Darwin Under the Microscope: The Origin of the Man and His Theory

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

NEW YORK -- He stayed his pen for two decades, fearing the torrent of ridicule his discoveries might unleash. He was so unsure of marriage that he composed a list of pros and cons.

He was a recluse and a slacker and an occasional eater of beetles, and by writing a great revolutionary book this retiring English gentleman changed our fundamental understanding of the natural world, not to mention how Homo sapiens evolved from his apelike grandparents.

Naturalist Charles Darwin is the subject of a masterly new show at the American Museum of Natural History, a testament to the human power of observation and intellectual courage and scientific epiphany. The show, which runs until May 29, 2006, is the broadest and most complete exhibition on Darwin, the man and his ideas. From museums and collections around the globe, the curators have assembled Darwin's manuscripts and magnifying glasses and a painstaking re-creation of his study in the rural town of Down, outside London.

There's a live Galapagos tortoise, many dead beetles and a large and somnolent green iguana.

But it's the reticent man, dead 123 years now, who rivets our attention and accounts for the hint of anxiety that runs through this show. One need only open a newspaper, or wander into a school board meeting anywhere in the United States, to realize the extent to which Darwin's insights -- that we descend from common ancestors and that natural selection drives the evolution of living things -- still roil the culture. By upending the millenniums-old belief that man was created whole by God, Darwin offered an implicit challenge to religious fundamentalists of many creeds.

Who really can be surprised by the persistence and vitality of the cultural resistance?

"Intelligent design," which holds that science can discern the hand of a supernatural force in the machinery of life, is the latest alternative theory to edge onto the public stage. It has attracted a small band of scientists and philosophers, and they are skilled debaters and publicists.

Such challenges are nothing new, extending back centuries. And while this exhibition makes clear that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, it also reflects the gnawing worry within the scientific class that it has failed to vigorously present its case in the public arena.

"We have a conservative religious element in the United States that is opposed to the notion that we are connected to the rest of the natural world, especially apes," notes Niles Eldredge, a paleontologist and curator of the Darwin exhibit.

Ellen Futter, president of the museum, appends an exclamation mark. "Science is under assault in this country," she said. "The real culprit is the appalling low state of scientific literacy in this country."

Perhaps, although Darwin's education also offers a splendid counterpoint to our Type A, meritocratically obsessed, test-the-kiddies-from-the-womb-until-they-make-crew-at-Harvard culture. Darwin was no prodigy. He cared little for Latin verses, moaning that he could barely remember an e pluribus for 48 hours. His father packed him off at age 16 to Edinburgh University, but Darwin as often arrived at his best lessons wandering through bogs and reading beneath trees.

"You care for nothing," Darwin's father scolded the young wastrel, "but shooting, dogs and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family."

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