The Grandeur of Life Exhibit

A Celebration of Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species:
An Exhibition of Rare Books from the History of Science Collection
by William B. Ashworth, Jr.

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Where: Linda Hall Library
When: October 1, 2009 through March 27, 2010

  • Monday: 9:00 am – 8:30 pm
  •  Tuesday-Friday: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Saturday: 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

A little over a week ago, on the evening of October 1, I had the pleasure of attending the opening of this wonderful exhibition.  My words would put the exhibit to shame so read the introductory words that the library has published in a brochure for the exhibit.

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809.  When he was fifty years old, in 1859, he published On the Origin of Species, a book destined to radically change our view of the living world.  In 2009, we celebrate both the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his great work.

Darwin began his scientific career as a naturalist, as someone who collected plant and animal specimens, studied and recorded the details of their structures, and attempted to identify and classify them.  He thus worked within the framework that was known as natural history.  Natural history had a vernerable pedigree, with its roots in Aristotle, but it especially flourished and matured in the four centuries before the Origin of Species.  Darwin was the direct heir of naturalists like Konrad Gesner, who published the first illustrated encyclopedia of zoology (1551-58), Carl Linnaeus, who successfully sorted out the plant and animal kingdoms with his influential taxonmic Systems of Nature (1735), Joseph Banks, who sought new species in the south seas on the first voyage of Captain Cook (1768-71), and Jean Lamarck, who made the study of invertebrates a respectable branch of zoology (1801).

We choose to honor Darwin, therefore, by showcasing the tradition out of which he himself evolved.  Fortunately, for exhibition purposes, the works we have chosen to display are not only important intellectually, but are also some of the most beautiful books ever published.  “There is gradeur in this view of life,” Darwin remarked in the last sentence of the Origin of Species.  We hope our exhibition captures some of the grandeur, and of Darwin’s great achievement.

I also had the pleasure of listening to Lyanda Haupt’s lecture on “Darwin’s Evolution as Naturalist: A Bird’s-eye View”, and have subsequently purchased and have begun to read her book, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, that the lecture was based on.  It has been a good read so far…   Luckily for you there are two remaining lectures in the series honoring Darwin, on October 29th and December 3rd.  To learn more about these lectures visit Linda Hall’s Darwin Lecture Series site.

So, as we draw near to the anniversary of the publication of our Origins, take a few minutes and tour the grand exhibit at Linda Hall and please inspire your students to do the same.

 

Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Darwin!

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Charles Darwin once wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  With that quote in mind, I decided to compile a few of the Darwin related resources that I have recently and happily become inundated with.  So, click, read, download, listen, and watch, all the while gaining knowlege and gradually losing any confidence that you may have had… 

Continue reading “Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Darwin!”

Darwin and Wallace: Books Reviewed (in part)

A few years ago one of my more accomplished students was kind enough to give me a parting gift of David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, and even though the book is more generally about the scientific development of Island Biogeography (as the subtitle states), the authors historical accounts of the concept inspired an interest in Alfred Wallace. More recently, I have read David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and Peter Raby’s biography Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life both of which contain information relevant to understanding the relationship between the icons of evolutionary biology, Darwin and Wallace.

In the first of Quammen’s books mentioned, he suggests a conspiracy, of sorts, that Darwin used to maintain his priority over the concept of natural selection.

“Then one day Darwin received a manuscript in the mail from a young, obscure naturalist named Wallace – and the Wallace manuscript, to Darwin’s horror, contained his own precious concept. Wallace had found his way to it independently. For a brief heartsick period, Darwin believed that the younger man had eclipsed him and preempted his life’s work by staking a just claim to priority. As things developed, however, with Joseph Hooker’s collusion, Wallace and Darwin announced the concept simultaneously. For a variety of reasons, some good and some shabby, Darwin received most of the recognition; and Wallace, in consequence, is famous for being obscured.” p 20-21 of Song of the Dodo

Quammen more fully develops this potential conspiracy in a detailed discussion of the correspondence that occurred between Darwin, Lyell, Hooker, and Wallace that informed the later of the now famous arrangement presenting an excerpt of Darwin’s 1844 essay along with Wallace’s paper to the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858.

“Darwin was understandably abashed and tried to portray himself as a passive party swept along by events… a claim that is weaselly at best and arguably untrue, given his strong hints and lamentations to both men (Hooker and Lyell).” p 168 of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Quammen does reference the known correspondence to build his case, and does concede that the actual letters to Wallace have been lost and that Darwin was dealing with the loss of one of his children during this period (which I imagine was quite important in his leaving things to Lyell and Hooker).

Obviously, Quammen’s words and evidence made me contemplate and question the motives, honor, etc… of this great man, a human all the same. But, I was happy to read Raby’s biography of Wallace where he presents another perspective on the relationship between these two great men. In contrast, some of his accounts rescued Darwin’s qualities from Quammen argument.

Continue reading “Darwin and Wallace: Books Reviewed (in part)”