by Natalie Bennett
The Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition begins with reminder of the cost that the science once involved: two starkly displayed mocking bird specimens, laid pathetically on their backs. “Two of the most important specimens in the history of science” – but not much consolation, on suspects, for the birds whose lives were cut short.
Explicitly, the exhibition states, this aims to trace not a chronological journey, but an internal one in the way, following changes in the way Darwin saw the world, and that’s an aim that is largely achieved.
The first stage, as the exhibition sees it, is “wide-eyed wonder”, something anyone who’s seen a rainforest could probably sympathise with, although there’s an early reminder that Darwin lived in a very different world with that note that Darwin as a student at Cambridge had formed a club dedicated to eating animals “unknown to the human palate”.
The iguana that he later found so illustrative he also found tasty, “liked by those whose stomach soar above all prejudices”. Looking over this scene in the exhibition is a live green iguana perched on the top of a log gazing lugubriously at the passing throng, leg trailing down casually behind him and illustrative tail artfully displayed down its length. He might be saying: “Well at least you humans have evolved, a little.” And it was certainly something to keep the children amused, of which there’s not a great deal in this exhibition.
The exhibition remarks on the role of Josiah Wedgewood in persuading Darwin’s father to let him go, providing a grand invitation to alternative history. How would it all have worked out if Wallace had been first?
As you’d expect the exhibition carefully charts the route of Beagle: we tend to think of this as the Galapagos trip, but of course he saw so much more. On regular stops around the coast of Latin America he saw petrified trees in the andes, observed how an earthquake raised the western coast several feet.
And in reminder of the fallacy of the “great man” theory that lies heavily behind this exhibition, it notes that in the Cape of Good Hope he visited the English scientist John Herschel, who called origin of new species “the mystery of mysteries” – the theory of natural selection didn’t arise suddenly in Darwin’s admittedly brilliant brain.
But his recordkeeping wasn’t always so hot: The Beagle’s captain Fitzroy was also a precise scientific collector, and some of Darwin’s Galapagos finches were inadequately labelled, so he had to borrow Fitzroy’s.But biology wasn’t at this time Darwin’s main concern; the exhibition notes that he made 368 pages of notes about animals and 1383 about geology.
And general ignorance was a formidable barrier: in one of its few flashes of humour it notes that Darwin was frantically searching for the lesser rhea – and suddenly found it on his dinner table. Luckily while the flesh was being eaten, almost all of specimen — feathers skin, legs etc — had been preserved.
The next stage in Darwin’s development is seen by the exhibition of one of consolidation: it says that he was determined to earn respect of “the great guns”, so he focused on the detailed work of arranging and analysing species. Even as the idea of natural selection and evolution was clearly evolving in his notebooks, he was still establishing his career. And then there was the nature of the man; Darwin feared ridicule. And he knew his ideas would be seen as an attack on religion and established society.
But he does also develop his humanity: Jenny the orangutan at London zoo, he compares her tantrums to those of his children. And more data kept coming in, often from humble sources. His london barber, who bred pedigree dogs, and a London bookseller and hunter, who knew about dogs and horses, fed in traditional knowledge about domestic animal breeding, a grasp of selection that lacked only the name.
So Darwin eventually gets serious, and publishes, and this is when this exhibition moves too from anecdote and colour to polemic.
It yells, in highlighted type: “for 150 years the theory of evolution by natural selection has not been seriously challenged by any other scientific explanation…Creationism, including intelligent design, does not offer a -scientific- alternative to the theory of evolution.”
What is a theory? It tackles that horny old challenge: theories explain facts. “A theory is a wellsubstabiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts. The theory of gravitation explains why apples fall from trees and astronauts float in space.”
It is powerful and solid, but sadly, you can’t but feel, the many people, British and foreign, who should be seeing this exhibition, probably won’t.