. Spruce (=MacMillan) Point, Queen Charlotte City, Queen Charlotte Land District, B.C. UTM Grid 8U PQ 939 042

In the morning Jennie and I went to the mouth of the Honna River to dig the clams. We walked for a considerable distance through soft mud (Jennie once loosing her boot), following the tracks of a Procyon that we at first took to be a Lutra because it had galloped the whole way through the mud - perhaps 150 m. The clams were in a high bar right at the mouth of the river, where the substrate was firm sand and sandy gravel. At suppertime we had Rose over for a Phylum Feast for Darwins Birthday:

Mammalia: Minke Whale meat
Aves: Smoked Turkey slices
Teleostoma: Pickled Herring
Bivalvia: Mya from mouth of the Honna River
Gastropoda: commercial escargot
Malacostraca: commercial shrimp
Pteridophyta: commercial fern fiddleheads
Monocots: Onions, rice
Dicots: Pecans, spinach
Fungi: commercial Agaricus
bacteria: villi (Finnish Longmilk)

The first event held at the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum's barren quarters in Raina's basement in Kemptville, Ontario, was a Darwin's Day Potluck Phylum Feast, on 11 February 1999, repeated every year since. These potlucks turned out to be largely vegetarian, with a great variety of families of Plants, but few Fungi or Animals. Each dish was labelled with the names of the species that had gone into it, and an overall list was compiled at the end.

But was Darwin a phylum feaster? Certainly in 'The Voyage of the Beagle' he contentedly chews his way through whatever his companions are eating, including Mountain Lion Felis concolor and Galapagos Land Iguana Conolophus subcristatus.

In the biography published by his great-grandson Richard Keynes (Fossils, Finches and Fuegians: Charles Darwin's Adventures and Discoveries on the Beagle, 1832-1836, Harper Collins, 428 pp), we learn that in his youth, at least, Darwin actively sought out dietary diversity. While at Cambridge, he was part of "the 'Glutton' or 'Gourmet' Club at which they... consumed a range of animals that did not usually appear on the menu" (p. 11). Francis Darwin, in comments on his father's letters, writes: an "old member of the club tells me that the name arose because the members were given to making experiments on 'birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate.' He says that hawk and bittern were tried, and that their zeal broke down over an old brown owl, 'which was indescribable'"

In his later years Darwin's diet was constrained by his stomach troubles, but we can be confident that our culinary celebration of biodiversity follows the path of his enthusiasm for life.

A search on "darwin's birthday' turns up hundreds of sites, though all we've looked at feature "Cake & refreshments" rather than a Phylum Feast. A few links include: University of Toronto Department of Zoology where prizes are awarded for the, shall we say, maximally apomorphic costumes, and lectures are presented at the Centre for Ecology and Evolution at the University College London and Institute of Zoology/Natural History Museum in London. There's a at worldwide registry of Darwin's Day events sponsored by the Darwin Day Program, a non-profit organization participating in educational and social outreach on topics found within the evolutionary sciences and related disciplines.

...and you can't have a celebration without a song, appropriately cast, in this case, as an hypothesis:


(To the tune of Stan Rogers' I Took Back my Hand.' F.W. Schueler, Hecate Strait to Westbank to Chiliwack Lake, BC. June 1989

Father of theories, Husband of the World,
Barnacle Master, the lord of the Worms,
Stretched out on the White Goddess' altar he lay,
Orchid-mad, twining like plants.

Wonder of wonders, no longer sublime,
Each thing for itself he perceived in its place
Winnowed by chance throughout infinite time,
Each Beetle, each Sundew, each race.

Father of fathers, the first in all Time:
Husband of Emma, the first one to know
Why your children are precious, why parents combine
Their lives so that families grow.

Father of knowledge, Odysseus knew
No more of the Goddess' girdle than you,
Who saw her plates hinted by Andean shells,
Crowned islands that sink in the sea.

With Malthus and Pigeons and Galapagos Finch
A story you told that would throw down the gods,
A thousand times sterner than Abraham's test,
It stood as the cause of the World.

Blind as the watchmaker, cruel as the spring,
The Truth is the stories that offer to die,
For the monkey-bred brain can do no more than this,
Than to know when its tales go awry.

Father of Life, and the Husband of Death, All of the others have died for our birth,
Ghosts of their genes and the flesh of their flesh,
Selection has ordered the Earth:
Orchid-mad, twining like plants.

a letter read on CBC Radio I, As It Happens, February 1998:

Subject: February Natural Heritage Holiday

Dear As it Happens,

It's a fine idea to have a February holiday celebrating our natural heritage, but why tie it to the Woodchuck when the holiday which celebrates biodiversity and our relatedness to all other living species already falls 10 days later? Charles Darwin's birthday, the 12th of February, is widely celebrated among naturalists as their yearly biodiversity holiday. The day is marked by the Phylum Feast, a meal in which the celebrants consume foods made from as wide a variety of organisms as possible.

fred schueler.

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