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An Evolutionist's Evolution
New York Times - 3 hours ago
It may seem that the American Museum of Natural History is cruising for controversy in presenting "Darwin," the most comprehensive exhibition any museum has offered on the naturalist's life and theories. It ...
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November 7, 2005

An Evolutionist's Evolution

It may seem that the American Museum of Natural History is cruising for controversy in presenting "Darwin," the most comprehensive exhibition any museum has offered on the naturalist's life and theories. It is a time, after all, when the theory of evolution by natural selection seems as newsworthy as it was back in the days of the Scopes trial 80 years ago.

According to a CBS News poll last month, 51 percent of Americans reject the theory of evolution, saying that God created humans in their present form. And reflecting a longstanding sentiment, 38 percent of Americans believe that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, according to an August poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington.

An ongoing federal trial in Harrisburg, Pa., may determine whether a local school board can compel teachers to inform students about the theory of intelligent design - the idea that life on earth is too complex to have arisen through evolution alone. And though there is no credible scientific support for this position, President Bush, when asked in August about evolution and intelligent design, said that "both sides ought to be properly taught."

However, said Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum, the $3 million exhibition, which opens to the public on Nov. 19, was conceived three years ago and "is not a riposte, but a celebration of Darwin's life and his ideas, which are the cornerstone of modern biology." The exhibition illustrates the way in which evolution became the basis for modern biology, ranking its importance with the theories of relativity in physics, and plate tectonics in geology.

"Since Darwin's life is an adventure story that reflects the scientific process," Dr. Futter added, "the show is a cerebral and physical exploration, an attempt to humanize science through an understanding of Darwin's life."

The exhibition will consist of more than 400 artifacts, specimens and documents, including at least 100 lent manuscripts and other objects, 159 models fabricated by the museum's workshops, 74 specimens from the museum's collections and nine live animals. Though created and designed at the museum, the show received conceptual advice and financial assistance from four institutions that will present the exhibition after it closes in New York on May 29: the Museum of Science in Boston, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Natural History Museum in London.

"We see the exhibition as an important part of our Darwin bicentennial," said Robert M. Bloomfield, head of special projects at the Natural History Museum in London. The show will arrive there in late 2008, "a harbinger of our celebrations," Dr. Bloomfield said, referring to elaborate plans to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth in 2009, which is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his groundbreaking book "On the Origin of Species."

Michael J. Novacek, senior vice president and provost of the American Museum of Natural History, said that "our hope is to make it emphatically clear just how important Darwin's work is to modern science, and to what we and other scientists do in everyday life."

Referring to the museum's curatorial, research and academic faculty of 200 scientists, "the work of most of them is essentially based on Darwin's work," Dr. Novacek said. None of the staffers believe in intelligent design "or at least they haven't declared it," he said. "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

He added, "Some of the current reactions to Darwin's work are the same as they were when 'Origin' was first published."

The exhibition mentions intelligent design not as science, or as a theory to be debated, but as a form of creationism, which offers the biblical view that God created the earth and its creatures fully formed within the last 10,000 years. In 1987 the Supreme Court ruled that creationism is a religious belief that cannot be taught in public schools.

Dr. Novacek said that "we are welcoming everyone to the show," adding that "we will be prepared to respond to questions." The museum's docents and public-education staff are being trained on how to respond to challenges to the exhibition.

Niles Eldredge, the exhibition's curator, said, "We might change some minds." But Dr. Novacek added: "We respect people's beliefs, and conversion is not necessarily our goal. We hope that every visitor will have a clearer idea of what Darwin did and, for that matter, what science means."

The show was envisioned as the next in the museum's series on thinkers, explorers and scientists, following its exhibitions on Leonardo da Vinci, Ernest Shackleton and Albert Einstein. The 6,000-square-foot Darwin exhibition has been assembled not only from the museum's collections but also from those of Cambridge University, the Darwin family and Down House, where the naturalist spent the last 40 years of his life.

The exhibition is presented as a chronological journey to South America and the Galápagos Islands and as an internal journey that changed the way Darwin viewed the world and himself. "We'd like visitors to follow Darwin's life, to see what he saw, and understand how he came to his ideas," Dr. Eldredge said.

The exhibition "has the crown jewels," Dr. Novacek said, referring to Darwin's original specimens, manuscripts and notes. "Many of these haven't been together since they were on the H.M.S. Beagle," he said, referring to the 90-foot ship that carried Darwin on a voyage from 1831 to 1836 to South America and the Galápagos, an isolated chain of volcanic islands off the west coast of South America.

Visitors who approach the exhibition through the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians will come across two live 13-year-old, 50-pound specimens of Geochelone nigra, the Galápagos tortoise that offered Darwin clues for his evolutionary theory. Later in the gallery, they will discover a five-foot-long live green iguana and a terrarium housing six live Ceratophrys ornata, horned toads.

Inside, the very first exhibit is the magnifying glass that Darwin used to examine his specimens.

The show will offer an overview of human evolution through the rich fossil record. It will also demonstrate how Darwin's work gave rise to modern biology with cutting-edge displays on genomic research, DNA research and evidence of the latest scientific update of the taxonomic tree of life.

Dr. Eldredge has been an important participant in this work. In the 1970's he and Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard University paleontologist who died in 2002, developed the theory of punctuated equilibria in evolution: the notion that transitions in species take place periodically - during intense periods of activity - and not necessarily as part of a steady, gradual process.

On display will be a rare manuscript page from "Origin," one of just a few known to exist. (Fun fact: Darwin never used the word "evolution" in the first edition, though the book's last word is "evolved.")

Also on view will be some of Darwin's most famous notebooks, written from 1837 to 1839, especially Page 36 in Notebook B, where he sketched the world's first evolutionary tree of life. "That's the equivalent of seeing E=mc2 in Einstein's papers," Dr. Eldredge said.

Also on display is the original text from Notebook D that shows the eureka moment when Darwin first described natural selection.

From the Beagle voyage, the exhibition offers Darwin's original pistol, his telescope and his Bible. There are also 33 of the beetles, butterflies, moths and flies Darwin collected, and his rock hammer, used on geological excursions.

In one exhibition, area visitors will see a five-foot-tall reproduction of a famous geological outcrop, the Hutton Unconformity in Scotland, which has an 80-million-year gap in its rock record. This helped demonstrate to Darwin that the earth was much older than the 6,000 years posited by many creationists.

The museum also offers a meticulous recreation of the room at Down House where he wrote "Origin," presenting Darwin's original cane, work table and specimen boxes.

The significance of Darwin's ideas "has grown," Dr. Bloomfield said. "For example, at this moment we're looking at Asian bird flu and where it's going. If not for Darwinism, we would be ignorant of the mechanism of that flu, and how it changes over time."

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