Charles Darwin Bicentenary


Feb 12, 1809-April 19, 1882

2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Robert Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his “Origin of the Species”(November 24, 1859), so it’s a good time to examine the life of this famous man. The year will be one of commemorations around the world, in honor of his work and its influence on subsequent scientific, philosophical and religious thinking. The fact that so many events are planned emphasizes the impact of his legacy on the 21st century.

Many books have been written about Darwin and his life, but in view of the special commemoration year, what better way to try and understand this complex man than through an exhibition? The Darwin Exhibition is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in collaboration with a number of other museums: Museum of Science, Boston; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and Natural History Museum, London.

This special exhibition has traveled to various cities in USA and Europe (see partial list at the end) and will end up in London from November 14, 2008, in time for the commemoration year. I was fortunate enough to visit the exhibition when it was at Chicago’s Field Museum. It was highly recommended and thought-provoking, providing an in-depth look at Darwin’s life every bit as good as reading a biography.

Whatever one’s personal beliefs about the emotional and controversial issue of evolution, this exhibit leaves you feeling very sympathetic towards Darwin and his theory, as you realize how difficult it was for him to publish it.

The exhibition puts the spotlight on the life of Charles Darwin, the 19th century naturalist who formulated the theory of evolution that linked species through a process of natural selection. This exhibition gives a good understanding of this complex man, his work and writings, and his family life. It claims to be the most in-depth exhibition on Darwin ever presented, and it certainly was extensive with many original items from his life, such as his special geological hammer, his magnifying glass (no microscopes in those days!), part of his beetle collection, many pages from his diaries, and many of his letters.

The displays are presented chronologically, and as I watched the movie about his life, then walked slowly through the rooms, reading, looking at the displays and listening to the excellent audio guide I began to get a sense of this remarkable man, who changed basic thinking about biological sciences. His theory of the origin of the species and of evolution through natural selection (commonly referred to as survival of the fittest for any particular environment) soon became the cornerstone of biology.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809, the fifth of six children, into a wealthy family (his mother was a Wedgewood, the family of the beautiful pottery fame). His father was a doctor, and his mother a homemaker. Sadly, she died when Darwin was only eight, and he was raised by his older sisters, who were fairly lenient and allowed him lots of freedom outdoors. Always a lover of the outdoors and outdoor pursuits, Darwin and his cousin began an extensive study and collection of beetles. Darwin was obviously very clever, but an indifferent student, and happiest when roaming around in the natural world. His grandfather, Erasmus, also a great thinker, had already proposed a theory about the origin of species, and one wonders how much influence that had on his grandson’s interests.

In 1825 Darwin went to Edinburgh University to study medicine but left in 1827 without a qualification. His father then sent him to Christ College at the University of Cambridge to study theology, but he was also unsuccessful in that, and far preferred lectures on biology, geology and botany. He was befriended by a botanist at Cambridge, John Henslow, probably the person who changed the course of Darwin’s life.

It was Henslow who invited Darwin on a 2-year sailing expedition around South America, whose main aim was to map the coastline. The voyage ended up taking much longer and traveling much further. Darwin only found his true mtier after this famous 5-year voyage on the “HMS Beagle” around the world, the trip on which he went as the gentleman naturalist to study rocks, geography, plants, animals, and anything else that took his fancy.

The voyage set sail on December 27, 1831. Darwin suffered from chronic seasickness, so was always fond of going ashore for as long as possible. He filled huge numbers of diaries with notes and observations, drawings, measurements, and sent many notes and samples back to Henslow. He also wrote many letters back to England to friends and family about his findings, so there is an enormous record of those five years. This formative voyage is well covered in the exhibit, especially the short trip to the Galapagos Islands, where many of his theories first began to take shape when he saw the small variations in certain species of birds and animals on the different islands, and even on the same island. For example, many people have heard of “Darwin’s finches”, small birds on the Galapagos Islands whose beak formations have changed depending on their diet. Many of his geological findings are also important. Fossils of now-extinct creatures began to help him formulate ideas about the evolutionary chain of development.

On his return to England Darwin was accepted into the academic world, and elected to some influential organizations like the Royal Society. He spent the rest of his life working on his ideas; partly by analyzing and extending the information he already had, and also by doing more experiments; on orchids, potatoes, pigeons, and barnacles, for example.

He married his cousin Emma Wedgewood in 1838 and had a large family of 10 children, although two died in infancy. His family life was happy in the main, except for his chronic ill-health (many surmise that he picked up some type of tropical disease during his voyage around the world) and the death of his oldest daughter, Anna, at age eight, an event that helped cement his ever-decreasing religious beliefs (much to Emma’s distress, as she was a devout Christian). He was coming to realize more and more that the traditional Christian beliefs about the creation of the earth and its creatures, including mankind, did not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

However, it took Darwin about 20 years to actually publish all his findings. The main reason for the delay was the social climate of the times, where the churches and society would condemn and ridicule these supposedly heretical thoughts. He also did not want to be ridiculed by his academic peers. The threat of another person (Alfred Russell Wallace) publishing the same theories before him pushed Darwin into publication of all the work that he had already written, and the scientific world has never been the same since.

Wallace was another amateur naturalist, an Englishman who had also traveled to South America and at the time was living and working in Indonesia. He had come to very similar conclusions on natural selection. He knew of Darwin’s work and there had been some communication between the two men. Wallace sent Darwin a paper explaining his findings. Darwin and his friends at the Royal Society arranged to present this paper at the same time as two earlier papers by Darwin, thereby establishing that Darwin had come to the conclusion before Wallace. This announcement was in 1858, not long before the actual publication of “Origin of the Species”.

The controversy between Evolution’ and Creation’ has raged very strongly at times in the 150 years since Darwin’s book was published, and recently another contender, Intelligent Design’, has entered the fray. People, groups, and organizations have become very vocal in defense of the concept they espouse, at times even instigating legal challenges. It’s an emotional issue still today. The Field Museum apparently supports Evolution, but in this Darwin exhibit the museum was very careful to also present the other ideas and what merits they might have.

This exhibit is very well thought out and carefully presented, with many hands-on exhibits and displays that will hopefully engage all, but especially young people, and get them thinking rationally about this large issue, or “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, as some put it. You can also take advantage of the many extra educational resources, talks and programs offered in conjunction with the special exhibit.

This special exhibition was at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, for most of 2006; at the Field Museum, Chicago, through January 1, 2008, then at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto March 8-August 4, 2008.

*From November 14, 2008 April 19 2009, the Natural History Museum in London will host the exhibition, titled “Darwin Big Idea. Big Exhibition”. More information at

Other notable celebrations are:

*July 5-10, 2009 at the University of Cambridge, where Darwin was a student at Christ College from 1827 ( )

*The British Council is sponsoring Darwin Now, an initiative to explore Darwin’s legacy through many different events ( )

*University College of London (UCL) Library Services has an exhibition in the Main Library 13 October, 2008 through 31 January, 2009. Charles Darwin lived in a house on the site now occupied by UCL’s Darwin Building from 1839-1842, just over 2 years after his return from the voyage on the HMS Beagle.