[ artreviews - december 05 ]
At a time when many are disputing the theory of evolution, the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with four other institutions has put together the most in-depth exhibition on Charles Darwin.
Darwin, which opened to the public on 19 November, is more than an amusing tour of the famed naturalist’s objects and manuscripts, but a physical and mental journey of a man’s life. Visitors of this exhibition retrace Darwin’s footsteps from his youth all the way to the publication of The Origin of Species and his death in 1882. Darwin’s observations become those of the visitors and many, like myself, begin to develop the theory of evolution all on their own, as if for the first time.
When Darwin began his studies in the early 1800s, the common belief was that humans were the pinnacle of God’s creation and that species had not changed since the day they were made. But Darwin, a creationist himself, kept an open-mind and didn’t let his beliefs blind him to what he saw. With little interest in formal studies, Darwin spent most of his time outdoors observing nature. He used simple tools like a magnifying glass for observations and allowed nature to come to him, an idea that is presented throughout the exhibition. He collected plants, animals, and rocks, some of which are displayed.
Instead of spending his time learning Latin, Darwin collected beetles and chipped away at rocks, “for every verse [of Latin] was forgotten in 48 hours.”. Darwin’s father was a physician and much to his despair, his son squirmed at the sight of blood and ran from a surgery once after watching a child being operated on without anesthesia. ”You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family,” his father told him.
Darwin abandoned the path of medicine and became skilled in natural history at the University of Cambridge. Having decided to become a clergyman, the young university graduate’s life changed when he was invited to join the HMS Beagle on its second survey voyage as the ship’s naturalist in 1831.
Darwin was gone for five years, traveling around the world to such far off places as South America and New Zealand. Among the things he took with him were a bible, a small club to fend off robbers and a one shot pistol. He was amazed to see marsupials and wondered why there existed different mammals on the same continent. On the Galápagos, he found birds, plants, and tortoises with variations unique to the island but mysteriously related to the mainland. He saw the Galápagos penguin and noticed that they were modified versions of a species from distant lands.
Darwin wondered how living species were connected to extinct ones, to similar ones, and to those isolated on islands. He asked himself why so many species had become extinct only to be replaced by other similar species. If mountains could change over millions of years, could the same be true of species? This was the beginning of Darwin’s internal journey.
For the five years following the end of his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin struggled to develop his ideas about evolution in London. His notebooks contain the first definitive statements about transmutation, now known as evolution. He corresponded with colleagues about the specimens he brought back from his journey, such as a featured fossil skull of a large hoofed animal.
Darwin also grappled with the idea of marriage. In a list that he wrote to decide whether he should marry or not, he noted that a “wife would be good for home, old age, charms of music and female chit-chat, things good for one’s health but a terrible loss of time.” At the bottom of the list he penned, “marry, marry, marry”.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Darwin, along with his first cousin-turned-wife Emma Wedgwood, and their children spent the rest of his years at Down House. In the British countryside he worked on the scientific theories that culminated in his famous publication. It was during those years that Darwin read the Essay on Population, in which economist Thomas Malthus noted that people produced more offspring than could be supported by nature and the lack of food supply would consume some. The idea of competition in nature is found in Darwin’s D notebook.
Two live large Galápagos tortoises, a large green iguana, and horned frogs from South America featured in the exhibition link the visitors to some of the marvels of Darwin’s journey. His collection of notebooks, correspondence, his children’s drawings, and his personal copy of the bible connect us to struggles of Darwin the man and the scientist.
Visitors can take a virtual tour along the Sandwalk, a video presentation of Darwin’s walking and thinking path, which he circled for 40 years. His wooden walking stick, carved to resemble the stem of a twining plant, leans on a chair next to his worktable in a reconstruction of Darwin’s study.
The exhibition ends with stunning hanging orchids, plants that Darwin adored and whose pollination processes he studied. Naturally, Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes was selected to narrate the last passage of Darwin’s great work as visitors read on the wall of the orchid room: “There’s a grandeur in this view of life, [..] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Darwin, filled with wonder and awe, is a must-see scientific odyssey and a testament to the fact that all theories are not created equal. Darwin’s grand vistas cannot be based in anything other than the best scientific traditions of observation, experimentation, and formulation of theories. One cannot help but to notice the sharp contrast of a theory based in knowledge against ideas rooted in prejudice or blind following.
The exhibition will be on display at the American Museum of Natural History until 29 May, 2006, before traveling to the Museum of Science in Boston, The Field Museum of Chicago, the Royal Ontario Museum, and ends appropriately at the Natural History Museum in London in time for the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday.