Charles Darwin: a very human scientist

Charles Darwin was such a scientist that he made a “Pro” and “Con” list when deciding whether or not to get married. And he was so human that one item on the “Pro” side was that in marriage, he’d have someone to humanize him, so he wouldn’t spend all his time thinking only of theories and experiments.

These two themes – his science and his humanity – braided delicately together at the Darwin exhibit that finished its run at the Royal Ontario Museum last Monday.

The Exhibit, called “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution,” suffered controversy in every North American city where it appeared. (This was the last of the North American showings; it now heads to London, England, for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 2009.) Or rather, the exhibit suffered from fear of controversy. Because all the exhibiting museums’ usual corporate sponsors and patrons (40-50 of them, in the ROM’s case) were afraid to support it, afraid the big bad North American creationists would get mad at them.

Fortunately for the ROM, two organizations believed this quaking fear was not just unseemly for rich, powerful patrons, but was insulting to the integrity and freedom of science. So both the Humanist Association of Canada and The United Church Observer magazine kicked in with large donations, followed thereafter by the Blyth Academy, and Zinc Research. What was sad was that the controversy was ultimately unnecessary. During my hours at the exhibit, my constant thought was how utterly non-threatening it was.

Through letters, artefacts, and notebooks, we were shown Darwin’s life in great detail, from childhood until his death in 1882. We learned of his interests and scholastic achievements as a young man, the relationship of the Darwin and Wedgewood families (yes, those Wedgewoods), how he would have abandoned plans to voyage on the Beagle if his father remained unconvinced he should go. How he cared for his wife Emma and their children, and what a rich, happy family life they had. How deeply and genuinely he grieved that he caused pain to Emma, a devout believer, by the conclusions of his scientific studies. We learned a great deal about Charles Darwin, the man.

Running parallel to his personal life were displays of his notebooks, specimens, charts, and letters. I walked from case to case, following the development of his scientific theory as he wrote and recorded data in those notebooks – from the germs of the idea to its final expression. What was obvious throughout was that Darwin based his theory on┬ámountains of evidence, collected in a multitude of experiments conducted in both the plant and animal worlds.

Yet this exhibit was never confrontational. Whenever his interpretation of the evidence differed from the standard view of his time, the meta-narrative acknowledged this and presented the opposing viewpoint. You never had the impression the message was, “How stupid those people were!” Rather it was, “Those scientists held a different view, so Darwin had to justify his theory with evidence.”

In fact, if anyone was confrontational in Darwin’s time, it was one of his defenders after The Origin of Species was published – Thomas Huxley. As Huxley said, “I am sharpening my claws and beak in readiness.” And it was actually Darwin who tried to tone him down.

The only place where the exhibit’s tone grew harder was its ending statement. It mentioned that today’s objections are the same ones made 150 years ago. But it states unequivocally that “Creationism, including intelligent design, does not offer a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. By invoking the act of a Creator or an intelligent designer as the explanation for life’s diversity, creationism invokes a cause that lies outside our powers of observation and thus outside the realm of scientific inquiry.”

And that was what the entire exhibit was about – scientific inquiry. That alone would have made me realize yet again that what I had been taught as a fundamentalist – that Darwin was virulently “anti-God” and tried to use science to rebel against him – was utterly false. Most attendees would already have known this. But what we might not fully have realized was Darwin’s warm, compassionate humanity. For me, that was a large gap that this wonderful exhibit finally filled.