Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darwin's Big Idea

Way back when I started this blog, I decided not to write ponderously long entries, since I always hate those on other blogs and never read them. I'm making an exception for this, and I hope it's worth your time.

About a year ago, when we planned the Genesis Kinds conference, I thought it would be a good idea to leave some time to see the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History Museum. I knew that most of our speakers would be very interested in the NHM (who wouldn't?), and I suspected the Darwin exhibit would be well worth seeing.

Photography was forbidden in the exhibit itself, but when the exhibit was at the American Museum of Natural History, a certain Colin Purrington took photos anyway and posted them over at Flickr. His pics give you a general sense of what the exhibit looked like.

The exhibit began with materials related to the Beagle, including an elaborate Galapagos diorama, complete with specimens of boobies, iguanas, and tortoises. As you wind past various documents related to the voyage itself, you come to a page from Darwin's ornithological notes that contains the famous passage on the zoology of archipelagos, "such facts would undermine the stability of species."

Next is a brief film on Darwin's life and work, and then a hodgepodge of materials mostly relating to the development of his species theory. Here we find several of Charles's notebooks, especially Notebook B opened to the page where he first sketched an evolutionary tree in 1837. More poignant is his wife Emma's letter to him in which she expresses her concern over his soul and eternal destiny, over which Darwin had "kissed and cryed."

We then continued past a replica of Charles's study at Down, which looked fairly accurate. There were various manuscripts and notes related to the species theory, followed by a section on the reception of his ideas. This consisted of a brief clip of talking heads explaining what a theory was, a section describing the "world before Darwin," a display of horse fossils and comparative anatomy, a film explaining that creationism is pseudoscience, and a cabinet of editions and translations of Origin.

Make no mistake that this was generally an outstanding exhibit with a marvelous sample of genuine Darwin artifacts. The highlight to me was easily Notebook B, containing that famous tree. The text of the exhibit was mostly informative and probably eye-opening to someone who knew very little about Charles's life. As someone who knows quite a lot about Darwin, I found several points that were disappointing, exaggerated, and just plain erroneous. My regular readers know I'm not prone to anti-evolution crusading or petty nitpicking just for the sake of argument. So I hope you'll take these comments as a serious critique and not some attempt to further the propaganda war.

My first surprise came at the Galapagos tortoise exhibit, where it was asserted that the tortoises from different islands could be visibly distinguished. This section highlighted the famous quote of the vice-governor of the islands, who claimed to know the origin of a tortoise just by looking at it. I am aware that this was probably a factor in Darwin's development of his species theory, but I am also aware that it is not true. There are differences between the tortoises (most notably in the saddleback morphology), but they are not so great that anyone, no matter how experienced, could accurately identify by sight a particular tortoise's provenance. I thought that the exhibit should have at least mentioned that.

The next part that bothered me was the presentation of the ornithological notes, where it was asserted that Darwin was already beginning to speculate about the transmutation of species before the end of the Beagle voyage. This idea was first popularized by Darwin's granddaughter, Lady Nora Barlow, but it has been questioned by such scholars as Gruber and Sulloway. This is because in the preceding context, Darwin discussed the differences from island to island and wrote,
...when I see these Islands in sight of each other and possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly differing in structure and filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties.

That sounds very much like he's still convinced that the differences are merely varietal, as Lyell taught in volume II of Principles of Geology. Lyell posited that a species originated at a "center of creation" from which it spread to its modern range and differentiated into varieties. Darwin's comments are entirely consistent with Lyell's proposal, and his "stability of species" comment may have been a sort of devil's advocate remark.

Then I watched the "Life and Work" movie, and I was disappointed. The film opened with some talking heads (actually whole bodies) explaining how important evolution was. Were these legitimate Darwin scholars, such as Adrian Desmond, James Moore, or Janet Browne, who have dedicated their careers to the study of Darwin's papers and works? No, these particular talking heads belonged to Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Niles Eldredge, and Genie Scott. At this point I realized that this exhibit was not merely a celebration of Darwin's life and work. This exhibit was designed, at least in part, to counter the "threat" of creationism. That's the only explanation that makes any sense of the inclusion of those four prominent anticreationists instead of legitimate Darwin scholars.

I felt kind of stupid for not anticipating the ax-grinding, but I guess I expected the English to be a little less strident. Creationism is perceived there as more of an American phenomenon, and the English are rather nonconfrontational to begin with. They just quietly ignore their native creationists. But this exhibit originated at the AMNH, and I should have known better.

Despite this little realization, I was still left slackjawed by the audacity of the "World before Darwin" section, where it was authoritatively stated (twice no less) that people before Darwin believed the world was only 6000 years old! Are you kidding? That's just flagrantly wrong. I suppose the general public probably still believed that well into the nineteenth century, but there were lots of scholars already questioning the age of the earth by Darwin's day.

I only caught the last half of the final film, wherein a new set of talking heads explained the difference between science (i.e., evolution) and pseudoscience (i.e., creationism). My favorite was the fellow who explained it this way: Science (1) observes and gathers information from the natural world, (2) proposes hypotheses and theories to explain those facts, and (3) also predicts facts and observations that would confirm or deny the theory. Anything else is pseudoscience. OK, so I know lots of creationists who do all three of those and still come to creationist conclusions. Shouldn't this be where you reinforce the party line that science only entertains naturalistic theories and a priori excludes the supernatural? Other talking heads in that film did reinforce that, but that person did not. He seemed comically out of place.

I think you can sense from my cynicism that I was quite exasperated by the end of my tour. Am I merely nitpicking? It is a rather large exhibit after all; should I really expect perfection? While we were at "Genesis Kinds," we authors were complaining about our own errors in our papers, and that was a much smaller undertaking. Should I hold the AMNH and NHM to a higher standard than I hold myself? I can think of two reasons why we should expect better (and by "we," I mean the general public, evolutionist and creationist alike).

(1) One of the errors is so elementary (6000 year old earth) that it opens the entire exhibit to unnecessary scorn. As I said, this exhibit is generally not bad, and people will learn a lot about Darwin and his influence from it. But as I continue to preach in this blog, propaganda only leads to compromises with the truth. It fosters myths and inhibits true understanding.

(2) This exhibit is from the AMNH and NHM, two of the foremost museums in the world. It's not like Billy Bob's Shed of Skulls 'n' Critters. The AMNH and NHM easily have all the scholarly resources at their disposal to craft a flawless exhibit. I'd cut Billy Bob some slack, but not the AMNH or NHM.

I want to conclude by pointing out that I'm not complaining about being misrepresented in the exhibit. I expected that creationism would be depicted in an unfavorable light. It's an inseparable part of the story of Darwin. I tried to make clear my precise dissatisfaction, but I anticipate some anticreationists will still view me as just another disgruntled creationist loon, whining about things that don't matter. Too bad for them, eh?