Darwin Main Press Release
For Immediate Release
Contact: Nancy O'Shea
(312) 665-7103 (For Media Use Only)
Exhibition Brings to Life the Man Who Revolutionized the Science of Biology
There is a grandeur in this view of life,…that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
When 22-year-old Charles Darwin stepped aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831, he took with him little more than a magnifying glass, a stack of notebooks, and an open mind. For five years the young amateur naturalist collected wildlife, plants, and ancient fossils from South America, Australia, Capetown, and beyond. Patiently and in meticulous detail, Darwin observed these “endless forms most beautiful,” and as he did he pondered the similarities that seemed to link species across time and space. Those insights ultimately led him to conclusions that would change forever how we see ourselves and our living world.
Now visitors can join this ongoing voyage of discovery in a fascinating new exhibition, Darwin, at the Field Museum from June 15, 2007, through January 1, 2008. The exhibition is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York in collaboration with The Field Museum, Chicago; the Museum of Science, Boston; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Natural History Museum, London.
“Never before has this much ‘Darwinia’ been brought together,” says Olivier Rieppel, chair of the Field’s Geology Department, curator of fossil amphibians and reptiles, and a member of the exhibition’s organizing team. Through personal belongings and photographs, manuscripts and letters, and hundreds of scientific specimens—including live horned frogs, a green iguana, and delicate orchids—the exhibition sheds light on Darwin’s personal life and times, his historic trip around the world, the dramatic development of his scientific theory, and the ways it shapes our lives today. Interviews with contemporary scientists, interactive displays, and Darwin’s own “Eureka!” moments bring home to visitors exactly what scientists mean when they talk about Darwin’s “theory of evolution by natural selection.”
An Eye-Opening Voyage around the World
Darwin called his five-year voyage “by far the most important event in my life,” and the exhibition reflects that role. From the auspicious letter offering him a spot on the Beagle, to his attempts to persuade his father to let him go, visitors will share Darwin’s anticipation and excitement as he gathers a few tools and begins his journey. A scale replica of the Beagle will help visitors imagine themselves aboard the ship with Darwin. They’ll follow him as he steps onto tropical shores and is overwhelmed by his first look at tropical plants and animals. And they’ll see what an earthquake in Chile and a trek in the Andes taught the budding scientist about the expanse and the power of geological time.
Fossils played an important role in Darwin’s thinking, and visitors will see many here, including a touchable replica of the giant, armadillo-like glyptodont that gave him pause. Why, Darwin wondered, did extinct species disappear, to be replaced by similar species? The famous “Darwin finches” of the Galapagos Islands are here, of course, along with the mockingbirds that first aroused Darwin’s curiosity about the peculiar distribution of species on these islands. Visitors will discover just how these, along with many other plants and animals, gave Darwin food for thought and led to his first tentative speculations about the origin of new species.
A Voyage of the Mind
Back in London, Darwin began another voyage—this one inside his mind. It was here, in what he called his “transmutation” notebooks, that he began to realize that species of plants and animals are not static but change over time, and that all species are related through common ancestry. Visitors can see a replica of the first of these notebooks, open to Darwin’s sketch of a simple evolutionary tree accompanied by the words: “I think.”
It would be many years, though, before Darwin made his thoughts public. “Darwin came back from his voyage knowing he was working on a staunchly materialistic theory,” says Olivier Rieppel. “But he was embedded in a culture that was very opposed to this, and he knew it would cause an uproar. So he was determined to keep his theory back until he had a very strong case.”
That case became much stronger when Darwin read Thomas Malthus and realized that more animals were born than could survive: life was a constant competition for survival. Any animal with a competitive edge—a useful variation—was likely to live longer and leave more offspring, passing on the trait to the next generation. Darwin sketched out these ideas as early as 1842. In 1844, after he and his family had moved to Down House, in a tiny rural village outside London, Darwin wrote an essay on evolution by natural selection. Even then, though, he hid the manuscript under the stairs, with instructions to his wife to publish it after his death.
Darwin lived and worked at Down House for forty years. The exhibition recreates his cozy, cluttered study—part library, part laboratory—with real artifacts, including his work table, notebooks, and scientific tools. Visitors can picture themselves walking with Darwin down his “sandwalk” path. And they’ll experience his shock upon receiving a letter from a young naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, describing a theory remarkably similar to his own. The two men agreed to have their papers presented together at the Linnaean Society in 1858, and Darwin finally rushed his book, The Origin of Species, into print the following year.
Darwin the Family Man
The “gentleman’s agreement” with Wallace shows us that Darwin was not only a great scientist but a decent man. He was also, as visitors will see, a good son, a loving husband, and a devoted father. For example, there is a list drawn up by the young Darwin of the pros and cons of marriage; the decision goes to “a nice wife on a sofa.” Visitors get an intimate view of his courtship of Emma Wedgwood, through letters that reveal their mutual love and admiration. Later, Emma would worry greatly that Charles’s beliefs would prevent them from being together after death, and Charles would grieve at causing her such pain.
Another poignant moment is revealed in a small writing box. The quill pens and writing paper it holds, along with a bookmark, thimble, thread, and other keepsakes, belonged to the Darwins’ daughter Annie. The second of ten children, Annie died of tuberculosis at the age of ten—a loss from which Darwin never completely recovered
When Darwin proposed his explanation for the diversity of life on earth, he had no idea how traits were passed along from one generation to the next, or how variations might arise. All the more remarkable that his explanation continues to hold up under the light of modern genetics and molecular biology. Contemporary scientists, while continually refining Darwin’s theory—Is it gradual, or does is proceed in fits and starts? Is every variation possible, and if so, why are similar body plans the rule?—still find that his work is fundamental to their own, whether they are fighting swiftly-changing viruses, decoding DNA, analyzing the fossil record, or working to save endangered species.
At The Field Museum, many scientists are engaged in phylogenetic analysis, determining the evolutionary relatedness among various groups of plants and animals, both living and extinct. “Several of us are involved in a big, international effort to reconstruct the Tree of Life,” notes Rieppel. The National Science Foundation is supporting the effort, which brings together approaches from fossils to morphology to molecular biology to work out evolutionary connections. The effort will yield untold benefits in agriculture, human health, ecology, and much more—the continuing legacy of Charles Darwin.
Tickets to Darwin include Museum admission and are priced at $19 for adults, $14 for seniors and students with ID, $9 for children 4-11. Discounts are available for Chicago residents. Visit www.fieldmuseum.org or call 312-922-9410 for details.
To purchase tickets visit fieldmuseum.org. Special rates are available for tour operators and groups of 15 or more. Call our Group Sales office toll-free at 888-FIELD-85 (888-343-5385).
Hours and General Information
The Field Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. Last tickets are sold at 4 p.m. For general Museum information call 312-922-9410 or visit our interactive web site at www.fieldmuseum.org.
Location and Travel Information
The Field Museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, on CTA bus lines #6, #12, and #146, and close to other routes and the Metra electric and South Shore lines. An indoor parking garage is located just steps from the main entrance. For more travel information, call the Illinois Department of Transportation, 312-368-4636, or the RTA Travel Center Hotline, (312) 836-7000.