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Darwin’s Ghost: The Darwin Exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History

New York, New York; November 19, 2005——August 20, 2006

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Monash College


Currently, in the Museum of Natural History in New York, there is the show——not merely of the century, but of two. In a sophisticated and accessible, even moving manner, the exhibition "Darwin" walks one through the story of the discovery of evolution and how it has become the guiding principle of modern biology. The exhibition is a temple of information and history showing how Darwinism has not only survived but thrived. It recapitulates how evolution has evolved from a theory based on meticulous science and an enormous body of evidence and experimentation to a scientific fact far beyond any reasonable doubt. Indeed, this show, and the marvelous accompanying book by the curator Niles Eldredge, Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life (2005), will act as the bedrock upon which the current "controversy" and the new pseudo-scientific doctrine of intelligent design will become better understood for what it is——a highly evolved living medieval fossil.

ID aside, if careful, you will happen upon a jewel, the very ruby of evolution’s conceptual history——one page from the 1837 B notebook, the first of a series of notebooks on "transmutation". It is an ancient symbol that now indelibly marks our time and evolutionary science. The page begins with the two words "I think" and below this affirmation, of sorts, Darwin sketched out a tree-like diagram that crystallized his idea of how species evolve from common ancestors. This model has formed the template for the creation of a whole galaxy of work with which we are so familiar today.

For example, in the permanent dinosaur exhibit nearby on the same floor, there is a fantastically complex tree of life depicting the speciation of the dinosaurs. Darwin’s ghost mingles there with the people sitting in the pew-like rows of seats. Together they are viewing a simple film that allows us to contemplate the nature of evolution——the structural and molecular similarities and differences between mollusks and men, shrews and pachiderms, and hominids and hominoids. Darwin’s ghost is glowing with wonder and joy at what the fossil record and scientific investigation has revealed since his time. We sit there amazed at the vastness of time, of the worlds gone by in which major branches of beings split off from each other based on key anatomical transmutations, such as the sudden emergence of the hip socket——to say nothing of the very recent alteration of that socket that allowed Adam and Eve to walk rather than crawl away from the Garden of Eden.

In our time, the grandeur of Darwin’s view is expanding like a supernova in the spectacle of the double helix in action, with genes tripping, zipping, and unzipping, in their being spliced and cloned and all the wonders that are to come and all the healing that is to be done——should science continue to win the day. In fact, a new day is dawning for Darwin’s notions of phylogeny and ontogeny. While his favored, if lesser-known, descendants, developmental zoologists and embryologists, have long since revealed the intimate life stories of embryonic development that so fascinated him——a whole field of investigation——the shock of the new is upon us.

Though the wondrous story of the simple blastula and dividing and in-folding cell lines developing in concert into nervous and epithelial tissue and the related mystery of flesh and bone and blood and feeling (if not spirit) all coming together was amazing, evolutionary biologists using molecular biochemistry are bringing to light the existence of switches that regulate the expression of genes. Now we can account for the mystery of mysteries——the sudden and dramatic changes in life forms, such as the changes in the insect world from six legs to eight, and at last, the explanation for the long-pondered connection between the simian’s tail and the human coccyx, and so much else. Darwin’s ghost is delighted, for Evo-Devo is upon us.

Of all the momentous developments in biological knowledge in the twentieth century, none is more sexy, more exciting, than the recently emerging field of Evo-Devo——evolutionary developmental biology. Herein, scientists have isolated "tool kits" of bodybuilding genes as Sean Carroll so eloquently describes in his fabulous article, "The Origins of Form," in last year’s November issue of Natural History. We now know how the same Pax-6 gene functions in the formation of eyes whether it be in the case of fruit flies or human beings, how Hox genes govern the changes and repetitions of body parts in both arthropods and vertebrates, and most amazing of all——how another set of body building genes determines both the shape of bird’s beaks and the human face. But let us return respectfully to Darwin.

As you leave the exhibit, you pass through a darkened cloaca-like gallery festooned with Asian orchids tastefully displayed under incandescent lights. And there, a calm almost religious white male voice continually repeats the closing lines of the first edition of The Origin of the Species, that is, before Darwin added in those two telling words "the Creator" in the second edition——and before he added in the laws themselves in subsequent editions, thus ruining the lingering poetic aura of the original. Regardless of this concession, it is exceedingly unlikely that you will leave unmoved by the last spoken line of the original passage that reads:

". . . There is grandeur to this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." (1872 Sixth ed. p. 492)

What more can one say, then, to recall Wallace’s little known publication of 1884 "If a Man Should Die, Shall He Live Again?" and end at last with these words of love for Darwin’s excited Ghost——Rest in Peace——Dear Darwin.



Updated 1st June 2006

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