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Darwin the man

D. Finnin, American Museum of Natural History

As conflicts about the teaching of evolution and intelligent design swell around the country, it is worth considering what Charles Darwin, the man behind the theory of natural selection, would have thought. Despite the surge of controversy, little is taught in schools about the man himself. Now, a spectacular new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York stands ready to enlighten visitors about the life and times of Darwin—and to suggest to the observant visitor what his reaction to modern interpretations of his work might have been. For a biologist, this exhibit is a real treat. A visitor gets the feeling of walking into a three-dimensional biography of Darwin, a sense made palpable by the fact that the exhibit houses the largest and most complete collection of specimens, artifacts, manuscripts and memorabilia related to Darwin ever assembled.

Darwin was born in 1809 in England into the Wedgwood family, which is famous for its pottery. He was not a particularly good student, and his father once said of him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” He first wanted his son to enter the field of medicine, then the clergy, but young Darwin had his own ideas, and upon receiving an invitation to serve as a naturalist on board the HMS Beagle in 1831, he readily accepted. Thus, Darwin learned much about subjects such as botany, zoology and geology on his own, in the field.

The exhibit begins by describing the worldview of nature before Darwin, how most people believed that humans and other organisms were independently created. It continues by examining his five-year odyssey on the HMS Beagle exploring the South Pacific and South America and the years after, during which he sought the advice of many eminent scientists in analyzing the specimens he collected. In addition, a large amount of space is dedicated to his personal life—his courtship of his wife Emma (including love letters and a humorous pros and cons list about marriage) and life with their ten children at Down House in the English countryside. It was in this house that he spent the last 40 years of his life, and a centerpiece of the exhibit is a meticulous recreation of his study (see photo). In this modest room, he continued to formulate and put to paper his ideas about evolution, but kept them in large part secret for 20 years.

Darwin knew that his theory of evolution would be seen as an attack on the church and told only a few close scientist friends, acknowledging his feeling that “it is like confessing a murder.” In 1858, he was pressured to make his work public when Alfred Wallace independently developed his own theory of natural selection, and in that same year both Darwin and Wallace presented their papers before the Linnaean Society. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and although it did indeed stir up controversy, his theories were well accepted by the scientific community. Perhaps not surprisingly, Darwin never entered the fray directly and instead left the defense of his work to supporters Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. In 1871 he published The Descent of Man, which applies the theory of natural selection to humans, and he died in 1882, buried with honor in Westminster Abbey, in close proximity to Sir Isaac Newton. In the end, he had written over 20 books.

The exhibit does an excellent job of showing how central the theory of natural selection is to a modern understanding of science. It also presents a section entitled “Social Reactions to Darwin,” which discusses the difference between scientific theories and nonscientific explanations about the origin of life. Given the state of scientific education around the country today, this section should give scientists a reason to pause. If Darwin were alive, one wonders whether he would be appalled by or resigned to the strong negative reactions his work continues to evoke, nearly 150 years later, from many in the religious right.

Although the Darwin exhibit is superb and very welcome amid the current educational climate, supporters of teaching true science in schools may well ask how much it is really going to help the cause (see last month's editorial). The Darwin exhibit will be in New York through May 29, and then it will travel to cosponsoring institutions: the Museum of Science in Boston, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Natural History Museum in London. Presumably, each of these cities already has a high concentration of support for teaching evolution in schools. How will the exhibit's message extend further afield? To help with this, the museum's website (http://www.amnh.org) presents much of the information online as well as educational resources for teachers. They are also launching the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution (http://darwinlibrary.amnh.org) to maximize public access to much of the background material for the exhibit. All in all, the curators have many reasons to be proud. If only more people could learn about Darwin and his work in such a magnificent way.

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Darwin the man. Nat Struct Mol Biol 13, 1 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nsmb0106-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nsmb0106-1

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