The Life of Charles Darwin: From Aimless Adventure to Tragedy and Discovery

Prior to the public opening of "Darwin" Nov. 19 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, LiveScience's Ker Than toured the exhibit. These are his impressions.

The "Darwin" exhibit presents the life and work of the famous naturalist as a series of intertwined journeys. At the most obvious level, it is a physical journey, one that retraces the places that Charles Darwin visited and lived during his lifetime.

In one section of the exhibit, scenes from the jungles of South America and the beaches of the Galapagos where Darwin visited during his travels aboard the HMS Beagle are recreated. Models of marine iguanas lounge on rocks and blue-footed boobies stand motionless for inspection. Afterwards, visitors follow Darwin to London where he lived for a while after his voyage and then to Down House, his retreat in the British countryside where he wrote "The Origin of Species."

"Darwin" is also the story of a personal journey, one that reveals how an aimless young man with an unusual fondness for beetles found his calling first as a naturalist and then as a theorist.

Young and confused

When visitors are first introduced to Darwin in the exhibit, he is young and confused and isn't sure yet what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He has dropped out of medical school because he can't stand the sight of blood or the brutality of surgery. He has agreed to train as a clergyman mainly because it will allow him to do what he loves best: collect and catalogue things in nature, things like beetles and moths, eggs and seashells.

The young Darwin was good-natured and energetic. He got along well with the sailors aboard the Beagle and also with Robert Fitzroy, the ship captain who required that the Beagle's naturalist also be a "gentlemen" with whom he could converse.

Darwin was also adventurous—he eagerly ate many of the animals that he collected, including iguanas, armadillos and rheas—and pious, taking along a bible for his five-year voyage.

By the end of the exhibit, however, Darwin is a changed man.

He will have found love and married and had children. He will be an agnostic, the last vestiges of his faith stripped away after watching Anne, his 10-year old daughter and favorite child, suffer from a long-drawn illness and then die. He will be known as the white-bearded sage who transformed the way humans see the natural world and their place in it. And finally, he will be buried with national honors in Westminster Abby, close to Issac Newton.

The evolution of an idea

Visitors to "Darwin" also accompany the naturalist on a mental journey, one that charts the evolution of a single, powerful idea through more than twenty years of experiments and intuition to a conclusion that shocked Darwin's contemporaries but which has since become a central tenant of modern biology.

It is an idea that began with early questions that came to Darwin as a result of the things he observed during his travels.

While in South America, for example, he discovered ancient fossils that looked like giant versions of the armadillos and sloths that were currently living in the regions. Was there a connection, Darwin wondered, between these long dead creatures and the ones still living? Why did species seem to inhabit places where similar species had become extinct?

Also, was it just a coincidence that many of the plants and animals on the islands that Darwin visited similar to those on the mainland?

Darwin saw island daisies and sunflowers, for example, which grew as high as trees. On the Galapagos Islands, he came across marine iguanas that resembled iguanas living in the jungles of South American but which were so well adapted to their beach environment that they could dive underwater to graze on seaweed. On the same islands, Darwin saw small tropical penguins that looked like leaner versions of their Antarctic cousins, except that they sometimes held their wings out over their webbed-feet like mini-parasols to prevent sunburn.

A haunted man

Darwin was glimpsing something fundamental about nature and he was open-minded enough to see it. He wondered whether the similar plants and animals he was seeing were variations of a single species, separate species or even varieties on their way to becoming separate species.

The last idea haunted him. He didn't share it with anyone while traveling, but he jotted down his questions and ideas in private notebooks.

Some of those notebooks, as well as letters and manuscripts that Darwin wrote, are on display in the exhibit. Visitors are invited to retrace the mental footsteps that Darwin took while developing his theory of evolution by natural selection.

For those who already accept that evolution happens and is a fact of life, the exhibit is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the man who discovered one of its primary mechanisms. And for those genuinely torn between evolution and creationism, there is no better way to discover the logic and beauty of the former—and the inconsistencies of the latter—than to see how it unfolded before Darwin.

"Darwin" opens Nov. 19 and will run through May 29, 2006.

-By Ker Than

Live Science Staff
For the science geek in everyone, Live Science offers a fascinating window into the natural and technological world, delivering comprehensive and compelling news and analysis on everything from dinosaur discoveries, archaeological finds and amazing animals to health, innovation and wearable technology. We aim to empower and inspire our readers with the tools needed to understand the world and appreciate its everyday awe.