Sunday, March 1, 2009

Touring with Mr. Darwin

I've been meaning to blog this for a while, but have been too busy. I went to see the exhibition on Darwin at the National Museum of Australia, here in Canberra. It's good. It's very good!

The exhibits cover the world before Darwin, the young Darwin, the Beagle trip, the development of the theory, the theory and aftermath, and evolution today.

It's not large exhibition, but it does cram a fair amount in. The displays include writings, specimens, a mock up of Darwin's study, and AV displays - including three short films featuring evolutionary scientists such as Francisco Ayala, Francis Collins, Niles Eldredge, and Kenneth Miller. They also feature Genie Scott from the NCSE (join the NCSE today).

By far the most impressive pieces (and worth the price of admission on their own), are the writings of Darwin - notebook entries, manuscript pages and letters. Not copies, the real thing, pages, hand-written by Darwin himself. And not only from Darwin, there were letters from Hooker, FitzRoy, Wallace, and one from Huxley - that features the famous lines,
As for your doctrines I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite... I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse & misrepresentation which unless I greatly mistake is in store for you... And as to the curs which will bark and yelp - you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead - I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.
It's sad that, after 150 years, the curs still bark and yelp, but it's good to see that Darwin still has friends endowed with an amount of combativeness.

There were also family letters by Darwin, Emma Darwin, and Darwin's father.

The imagery and linkage they provoked was so palpable, it was almost like being in the room when they were written. I got positively goose-bumpy.

The highlight for me though, was the actual notebook, open to the page with the famous I think evolutionary tree (right). The actual notebook!

Wow! Like. Wow!

It's a good job it was in a plastic display case, because I think I was drooling à la Homer Simpson! To be so close to an image right out of the pages (literally) of science history!

The notebooks were amazingly small, no more that around 15 cms by 7 cms.

Interesting fact: Darwin wrote over 300 notebook pages on animals and plants, but over 1300 on geology.

One of the largest displays was a reconstruction of Darwin's study in Down House. This was very well done, and you almost expected Darwin to walk into the room at any moment! Quite poignant, was a shawl draped over the chair in the corner of the study. Late in life many images of Darwin have him wearing such a shawl.

This exhibit also had a brief description of Darwin's daily schedule, including his early morning walks around the Sandwalk - the walk behind Down House that Darwin used almost every day.

There was also a video of the Sandwalk, composed of still photos taken at 5 metre intervals all the way around the Sandwalk. So I took a stroll. I didn't see Larry Moran there though!

Interesting fact: only some 80 pages of the Origin manuscript survive. Darwin gave many of the manuscript pages to the children so that they could use the blank side to draw on!

The section on evolution today also carried the theme of controversy from when the Origin was released to the present. There was a short video describing the difference in use of the term 'theory' in science compared with everyday use. Genie Scott was front and centre again, along with a number of other scientists.

I noticed that, with the exception of Genie and Francisco Ayala (who could be dragged through a hedge backwards and still look elegant), there was a certain amount lacking in the dress sense department. Richard Fortey did look he'd just been pulled through a hedge backwards, and Niles Eldredge looked like he'd borrowed somebody else's suit! However, that really didn't matter, because science places more importance in substance than style, whereas ID creationism places style over substance - because they have no substance.

There was some coverage of ID creationism in the section on evolution today. It included an actual disclaimer
from Cobb County Georgia,
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.
I have to say it was much more disturbing in the flesh. Of course I've been aware of such disclaimers, and the litany of failures they have had in court, but to see one up close made it somehow more real, and not just something that was happening a long way away (even more reason to join the NCSE today).

All up, an excellent way to spend a couple of hours, and highly recommended.

Darwin is at the National Museum of Australia until the 29th of March.


  1. We saw it twice: once in Chicago, then again in Toronto. The most moving exhibits to me were the "I think" notebook, and Annie's box -- these small mementos of lost child. The study was good too -- I'd read Darwin's Barnacle, which in many ways centres around that room where Darwin spent countless hours dissecting his Cirripedia under a microscope.

  2. Thanks, Chris. Excellent description - I felt like I was there (for ever such a short visit.)


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