Darwin on Display
Darwin. An exhibition at the American Museum of Natural
History, November 19, 2005, through May 29, 2006. Curated by Niles Eldredge
Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life. Niles Eldredge. xvi +
256 pp. W. W. Norton, 2005. $35.
As I made my way to the American Museum of Natural History to see
the new Darwin exhibition there, I confess I was uneasy. Would the
display play into stereotypes about Great Men of Science? Would it
focus too exclusively on the crosscurrents of 19th-century science?
Devolve into figure cult, implying that we can gain genius simply by
gazing at Darwin's personal objects and buying a replica of his
walking stick afterward?
I need not have worried. The curator, Niles Eldredge, has brought
both his intense affection for Darwin and his keen knowledge of
evolutionary biology to bear. Eldredge, together with the late
Stephen Jay Gould (my former graduate adviser), originated the
theory of punctuated equilibrium. Informed by his own deep
involvement in one of the most interesting debates in contemporary
evolutionary theory, Eldredge has an insider's perspective on Darwin
and his contributions. Both the exhibition and Eldredge's companion
volume, Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life, provide new
insights into Darwin and the revolution he brought about.
The exhibition assiduously avoids caricature; we see a Darwin who
both influenced and was influenced by Victorian society. A
surprisingly three-dimensional figure emerges, his life full of
foreshadowings and contradictions. We see his passion for the
natural world, evidenced by his energetic beetle hunting as a child,
transform into the collecting of crucial specimens on the voyage of
the Beagle. The analytic and rhetorical skills that served
Darwin so well in his scientific life show up early in unexpected
contexts. In a disarming letter to his father, for example, the
young Darwin anticipates his parents' objections to his undertaking
a multiyear voyage as the Beagle's unpaid naturalist. In
response to that preemptive missive, his father eventually relents.
Twenty-nine years later, Darwin uses the same
approach—blunting objections by anticipating them—in
"Difficulties on Theory," Chapter VI of On the Origin
of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
We are also treated to Darwin's early attempts to reason his way
through the world, tackling even the subject of marriage
analytically. Two pages of his journal that are on display list
arguments for marriage (children, companionship) and against it
(less money for books, loss of freedom to go where one likes, being
forced to visit relatives). His conclusion, on balance:
"Marry—Marry. Marry Q.E.D." This same methodical,
reasoning temperament later enables Darwin to coalesce seemingly
disparate observations into a coherent theory of organic change.
Contrary to the stereotype of the dispassionate scientist, however,
Darwin was a man to whom family and friends mattered profoundly, and
many poignant objects in the exhibition remind us of his humanity.
On the back of a rare manuscript page of the Origin, we
find a drawing, "The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable
Soldiers," by Darwin's young son Francis. Also on display is a
keepsake box that holds the belongings of Darwin's daughter Annie.
Her death at the age of 10 shattered his tenuous connection to
Anglican beliefs. His wife, Emma, worried that his religious
skepticism and commitment to material explanation would separate
them in the afterlife. In the margins of the letter in which she
voiced this anxiety, Darwin wrote, "When I am dead, know that
many times I have kissed and cryed over this." He loved Emma
dearly and relied on her. Despite their fundamentally different
perspectives on the existence of God, he entrusted her, in the event
of his death, with the publication of the groundbreaking 1844 essay
in which he first laid out the elements of his theory.
Friends and colleagues, too, were of utmost importance to Darwin.
Much has been made of his apparent reclusive nature. Historians have
often interpreted his move away from London a mere five years after
returning from the Beagle voyage as some sort of withdrawal
from society. But as the exhibition emphasizes, Darwin remained
deeply engaged with the intellectual life of London, Cambridge and
the Continent. Prior to the voyage—and with a vengeance upon
his return—he stayed in constant contact with major figures in
the scientific establishment, seeking their counsel, support and patronage.
These contacts served Darwin well throughout his life, most
dramatically in the resolution of the potential disaster that was
precipitated in June 1858 when he received from Alfred Russel
Wallace a manuscript in which Wallace outlined a theory of
natural selection. Against the advice of his colleagues, Darwin had
delayed publication of his ideas for two decades, and now Wallace,
who had converged on a very similar mechanism of evolution, appeared
to be about to scoop him. Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell,
influential and established scientists, arranged for the unpublished
1844 essay by Darwin to be presented, together with Wallace's
article, before the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858.
Born into a comfortably wealthy family, married to his cousin from
the even wealthier Wedgwood branch, Darwin was well positioned
within the class structure of 19th-century Britain. He grew up
surrounded by a large and engaged family of freethinkers and as an
adult had servants and allowances to support him in leading a life
of reflection, investigation and self-discovery.
Darwin's acceptance at age 19 to the University of Cambridge, where
his father expected him to train for the clergy, was virtually a
foregone conclusion. There he befriended distinguished older
scientists and ambitious young gentlemen. His grandfather, Erasmus
Darwin, was a well-known and influential early evolutionist whose
name opened doors for Charles. Young Darwin was enmeshed in an
intricate web of relationships that assisted gentlemen of means who
were seeking to make names for themselves. Moreover, for the first
time he was engaged in pursuits that captured his imagination. His
affection for shooting and for collecting was being transformed into
the study of diversity, his penchant for speculation into a passion
for philosophical debate.
Darwin's earnest energy and open character did not go unnoticed by
his professors. It was a recommendation from one of them, his mentor
John Stevens Henslow, that secured an invitation for Darwin to sail
on the Beagle as an unpaid dining companion to the priggish
Captain FitzRoy. And Darwin's father eventually agreed to support
his 22-year-old son for the duration of the voyage (which ended up
lasting five years), forever altering the history of biology.
Like many Victorians, Darwin was a compulsive writer. His written
legacy includes, in addition to his enormously influential books,
more than 15,000 letters. He also left behind a series of notebooks
in which, beginning in 1836, while still aboard the Beagle,
he recorded—with remarkable candor and abominable
handwriting—most of his scientific ideas. Although the sheer
volume of these writings is daunting, what they reveal about
Darwin's thought processes makes us lucky to have them. (Much of
this material is now available online at http://darwinlibrary.amnh.org/ and at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Departments/Darwin/).
As Eldredge makes clear, both in the exhibition and especially in
the superb companion volume, Darwin was uncannily conscious of the
way he reasoned. That intellectual self-awareness, coupled with his
graphomania, bequeaths to us the genesis of the single most
influential scientific theory in contemporary Western culture. From
Darwin's earliest flirtations with the notion that species might not
be immutable, through the manuscript of his last book, The
Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with
Observations on Their Habits, we witness a powerful mind at work.
The deciphering of the notebooks and letters has been an exquisite
labor for many distinguished scholars over the past century, and a
great deal of effort has been expended on reconstructing the
chronology of these writings in search of key junctures and
influential events. A whole intellectual cottage industry has sprung
up to interpret Darwin's writings, to probe his psyche and to
explain many curious aspects of his life (most notably why he waited
more than 20 years to publish his ideas on evolution and natural selection).
Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life is a provocative
contribution to Darwin scholarship. In it, Eldredge makes a
compelling case that Darwin boarded the Beagle a
traditional creationist and disembarked a committed materialist.
Eldredge also traces the philosophical transformation that
metamorphosed Darwin the methodical observer/experimentalist into
Darwin the model of a modern major scientist. Both the exhibition
and the companion book trace the emergence in the early notebooks of
a set of interconnected general hypotheses: that all life arises
from a single ancestor, that all species are mutable, that
geographic and temporal changes in species composition are driven by
a shared mechanism. One illustration in Darwin's 1837 Notebook B
electrifies: We see a genealogical network connecting living and
extinct species, illustrating common ancestry, descent and
diversification; above it are the words "I think." Darwin
had arrived at the seeds of the theory that would transform the way
we see the world.
His genius lay not, as heroic reconstruction would have it, in his
ability to observe the natural world without preconceptions. Rather,
Darwin's ability to discern the incompatibility of existing theories
of organic change with the observations he was compiling led to the
breakthrough. Once the new theory of organic change began to take
shape in his mind—descent with modification through the action
of natural selection—the natural world became one vast testing
ground. This exhibit is intellectual history at its most thrilling,
as we witness Darwin, with his deceptively simple new theory, make a
whole set of predictions about the living world. Equally exciting is
Darwin's revisiting of well-established observations in
paleontology, embryology, comparative anatomy and biogeography, now
seen afresh in light of his growing confidence in his theory.
The notebooks, letters and edited manuscripts on display reveal
Darwin's many moods. His tentative early speculations yield to his
increasing realization that evolution by natural selection accounts
elegantly for observations in a range of disciplines. His anxiety
about revealing his theory to the outside world ("It's like
confessing a murder," he would write to his friend Joseph
Hooker) fades as he resolves to bring all of the history of
life—including the origin of Homo sapiens—under
the umbrella of evolutionary thinking. Today, Darwin's published
works stand as a powerful testimony to a towering intellect.
Every object in the American Museum of Natural History, not just the
items in this exhibit, bespeaks the influence of Darwin's ideas. We
can no longer imagine a world without Darwin, and this exhibition,
by giving us the chance to see a visionary idea in the making, helps
us understand why.
[Editor's note: The exhibition, which can be sampled
online at http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/,
will travel after it closes in New York in May 2006 to the
Museum of Science in Boston, The Field Museum in Chicago, the
Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Natural History Museum
in London, arriving in England on the 200th anniversary of
Darwin's birth in 2009.]