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Exhibition at American Museum of Natural History presents the life and work of Darwin

NEW YORK – He was a lackluster student, bored by the rote memorization of Latin words. He tried medical school, but hated it. Charles Darwin figured he would end up in the clergy, his love of nature and the sciences just a hobby.Then came the invitation – one of his mentors had been asked to go on a voyage but was too busy. Perhaps Darwin would be interested in the post of naturalist on the HMS Beagle, setting sail for South America in 1831?That five-year voyage would change the course of Darwin’s life – and ours. It was on that trip that Darwin collected the specimens and took the notes that were the underpinnings of his theory of evolution by natural selection, the foundation of modern biology.A new exhibition examines that pivotal work, as well as the man himself. “Darwin,” a landmark exhibit put together by some of the world’s leading science institutions, opens Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History and runs until May 29.”Our visitors are invited to retrace Darwin’s footsteps, to see what he saw … and to follow his path to discovery,” said Ellen Futter, president of the New York museum.The exhibit includes some of Darwin’s own papers, samples he collected, his magnifying glass, as well as fossils, live animals including two Galapagos tortoises, and a recreation of Darwin’s study at his English countryside home.Futter said the show is meant not only to present Darwin, but to explain evolutionary theory and highlight the process by which scientific theory and research are done.”We’re humanizing the scientific enterprise, we’re reminding people that this is about individuals who were curious, individuals who had to know,” Futter said. “This is something we want to make accessible.”The exhibit, three years in the planning, debuts at a time when evolutionary theory is again the subject of debate. Earlier this month in Kansas, the state Board of Education voted to adopt standards for schools that say the theory is flawed. On the other side, voters in Pennsylvania ousted every member of a local school board who supported including the concept of intelligent design in the curriculum, replacing them with members who opposed the mandate.Darwin’s theory has always been a lightning rod. In fact, Darwin worked on it in secret for more than 20 years because he was reluctant to deal with the controversy he knew it would engender.The exhibit includes a timeline of the social reaction to his work, and takes pains to point out that no scientific alternative to evolution has been proposed.”To teach creationism or intelligent design as if it were actually science, in the science classroom, is to completely cloud up the true nature of scientific enterprise,” said curator Niles Eldredge. “Americans need more real science in their education, not less.”Futter echoed that thought, pointing out that the United States ranked low when compared to other industrialized nations on math and science education.”Science education and science literacy in this country are appallingly low,” she said. “That is not appropriate for the United States. Science is at the core of the American identity and spirit as pioneers from the Wild West to the cosmos.”After its run in New York, the show will travel to the other museums, ending in London in time to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Contributors to the show include the Museum of Science in Boston, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Natural History Museum in London.—On the Net:American Museum of Natural History: http://www.amnh.org


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