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Darwin exhibit shows the person behind the theory

Tom Avril
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Darwin was struck by how similar some animals looked as embryos, in this case a horse. He also observed that living creatures often resembled small version of fossils at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. (Peter Tobia/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

PHILADELPHIA--Niles Eldredge says the goal was merely to continue a series of New York exhibits on the world's great scientists. First came Leonardo da Vinci, then Albert Einstein. Why not Charles Darwin?

Somewhere along the way, a certain Pennsylvania school board decided that Darwin's theory of evolution had "gaps" and "problems," and the ensuing media spotlight was brighter than any museum official could have hoped.

"In a sense, it was dumb luck," says Eldredge.

"Darwin" drew a half-million visitors at New York's American Museum of Natural History, where Eldredge, the exhibit curator, is a celebrated paleontologist. Now the show, billed as the broadest ever devoted to the British scientist, is at the Franklin Institute.

Though preparations began before controversy erupted in Dover, Pa., the exhibit nevertheless devotes ample space to the debate.

A continuous video loop features various biologists explaining how Darwin's theory is supported by science, contrary to the concept (supported by the Dover school board) that the diversity of species is the work of an intelligent designer.

But the bulk of the exhibit is a very personal look at Darwin himself. It illustrates how he conceived of -- and wrestled with -- his lasting contribution to modern biology: Living things undergo random mutation, and those best able to obtain food, avoid predators and reproduce, will pass their successful traits to future generations.

The story is told in the dramatic fashion of a suspense novel, describing how Darwin waited two decades to announce his theory to the world.

There is a rich array of fossils, manuscripts, artifacts and even live animals of the sort Darwin saw on his travels. Among them are two Galapagos tortoises, a green iguana and horned frogs (all rented from Clyde Peeling's Reptiland, a reptile-only zoo in Allenwood, Pa.).

We first meet Darwin as a reluctant student who hated memorizing his Greek and Latin at boarding school, and later resisted his father's efforts to steer him into the field of medicine. Robert Darwin predicted his son would be a "disgrace."

Instead of becoming a doctor, Charles Darwin studied to be a clergyman. But his real love was collecting beetles.

"It is quite absurd how interested I am getting about the science," he wrote to a cousin while at Cambridge University.

Most documents on display are reproductions. But the show includes an original edition of "On the Origin of Species," Darwin's landmark 1859 text, as well as his magnifying glass, rock hammer and pistol.

An entire wall is covered by a map of his famous voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. A selection of Darwin's writings from the trip show him developing from an excited collector of colorful new animals into a thoughtful scientist, analyzing how the various creatures fit together.

He found fossils of extinct species and made a curious observation: Some seemed to be giant versions of living beasts. A reproduction of one such fossil, the armadillo-like glyptodont, is in the exhibit.

Darwin wondered: Could the old and new creatures somehow be related?

By the end of the trip, in June 1836, he was puzzling over the mockingbirds he collected from the Galapagos, which seemed to vary from island to island. Had each developed from a common ancestor? That notion, he wrote, would "undermine the stability of Species."

The following year, he sketched his famous tree of life, headlined with the words "I think," and by 1842 he had coined the phrase "natural selection." The theory was fully formed, but fearing disapproval he disclosed it only to close friends -- an experience he likened to "confessing a murder."

Though it may seem fitting to have the exhibit here, barely 100 miles from where a school board challenged Darwin, it was not originally destined for Philadelphia.

A scheduling mix-up forced the postponement of the exhibit's stop in Boston, and the Franklin Institute stepped into the breach. It was already hosting one traveling show but was able to handle a second because of a recent $61 million renovation, said institute president Dennis Wint.

The other show, "Animal Grossology," is fun for younger museum visitors; "Darwin" is more suited to older children and adults.

The publication of Darwin's theory is nearing its 150th birthday, yet a recent article in the journal Science suggests that the Darwin exhibit remains timely.

When presented with the statement that humans "developed from earlier species of animals," just 40 percent of people surveyed in the United States said it was true.

That was the second-lowest percentage of 34 countries surveyed, ahead of only Turkey. No. 1 was Iceland, where more than 80 percent labeled the statement true.

The state of science knowledge in this country particularly vexes Eldredge, the exhibit curator, whose own work has been erroneously used by creationists to discredit Darwin.

Working with the late Stephen Jay Gould, Eldredge proposed that evolution was not a steady, gradual process, as Darwin believed, but one marked by bursts of activity in between long periods with little change. Yet that is a minor disagreement in the context of a widely accepted theory that shaped modern biology.

Still, disagreement sells.

When the exhibit opened last year in New York, those attending included attorneys from the Philadelphia office of Pepper Hamilton, the firm that challenged the Dover school board in court.

Barely a month later, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones 3d ruled in their favor, finding that intelligent design did not belong in science class.

Jones himself later saw the show in New York and may see it again in Philadelphia, he said in a telephone interview.

"It's very hard to get Charles Darwin out of my mind," Jones says.

Among the exhibit items that captivated the jurist during his two-hour visit: a time line that mentions the court case.

"I stood there with my wife gazing at that, and I kind of chuckled," he recalls. "I looked around and said, `Well, here I am.'"

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