A colleague of mine arranged for all of the teachers at my school to visit the Charles Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and I found the experience very rich.

Like everyone else, I followed the news from Kansas last year about their school board's mandating the teaching of Intelligent Design as science, a folly which cost those board members their jobs. The exhibit at the AMNH explicitly counters the arguments of ID proponents and does so in a very low-key, but forceful way. The result is that the work of Darwin is solidly linked to our circumstances in the present.

However, I was most affected by the ways in which the AMNH exhibit linked Darwin's breakthroughs to the circumstances of his time and his intellectual climate, in particular, the family in which he grew up. I learned that he was the grandson of Erasmus, a man who had already thought a bit about evolution, and the son of Robert, a man who was vehemently opposed to Charles' becoming a scientist. But Robert was not so firm in his resolve that a logical argument would not change his mind, and Charles' uncle was able to provide this key support.

As I learned more about the tenor of the times, I found one key detail fascinating: Darwin was influenced in an important way by the emerging understanding of geology which was a nascent science at that time. He came to understand that there was geological evidence that age of the earth was far greater than had been previously assumed. Adopting this new time scale made it conceivable that species could have evolved over miliions of years and many thousands of generations.

I like this connection because it reminds me that there are unpredictable links between the sciences and that a great mind can synthesize from a variety of sources.

Another way the exhibit contextualized Darwin's work was in making it clear just how far the theory of evolution diverged from accepted science of the times and how much Darwin risked in making it public. He was immediately subjected to arguments and controversy that would not seem the least bit unfamiliar to followers of the Kansas case upon its publication. Darwin was worried by both this firestorm and the risk of shocking his wife's personal beliefs and for this reason delayed publication for decades.

Finally, the most impressive thing about the exhibit was how it showed they way Darwin;s mind worked. Using very simple tools and very little in the way of resources, he essentially leveraged his opportunity to be in a fruitful place (the good ship Beagle) at a fruitful time (the 1830's) by virtue of being able to make the most of every scrap of information he learned and every observation he made. I can't think of an intellectual effort that extrapolated so well, so far, as Darwin's.

In sum, the exhibit presents Darwin the man, Darwin the family member, Darwin the thinker, as well as Darwin the theorist. It makes use of a well-chosen variety of displays, from living animals to model boats and preserved insects, to explain and illuminate. I'm going back later this week to see it again.

As you can see by examining my postings, I am not one of those bloggers who updates every day, or even every month. Maybe I just don't have quite that much to say! Or maybe evolution is just slow . . . .


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