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Wendy Reuer, Published February 12 2014

NDSU professor speaks about evolution during 'Darwin Day' presentation

FARGO – It’s good news for evolutionists, bad news for polar bears.

On Wednesday – what would have been Charles Darwin’s 205th birthday – North Dakota State University professor Allan Ashworth said he believes the father of evolutionary theory likely would be pleased with today’s science and theories.

But Darwin likely would be sad that his theories prove that trouble is on the horizon for the polar bear, a relatively young species that evolved into a cold weather survivor, Ashworth said.

If global warming continues and polar bears lose more of their icy homeland and their food source in seals, which also suffer from the loss of sea ice, the polar bear could one day become extinct, he said.

Ashworth is a distinguished professor of geosciences who focuses on paleoecology, stratigraphy and sedimentology at NDSU, one of a handful of universities across the nation that hosts an official nod to Darwin with celebratory events known as “Darwin Day.”

While Ashworth supports Darwin’s theories, he said it was actually more of a push by the school’s biology program that made Darwin Days a popular event at NDSU.

Speaking as part of an adult learning series at the downtown Fargo Public Library, Ashworth said the fossil remains of several species show how they likely adapted and eventually became extinct over the years.

Ashworth touched lightly on Darwin the man but focused more on what scientists have found when they study the fossils of mammals that became extinct shortly after the last ice age, such as the ground sloth and woolly mammoths. He talked about their body adaptations and their movements.

“Biogeography was one of (Darwin’s) really great interests,” Ashworth said.

He said Darwin would have applied his logic to finding answers to how the animals survived and adapted, and why they became extinct.

Lori West, branch services manager of the Fargo Public Library, said the event was hosted in partnership with NDSU for the second year in a row. The events are popular; about 40 turned out Wednesday night to hear Ashworth speak.

His talk comes after a much-hyped creationism versus evolution debate on Feb. 4 between Bill Nye (The Science Guy) and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.

Fresh off a trip to Burma, Ashworth said he has not yet seen the debate but is interested to watch it soon.

While no creationists protested his talk Wednesday, Ashworth said he has always had some students in his classes who believe the world was made by a higher power.

“I was never able to convince them,” he said. Ashworth said he still has books and movies creationists have given him.

“I was curious to know what the arguments would be,” Ashworth said. “But they never amounted to anything.”

Darwin’s wife, Emma, was a devout Christian, Ashworth said.

“He would have understood the dichotomy with religion,” Ashworth said.

A second event for younger Darwin fans – “Darwin’s Cabinet of Curiosities” – is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the downtown Fargo library.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530