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Exhibit Explores the Evolution of Darwin’s Ideas and Research

Times Staff Writer

Passing two ponderous Galapagos tortoises, the ninth-graders arrived at the origin of a 150-year struggle between science and faith-based beliefs, where the contested terrain is every student’s mind.

The tortoises, living icons of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, belong to the most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled on the life and thought of the 19th century naturalist.

The display, which opened two weeks ago, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is a collaboration of five leading natural science centers in three countries. More than a retrospective of one scientist’s achievement, it walks the visitor through Darwin’s lifetime voyage of intellectual discovery, a journey that culminated in his theory of evolution.

The ninth-graders from Queens High School of the Sciences are among the 30,000 visitors who have come so far to muse on the memorabilia and manuscripts of a man who, pondering the infinite variety of life, formulated the foundation of modern biology and transformed humanity’s perception of itself.

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“It is beautiful,” said Queens student Swati Kumar, 14. “It really showed how evolution worked.”

The exhibition comes at a time when the teaching of Darwin’s work increasingly is under attack by conservative Christian groups around the world.

Indeed, even as the Queens students on Friday perused Darwin’s handwritten notes and gawked at a live 5-foot-long green iguana, courts in Georgia and Pennsylvania were considering whether faith-based alternatives to Darwin’s scientific theory should be permitted a foothold in science classrooms. Last month, the Kansas state Board of Education rewrote its science standards to make room for faith-based teachings.

In a sense, the exhibit was the scientific community’s considered response to the growing challenge of intelligent design and creationism.

“It is the minds of American high school students that are at stake,” said University of Georgia Darwin scholar Edward J. Larsen, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his history of controversies over the teaching of Darwin’s work.

With a permanent research collection of more than 30 million specimens and artifacts, the American Museum, which took the lead role in the exhibition, is “evolution central,” Larsen said.

Museum president Ellen V. Futter said curators organized the Darwin display because “American education in science and mathematics is failing dreadfully -- in ways that undermine the country’s economy and security and yield public confusion about major scientific issues, including the origins and diversity of life on Earth.”

The exhibition features Darwin’s love letters, the tools he carried aboard the HMS Beagle and the red leather notebooks in which he worked out his ideas.

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Curators recreated the study where, seated in a wing-chair by a fireplace, Darwin wrote the books that revolutionized biology. They also duplicated a stretch of the Galapagos Islands that inspired him, complete with red crabs, sea iguanas and a flock of blue-footed boobies.

“It is really wonderful that we have so many original objects from Darwin’s life -- original field notebooks, private correspondence, manuscripts, cartoons that friends drew of him as a boy, the magnifying glass he took with him on the Beagle,” said Christopher J. Raxworthy, the museum’s associate dean of science for education.

“Many of these objects have not been together for 150 years,” Raxworthy said.

The show, assembled at a cost of $3 million, will be at the New York museum until May 29. It will then travel to the Boston Museum of Science, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. In 2008, it will open at the British Museum of Natural History in London, where it will commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

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Simply stated, Darwin’s work uncovered a fundamental technical truth about reproduction and mortality.

In any species, more are often born than can survive. Any incremental hereditary advantage may favor one over the other, depending on the circumstances in which they live. Those survivors will pass that advantage on to their offspring. In this way, limbs could become wings, and apes, with sufficient time, could evolve into human beings.

Darwin, as the exhibit documents, worked out this basic insight through meticulous scrutiny of thousands of specimens gathered from around the globe and decades of painstaking breeding experiments.

He laid out his findings in his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species.”

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“There is a grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin wrote. “From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Darwin was not the first to air the idea of evolution, but he was the first to conceive a biological mechanism that explained how life might incrementally alter from one form into another over time.

No one was more aware than Darwin that by rejecting a literal biblical account of creation, his theory would be considered an attack on Christianity and the established church of his day, the exhibition shows.

He kept his theory secret for 21 years, yet when he finally published it, his book became an instant bestseller. Even so, he wrote a friend, “It was like confessing a murder.”

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To be sure, researchers have produced more than one idea that rattled the foundations of faith and altered humanity’s place in the scheme of things. Few people today will argue about quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, the structure of the solar system or the cosmology of the Big Bang.

Darwin’s carefully researched ideas on evolution, however, framed by geological evidence of Earth’s extreme antiquity, are as fiercely challenged by some today as when he first reluctantly revealed his theory about 150 years ago, the exhibit notes.

The conflict between evolutionary biology and creationism is an especially American issue -- a flashpoint in a national culture war -- said Florida State University philosopher Michael Ruse, author of “The Evolution-Creation Struggle.”

“I don’t see this as a debate about science versus religion as such,” said Ruse, who was visiting the exhibition. “This is very much about a cultural clash we have in America today.”

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In recent years, however, organized resistance to the teaching of evolution has become more international, said University of Wisconsin science historian Ronald L. Numbers, author of “The Creationists.” Faith-based creationist ideas have taken hold in Korea, Australia, Israel and Eastern Europe.

For the ninth-graders at the American Museum, the exhibit was their first sustained encounter with Darwin and the theory of evolution. They won’t study it formally until later in the school year.

“The bugs really amaze me,” said Kendra Hunte, 14, lingering over Darwin’s collection of beetles. “I never knew you could find so much stuff in so short a time.”

Andre Mozeak, 15, said: “It is kind of breathtaking to see everything he discovered. I never knew he went to the Galapagos.”

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Brian Jetter, principal of Queens High School for the Sciences, who accompanied the students, said that even for an experienced science educator like himself, the exhibit revealed something new.

“I didn’t realize he was so diverse in the organisms he studied,” Jetter said. “That was a revelation to me. He saw this design in everything he looked at.”

And, he said, the evidence Darwin amassed is overwhelming. “There is no denying that evolution happened, and is happening even now.”


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