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Darwin's 200th Birthday Celebrated

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Darwin @APS

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal On the Origins of Species. The exhibition Dialogues with Darwin, on display through October at the Museum of the American Philosophical Society, celebrates the work of this towering figure of 19th-century science.

Darwin was himself a member of the APS, the venerable scientific society founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, and the papers on display are culled from the APS’s impressive library of Darwin papers, the largest in the world outside Cambridge, England. Together, the exhibits tell the story of Darwin’s quest to understand the history of life on earth and examine the debates and discussions that led to and have resulted from his groundbreaking thoughts.

Darwin was not the first person to suggest the concept of evolution, his grandfather Erasamus Darwin, for one, had proposed a theory of special change over time by means of inherited acquired traits. The breakthrough propounded in the On the Origins of Species (the exhibit includes a rare first edition and a handwritten draft of the title page), was a satisfactory mechanism to explain the differentiation and diversification that gives rise to new species: natural selection.

His work stood on the shoulders of giants, works of whom are on display at Philosophical Hall. Charles Lyell’s geological research provided the expanded timeframe upon which natural selection could work to change species. Malthus’s famous paper on population pressure gave an explanation to how certain inherited traits could aid survival.

Indeed, such was the intellectual climate of the time that another natural philosopher, Alfred Russel Wallace, came up with similar ideas to Darwin independently. Darwin began his work on the concept of natural selection soon after a multi-year voyage around the world on the Beagle (the voyage included a famous stop at the Galapagos Islands), but he waited decades to publish his ideas, fearful of the reaction they would provoke. It was only upon receiving a letter from young Wallace that he decided to make his theories public.

Origin of Species

Darwin’s ideas created one of the first international scientific debates and exhibits at the APS track the discussions that his books provoked in the 19th century. By the 1930s, Darwin explanation of evolution had been widely accepted by the scientific community. Its international influence is evidenced by the scores of translated versions of his publications that form central pillars in the APS exhibition.

Modern biology, and with it much of modern medicine and agriculture, rest on Darwin’s groundbreaking ideas. Of course, non-scientific criticisms of evolutionary biology still plague public discourse in this country. Faith-based attacks on Darwin are nothing new, as publications from the 1800s testify.

The dialogue with this great thinker continue today at the American Philosophical Society. A series of artistic reimaginings of his notebooks and fantastical instruments these fictional jottings inspired frame the textual exhibits at the museum and provide a welcome change from looking at dimly lit books. An interactive board, where visitors can post thoughts on a blown-excerpt from one of Darwin’s real notebooks (a tree of life, the first sketch of such, below the words “I think”), provides an opportunity to reflect on the exhibit and evolution in general.

It made for interesting reading, with such notes as: “If people evolved from monkeys how come we don’t eat bugs off other people?” and “Darwin went to the Galapagos to vacation with the turtles.”

I particularly enjoyed a note in a child’s writing which provided perhaps the best synthesis of scientific and religious views: “Just because Darwin is right it doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist.” To which someone had written below: “No, but She doesn’t.”

Details: Enjoy your own Dialogue with Darwin now through October 2010 at Philosophical Hall, the museum of the American Philosophical Society, 104 South 5th Street. Friday through Sunday 10am to 4pm, suggested donation $1. Or visit online at www.pachs.net/dialogues-with-darwin.

Also, please note: On Wed., November 4, The American Philosophical Society will continue the Darwin film series. Click for more details:  http://www.thesecretcinema.com/