Important Science Exhibit
Darwin: "Discover the Man and the Revolutionary Theory that Changed the Course of Science and Society"
Revolution #029, January 8, 2006, posted at revcom.us
On November 19, 2005 "Darwin," an important new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, opened in New York. In the midst of attacks on science and a sharpening clash of civilizations between the so called "faith-based" and "reality-based" communities, the AMNH has mounted a significant show that takes on one of the questions where some of the battle lines are shaping up in some of the debate over this clash--evolution.
There are four significant things about this exhibition worth noting.
1) The exhibit itself is remarkable, irrespective of the swirling debate more broadly in society.
2) The exhibition couldnt be more welcome given the battles raging about evolution right now. The week the exhibit opened a judge heard a court case to determine whether the Dover, Pa. school board has the power to mandate the teaching of Intelligent Design (a religious "explanation" for the existence of life on earth) as part of the science curriculum. In late December the judge affirmed that ID was religion and thus could not be taught as science. The battle also raged outside of court, days after the court case was heard, when people in the district voted out the board that mandated the teaching of ID. In the same month as "Darwin" opened, the Kansas State Board of Education, changed the academic standards, rewriting the definition of science so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena. And in another incident, Kansas University Professor Paul Mirecki received death threats; was reportedly stalked, brutally beaten, hospitalized, interrogated like a criminal by the police after being beaten; demoted from his job and had his career ruined; for daring to teach a course--equating intelligent design with mythology--which was specifically designed to challenge the wave of creationism sweeping the land. And a recent CBS News poll found that 51 percent of those polled said they rejected the idea of evolution. At a time when there is such ignorance of basic science and the scientific method and when basic science is sharply contested and threatened, it is significant the AMNH, one of the most well-respected science museums in the country, decided to enter into the debate and give people broadly the opportunity to learn some of the basic facts so many have had kept from them.
3) The exhibit didn't get corporate funding. When museums want to develop and present new exhibits they need to raise funds to do so. Typically with an exhibit as large and important as this one, museums get corporate sponsorship. While it is problematic that museums must rely on corporations to present ideas, it is stunning and an ominous sign of the times that no corporation wanted to be associated with this show. What does it say about the times we are living in when not a single corporation wanted their name attached to an exhibit about the person who developed one of the most established and rigorously analyzed scientific facts in history and in effect attempted to censor it through the financial workings of the system? What does it mean that corporations feel that it is too controversial to have their name associated with evolution? Science is under attack and the Christian fascists have other sections of the bourgeoisie (as well sections of the people as well) so on the defensive that key pillars of knowledge are threatened with being erased and suppressed, and even corporations who depend on some of the developments that Darwin pioneered wont defend basic truths. It is outrageous and intolerable that this show wasnt funded. And it is an even more dangerous indication of how far the assault on critical thought has advanced that this has not been a major story in the U.S. media and there has been very little outcry about this or movement to defend and support the AMNH.
A perverse flip side to this: at the very time AMNH was having trouble securing funding for "Darwin," the Creation Museum, a $25-million, 50,000-square-foot center dedicated to promoting creationism in opposition to evolution, is under construction near Cincinnati and set to open in 2007.
4) People are flocking to see the Darwin exhibit and carefully studying the show. People want to know how the world and the universe around them works. Many are denied access to a basic scientific understanding and method and when they have the opportunity to get one, they take it. The day I was there, there was a long wait to get into the exhibit and many of the visitors who were allowed in at the same time as I was stayed as long as they were allowed, carefully reading every sign and observing all the displays.
The exhibit tells the story of the life and times of Darwin. It shows his development, how he closely observed the world around him and how this led to his discovery of his theory of evolution and natural selection. It takes us on his voyage on the HMS Beagle and his studies on the Galápagos Islands. It features ephemera from Darwin (journals including one where he first sketched the tree of life, magnifying glasses, personal letters), drawings, fossils, live Galápagos tortoises and iguana, and lots of signs exploring and explaining Darwin's life, time, and revolution in thinking. Speaking about the show, museum President Ellen V. Futter said, "The exhibition re-creates Darwin's fantastic journey of discovery. Visitors will experience the sense of awe and curiosity about nature that led to the formulation of Darwin's groundbreaking theory that remains the cornerstone of modern biology."
After careful observation and much wrangling, Darwin discovered and then developed his theory of evolution. Yet after discovering the theory, Darwin kept evolution a secret for 21 years, knowing that his ideas would challenge the church of his day and fearful that this challenge could lead to his own peril. But when another scientist had come to similar conclusions, Darwin had the courage to eventually come forward with his theory. And once presented, it revolutionized peoples thinking about everything. Obviously it challenged humanity's view of itself and how life developed on this planet and established a new foundation for biology. And almost as importantly, it set change and relationships within a given system at the heart of our thinking. No longer would it be possible to think of life existing in an unchanging way on earth for however long--Darwin's theory not only destroyed the biblically proscribed view of life created, unrelated, and unchanged for a mere 6,000 years but it also challenged the thinking of scientists, geologists, paleontologists and others, many who were coming to understand that the earth was millions and millions of (in fact 4 billion+) years old. Life changed over those millions of years.
Beyond demonstrating that life changes and evolves, Darwin also grasped the interconnectedness of things in a given system. For example, he recognized and his theory explained the dependence of and mutual development between a particular moth (a giant hawk moth) and a particular orchid ( Angraecum sesquipedale) in the evolution of each. His understanding allows us to understand how bacteria make people ill, how to develop antibiotics, and understand how some germs evolve to become resistant to our medicine. This interconnectedness is apparent in development of speedy gazelles and the even quicker cheetahs that hunt them. And it is apparent in our everyday living: roaches and "Combats" and roaches that become resistant to the poison.
Darwin's revolution in thinking also revolutionized many other areas of human thought. Seeing change over time within systems enables people to ask questions like: how old is the universe? Is it expanding? When did time begin? And the understanding of interconnectedness enables people to grasp the connection between greenhouse gasses, the destruction of the rainforest and global warming. And it provides a framework for further investigating theories that explain this. The breakthrough in thinking ushered in by Darwin also enables people to recognize the current global mass extinction that we are living through and which many scientists believe humanity is causing.
Darwin, evolution, and his observational method is foundational to biology and most areas of science more generally. Everyone should have a basic knowledge of this. "Darwin" provides a way for many people to gain or deepen a rudimentary understanding of not only evolution, but the method in thinking that enabled Darwin to develop his theory. In a socialist society, evolution would be an essential part of school curricula and everyone of all ages would have access to this knowledge. For now, most people must seek this out on their own. Wars over science are raging and powerful forces, including in the White House, are trying to plunge the world in to a high-tech Dark Ages. A fascist movement is unleashed in which science professors are beaten with pipes, outrageous laws are written that redefine science, and legal cases are heard that could codify and establish new norms. It is also possible that people may have the chance to rip a different future out of this moment. Having a major exhibit enter into this debate in society is a significant step in making the battle over science more two-sided and having a broader section of society with a greater grasp some of the basic science and scientific method at the heart of this.
The exhibit continues at the AMNH until May 29, 2006. From there it will travel to the Museum of Science, Boston (specific dates not set yet); the Field Museum, Chicago (June 15, 2007 to Jan. 1, 2008); the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada (March 8, 2008 to Aug. 4, 2008); and the Natural History Museum, London, England. For more information online about the exhibit, go to www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin.