"Endless Forms Most Beautiful," February 12, 1809
This past Saturday, I set forth with my teenagers to NYC, taking the usual Northeast Corridor line through the lovely Jersey railroad right-of-ways to Penn Station. Our destination was the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), a stately building facing Central Park. We climbed the stone steps and admired the reliefs of various animals past and present carved into the stone . Tickets in hand, we wended our way through corridors to the Rose Center for Earth and Space where I met my friends, "A" and "J," in the vicinity of Jupiter. "A" joined us for our appointment with evolution. "J" had familial guide duties for her aunt who was visiting The City so we chatted briefly, took our leave and "until next times" and headed for the Darwin exhibit.
I figured Feb. 11th was a suitable date for such a visit since today is Charles Robert Darwin's 197th birthday. Given that NYC received record snowfall last night and today, the date was a wise choice. There were quite a number of people milling though the exhibit hall, and my rather impatient teenagers wanted to fly through the exhibit rather than dwelling over each and every bit of fascinating minutiae. I managed to slow the kids down somewhat, and concentrated on some key items. Darwin's notes sent shivers down my spine. Here were the great scientist's writings, yellowed with time, before my eyes. Words speaking across the years. My favorite display was comprised of the many plant specimens which he collected and notated. Perhaps these especially appealed to me because I studied botany as an undergrad. I collected and pressed my own plant specimens and fancied myself at that time as becoming a roving naturalist. Darwin took great care in drying and pressing the specimens as well as artfully arranging them. The bird specimens were also interesting. All Darwin's collections were arranged to highlight the patterns which he observed. His magnifying glass was on display as well as an elaborate reconstruction of his study at Down House. In the days of the polymerase chain recation and its revolutionary role in the study of molecular evolution, it is amazing to think that Darwin used such a simple instrument. Of course, he had the very best instruments at hand which serve any scientist well - his acute mind and his keen powers of observation. That the patterns of our molecular evolutionary Tree of Life are so consistent with Darwin's theory of evolution speak greatly to its fundamental underpinnings.
I couldn't resist the lure of the inevitable gift shop where I purchased a plush facsimile of a Galapagos penguin for my daughter, and the exhibit's companion volume, Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life by Niles Eldredge (the AMNH curator of the exhibit) for myself. Eldredge is the co-discoverer with the late Stephen Jay Gould of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. I am a couple of chapters into the book, and thus far, Eldredge is setting up Darwin's background, and the influences of his scientific predecessors and contemporaries. It's a relative short volume, and certainly there are more detailed biographies of CRD, but Eldredge's book examines the deeper thought via Darwin's notes which gave rise to the greater theory. The last chapter of the book is titled "Darwin as Anti-Christ: Creationism in the Twenty-First Century." I am resisting skipping ahead.
To date, funding for the exhibition has come from private donations from affluent individuals and charitable organizations. There are no corporate sponsors. From the Telegraph (UK), November 2005:
The Darwin exhibition frightening off corporate sponsors.
Outside of the sci-evolutiono-blogosphere, this sad state of affairs hasn't made much press in the American media. It's shameful that the Bank of America, Gillette, Procter and Gamble or Pfizer couldn't see fit to fork over money for the exhibit. The perception of the Brit-Canadian-Australo-press is that the highly vocal Christian fundamentalist segment holds corporate America by the short hairs. Given that many major coporations sponsor scientific exhibits, it seems, well, odd that the AMNH found it so difficult to nab a few industrial dollars. So, the book and the penguin were a tad pricey, but I look at it as my contribution toward the exhibit. I left without a Darwin finger puppet and was sorely disappointed.
The exhibit is part of the bicentennial celebration of Darwin's birth and will move on to Boston, Chicago and Toronto before its final destination in London in 2009. It is definitely worth a look. Finally, check out the action packed Tortoise Cam!
Doc Bushwell's bit o' trivia: my great-great Uncle Perry Hay was an associate curator (vertebrate paleontology) at the AMNH from 1901-1907. See my entry "What's Bred in the Bones," October 2005.