Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Darwin's big year

This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of the English scientist Charles Darwin, with the world's largest Darwin exhibition coming to rest in London, writes David Tresilian

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Charles Darwin

The English scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin, born 200 years ago in February 1809, published his best-known book, the Origin of Species, 150 years ago in 1859. These twin anniversaries have led to celebrations of Darwin's work across the world this year, not least in Britain where Darwin is especially respected as one of only a handful of British scientists to have attained the kind of international eminence achieved by Sir Isaac Newton some 200 years before.

Darwin's image figures on the reverse side of the British 10-pound note, where the mature scientist appears next to an image of HMS Beagle, the ship that took Darwin as a young man to the Galapagos Islands whose unique fauna piqued his interest in the development of natural species. The note also features an illustration of one of "Darwin's finches". Many varieties of this bird, each with a differently shaped beak, then lived on the islands, and this suggested to Darwin the ways in which the morphological features of an organism could adapt to the environment in which it lived.

This year a commemorative coin is planned in Britain as part of the Darwin anniversary celebrations, but more important than gestures of this kind are the educational and other events being held to raise awareness of Darwin's work. Books on Darwin have been rolling off the presses; a television series has been broadcast; and London's Natural History Museum, an institution dating from Darwin's lifetime and built in the shadow of his work, is currently holding an exhibition entitled "Darwin's Big Idea" that is designed to explain Darwin's work to predominantly younger audiences within the context of an overview of his life and career.

All this amounts to the kind of celebration that Darwin himself would have hated. One of the incidental features of the Natural History Museum's exhibition is its revelation of Darwin's retiring character and the reluctance with which he published his ideas. Even the Origin of Species itself in which Darwin sets outs his famous theory of the evolution of species through the mechanism of natural selection only appeared when it did because Darwin was in danger of seeing his work relegated to second place by a publication by one of his peers.

A famous invalid for much of his adult life, Darwin in later years rarely ventured far from his house in southern England, today converted into a museum. Here he completed his later books, among them works on plant fertilisation, earthworms, the "expression of the emotions in man and animals" and The Descent of Man, which gives his views on the evolution of the human species. The Natural History Museum exhibition includes a reconstruction of Darwin's study, with, among the many other treasures on display, pages from his scientific notebooks, copies of his books, and private letters and diaries.

While Darwin perhaps would not have liked the exhibition because of the light it sheds on his private life, other visitors will not fail to learn something new from it about Darwin's life and ideas.

Like other such institutions worldwide, London's Natural History Museum is especially popular with children, probably because of the dinosaur skeletons that fill the main entrance hall and the ever-popular fossil collection. Families were very much in evidence on a recent visit to the museum on a crisp winter day, the crush really starting at the nearby tube station as crowds of people piled out onto the road above before moving to the public plaza in front of the 19th-century building.

The major British museums are free, and this means that whereas the permanent collections of many museums tend to be deserted -- visitors returning to see temporary exhibitions but being reluctant to pay to see an exhibition that is unlikely to have changed -- this is not the case in London. Since the museums are free, the thinking goes, there can be no harm in strolling in again to see what in any case is probably comfortingly familiar. Few people are likely to do that for a museum like the Louvre in Paris, even if they happen to live in the city. It is all too easy to be put off by the length of the queues and the price of the tickets, especially if one has already seen much of what is inside.

At London's Natural History Museum the long queues outside are not made up of people wanting to buy tickets, and the holiday atmosphere that seemed to reign earlier this year on the museum's entrance plaza was probably due to people wanting to spend a day out in a leisure-oriented museum environment. This could be enjoyed all the better since it was free.

The easiest way to get to the museum's current Darwin exhibition is to go through the side entrance in Museum Road. This is not the natural route envisaged by the institution's planners, and finding one's way to the exhibition, installed in a 19th-century area having characteristic glazed brick vaults, is not obvious. Once there, the crowds filling the rest of the museum melt away as the visitor is introduced to the darkened, contemplative environment of "Darwin's Big Idea".

Greeted by mockingbirds and a tank of marine iguanas -- animals that Darwin would have seen on his early voyages in the Beagle -- visitors are first presented with a map of Darwin's sea itinerary, this being compared to the observations he made in his notebooks and the animal and plant species he collected at the time. Letters from Darwin are on display, as are pages from the notebooks in which his tiny and not very tidy handwriting can be puzzled over. There are original animal and vegetable specimens brought back by Darwin, some of them from the Natural History Museum collections and some from the University of Cambridge Botany School. Among the latter items are examples of the lichens Darwin gathered while on his voyages and a box of 12 stuffed Galapagos finches.

Darwin's sea voyages on the Beagle lasted some five years and took him to Latin America, the southern tip of Africa and Australia. They provided the materials for a lifetime's study and reflection, and Darwin's work returned repeatedly to the observations he had made as a young man on the Beagle. The documents in the exhibition relating to Darwin's later life can be divided between the notebooks in which he pursued his scientific concerns, these becoming a kind of workshop for the material included in his published works, and the private letters and diaries Darwin kept throughout his life.

Among the former materials the exhibition includes pages from Darwin's "Red Notebook", dating from 1837 just a year after his return to England, in which the first definite statements appear about what Darwin was then still calling the "transmutation" of species -- in other words, what he had begun to think of as descent with modification, or the theory of evolution.

These pages are complemented by others from the so-called "B Notebook" that Darwin kept in 1837-38, described here as "the foundation stone of Darwin's thought" and the place where he first tried out his ideas. There are also pages from the "C Notebook" of 1839 in which the later-familiar ideas of inheritance and variation appeared, and from the "D Notebook" of the same time -- written in a particularly tiny and illegible script -- in which Darwin considers the ideas of the 19th- century political economist Thomas Malthus and how these might go hand in hand with his own views, particularly regarding the importance of competition in nature.

Among the latter materials displayed on the other side of the exhibition gallery are personal documents dating from the same period. Darwin was still unmarried when he set out on his Beagle voyages, but after his return he began to court a young woman, Emma Wedgwood, having felt the need, as he expresses it in one of the documents on display here, for "a nice wife on a sofa".

In a document dated to July 1838 Darwin weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of the married state, coming to the conclusion that it was better to be married than not. There was the possibility of "children -- (if it please God)" for one thing, and then there were the other, multifarious advantages of having a wife: "constant companion, (and friend in old age) who will feel interested in one -- object to be beloved and played with -- better than a dog anyhow -- Home and someone to take care of house -- charms of music and female chit-chat -- These things good for one's health -- but terrible loss of time."

Darwin went on to marry Emma Wedgwood in January 1839, the couple eventually having 10 children.

In the final part of the exhibition contemporary responses to the theory of evolution are outlined, and it is here, perhaps, that the exhibition is at its weakest. The presentation of modern evolutionary theory, which has incorporated genetics to produce a synthesis of Darwin's views with the chemistry of DNA, feels somewhat perfunctory, as if it had been attached to an exhibition having a different focus.

However, more importantly it is also here that the exhibition most fully reveals its origins in the United States. It may well seem strange that the London Natural History Museum, which has access to the largest collection of Darwin-related materials in the world, has chosen to celebrate this year's anniversaries by hosting an exhibition first seen at the American Natural History Museum in New York. Was it not possible for the museum to produce a show of its own?

This would not matter were it not for the fact that the final parts of the exhibition refer to a controversy over the teaching of the theory of evolution in American schools that is foreign to non-American audiences. There has been some controversy of a similar kind in Europe as a result of the introduction of creationist ideas or of ideas of "intelligent design" that repeat what in the 18th century used to be called "deism". However, the US material reproduced in the London exhibition reads oddly in a non-US context, and there is a feeling of having wandered into another exhibition on problems of education in the contemporary United States. This is interesting, certainly, but it is not what most visitors would have paid to see.

Emerging, blinking, from the darkened exhibition spaces of "Darwin's Big Idea" into the brightness of the museum shop where the usual range of gift items are on display, it is difficult not to want to go back to Darwin's own major writings -- among them the Origin of Species, the Autobiography, and the Descent of Man -- with renewed interest and enthusiasm.

Darwin's Big Idea , Natural History Museum, London, 14 November 2008-19 April 2009.

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