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Putting the “Natural” in Natural History: Darwin Exhibit Opens In New York

Austin Dacey

November 30, 2005

eldredge

Niles Eldridge, curator

On the sunny autumn afternoon of Saturday, November 19, I was among the enthusiastic throng at the opening of a new exhibition entitled Darwin: His Life and Times, at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Waiting in line outside a sold-out opening panel featuring the show’s curator, Niles Eldredge, as well as Darwin’s great-great grandson Randal Keynes, I looked around at my fellow museum goers and wondered which of them represented the scant 26% of Americans who accept naturalistic evolution, and which represented the majority, anti-Darwinian, public. For the latter, the $3 million production—with its 6,000 square feet of displays bursting with evidence both of evolution by natural selection and the intellectual and moral integrity of its greatest expositor—must have smacked of Madame Tussaud’s or Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The American Museum of Natural History is an ironic spot for the sage of Down House, for Americans remain a people for whom history is fundamentally not natural. All the more reason for this remarkable initiative in science education, which after a tour of Boston, Chicago, and Toronto will land in London for Darwin’s bicentennial in 2009.

ship model

Beagle Ship Model, © AMNH / Denis Finnin

Although the exhibition was in the works well before intelligent design became front page news, it can be seen as a direct response to the movement, and it is being framed as such in much of the ample media coverage it has already received; for example, in the cover story of the February 28 issue of Newsweek, called “The Real Darwin: His Private Views and Science and God.” Throughout the displays on Darwin’s work, the emphasis is on the cumulative evidential case for the theory. The final third is devoted to “evolution today.” As a video clip points out, whether we like it or not, evolution is happening today to the avian flu virus. In the middle of the final room is a multimedia kiosk on “Social Reactions to Darwin” that places creationism alongside social Darwinism in the context of “reaction and controversy based on nonscientific perspectives.” Given the cultural environment of the U.S., it is entirely appropriate that the design of the show gives the evolution-creation controversy a place of prominence, if not priority (I’m curious how this will play in the U.K., where Darwin’s face is on the 10-pound note).

Many readers of Skeptical Inquirer will be most interested in the display on the meaning of “theory” in science, a copy of the Cobb County, Georgia textbook disclaimer, and a timeline depicting the history of the American creation-evolution controversy. I was surprised to see the Dover, Pennsylvania case at the end of the timeline. Particularly after the electoral reversal of the school board, it is much too soon to say whether Dover will turn out to be a landmark like Dayton.

down house

Down House, © AMNH

The centerpiece of the “Social Reactions” piece is “Scientists on Faith,” a collection of thought-provoking video messages from (among others) Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, and Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project. Here Niles Eldredge speaks of the personal edification he finds in the naturalistic outlook: “it’s wonderful for me to feel connected to all the rest of the living things on the planet, present day and in the deep past and beyond that to the basic fundamental units and history of the universe in which we live.” Collins identifies himself as a believer in a personal deity, saying “I find the scientific worldview and the spiritual worldview to be entirely complementary” He describes ID as a “God-of-the-gaps” theology and observes that past attempts to put God in a box have done harm to people’s faith.

orchids

Orchids Exhibit, © AMNH / Denis Finnin

Curiously, this cozy compatibilism finds little confirmation in the biography we were gathered to celebrate. The exhibition does a fair job of addressing Darwin’s “skepticism about religion,” though its shies from using the A-word that he himself preferred (“Agnostic”) and couches science-religion tension in his emotional relationship to Emma rather than in argument and doubt, in his deep-time argument from evil (found in the autobiography): “for what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?”

On the way out of the exhibit hall, a final case holds a hopeful sight, the moonglow white of a lovely Angraecum sesquipedale orchid of Madagascar, whose foot-long throat led Darwin to predict in 1862 that Madagascar must be home to a species of insect with an oversized feeding tube adapted to pollinate it: “Charles Darwin died in 1882, and more than 40 years later, his insight was confirmed. A naturalist in Madagascar discovered the giant hawk moth, which hovers like a hummingbird as its long, whip-like proboscis probes for the distant nectar. The moth’s scientific name, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, honors the prediction of the scientist who never saw it, but whose theory told him that it must exist.” Three cheers for the evidence of things unseen. Will we see full public understanding of evolution, at least by the time of Darwin’s tricentennial? This engaging and cutting-edge exhibition is cause for hope.

Darwin: His Life and Times is showing at the American Museum of Natural History until May 29, 2006. Extensive texts, videos, behind-the-scenes photos, and a downloadable teacher’s guide can be found on the Museum’s website at http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey's photo

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.