Charles Darwin in the Smithsonian’s Deep Time fossil hall

Over the Thanksgiving break, my wife and son took a trip to Washington, DC. Among the many, many places they visited was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. There they got to see the museum’s new Deep Time fossil hall, and they sent me these photos of the Charles Darwin quote and young Darwin statue that fit so prominently in the exhibit. The quote is the last line of On the Origin of Species – “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” – and the statue depicts Darwin writing in a notebook, showing his “I think” tree of life sketch.

Darwin statue at NMNH in DC


Other views of the statue, and information regarding the time capsule that was placed underneath it, at the following links: Smithsonian, Washington Post,, and Washington Post again.

BOOK: Science Museums in Transition: Cultures of Display in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

This new edited volume will surely interest those interested in the intersection of museums and the history of science. While the topics of Darwin and evolution are only briefly mentioned, there’s enough natural history to warrant checking this book out.


Carin Berkowitz and Bernard Lightman, eds., Science Museums in Transition: Cultures of Display in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2017), 392 pp.

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through

Publisher’s description The nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic shift in the display and dissemination of natural knowledge across Britain and America, from private collections of miscellaneous artifacts and objects to public exhibitions and state-sponsored museums. The science museum as we know it—an institution of expert knowledge built to inform a lay public—was still very much in formation during this dynamic period. Science Museums in Transition provides a nuanced, comparative study of the diverse places and spaces in which science was displayed at a time when science and spectacle were still deeply intertwined; when leading naturalists, curators, and popular showmen were debating both how to display their knowledge and how and whether they should profit from scientific work; and when ideals of nationalism, class politics, and democracy were permeating the museum’s walls. Contributors examine a constellation of people, spaces, display practices, experiences, and politics that worked not only to define the museum, but to shape public science and scientific knowledge. Taken together, the chapters in this volume span the Atlantic, exploring private and public museums, short and long-term exhibitions, and museums built for entertainment, education, and research, and in turn raise a host of important questions, about expertise, and about who speaks for nature and for history.

BOOK: Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century

Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science & Natural History in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 456 pp

Publisher’s Description Rich with archival detail and compelling characters, Life on Display uses the history of biological exhibitions to analyze museums’ shifting roles in twentieth-century American science and society. Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain chronicle profound changes in these exhibitions—and the institutions that housed them—between 1910 and 1990, ultimately offering new perspectives on the history of museums, science, and science education. Rader and Cain explain why science and natural history museums began to welcome new audiences between the 1900s and the 1920s and chronicle the turmoil that resulted from the introduction of new kinds of biological displays. They describe how these displays of life changed dramatically once again in the 1930s and 1940s, as museums negotiated changing, often conflicting interests of scientists, educators, and visitors. The authors then reveal how museum staffs, facing intense public and scientific scrutiny, experimented with wildly different definitions of life science and life science education from the 1950s through the 1980s. The book concludes with a discussion of the influence that corporate sponsorship and blockbuster economics wielded over science and natural history museums in the century’s last decades. A vivid, entertaining study of the ways science and natural history museums shaped and were shaped by understandings of science and public education in the twentieth-century United States, Life on Display will appeal to historians, sociologists, and ethnographers of American science and culture, as well as museum practitioners and general readers.

BOOK: The Great Human Journey: Around the World in 22 Million Days

Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, The Great Human Journey: Around the World in 22 Million Days (Piermont, NH: Bunker Hill Publishing, 2013), 48 pp. Illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne.

Wallace and Darwin, the Museum Mice from the Halls of the American Museum of Natural History, are off on another adventure! It’s amazing what you can find in a museum and how far you can travel in a small time machine made from a yoghurt cup! Have you ever wondered where we humans all came from and how there came to be so many of us? The answers, as our two mice will show you, lie everywhere including in our own DNA. So there is the Big Picture of The Great Human Journey from the middle of Africa to Australia, America and Asia and then there’s the Tiny (really tiny) Picture too of molecules and cells that we can trace inside ourselves and our Genome like long strings of letters that tell us where we came from and who our ancestors were, and where they were when and how they got there! In their 22 Million Day Journey our intrepid mice, Wallace and Darwin, trace the biggest genealogy of all and find that all humans are 85% African and only 15% from the rest of the world! That is if you start counting our Genes – all 25,000 of them give or take an overlap! We took all this with us on our long walks from East Africa to Australia and from Australia to Asia and Europe between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. 35,000 years later it only took us a few thousand years more to get from Alaska to Chile! We took our sweet time creating cultures and civilizations as we went. And we did it without GPS! And we even know we wore clothes 170,000 years ago. How? Because Lice too have DNA. It is amazing what our genes can tell us and what the genes of other species tell us too! Mitochondrial DNA we inherit from our mothers tells us where they have been. And from the tiny threads of our Y chromosomes we inherit from our fathers we can tell where they have been too. And then there’s the Rats! They followed us in our canoes and boats and stayed on islands with us where we can trace their journeys too. Wallace and Darwin have appeared in two previous adventures: Bones, Brains and DNA: The Human Genome and Human Evolution [2007] and Brain: A 21st Century Look at a 400 Million Year Old Organ [2010]. Their creators Tattersall, DeSalle and Wynne have plans to send them on further excursions in The Tree of Life and The Anatomy of Evolution. Stay tuned!

URGENT: Help fund an Alfred Russel Wallace statue!

For the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death (1913), the Wallace Memorial Fund wishes to commission a life-sized statue of Wallace for the Natural History Museum, London. They need to raise £50,000 by January 31st. Last I heard they were £30,000 short, so they really could use some more donations!

Click here to donate.

Click here to read more about the proposal for the Wallace statue.

Alfred Russel Wallace / A.R.ウォーレス

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

On the “kids book on evolution that bashes religion”

In December of last year some folks cried out (1/2/3) against a new kids book that promotes anti-vaccination, and rightly so! But so far I have only come across one person who is crying out over a kids book about Charles Darwin. Why no others? Surely a book about the life of Darwin would be dangerous in the hands of children.

Book Cover - Charles Darwin - British Naturalist

The book in question is Darwin: British Naturalist by Diane Cook (which is the same as Charles Darwin), and the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin does not like that it is being sold in a public – and taypaxer-funded (oh, no!) – museum. First, visitors of the museum are not required to purchase the book, so what’s the problem? Second, why are they fussing? They quote a passage from the book:

How did all the many different species of plants and animals in this world come into being? The simple explanation that God had created everything did not satisfy him. It could not explain everything he had observed.

And their response:

Now I have no problem with people writing about the historical controversy between Darwin’s theory and religion, but why is this partisan message in a kids book being sold at a taxpayer-funded publicly-operated science museum?

I see no problem with the passage from the book not because I accept the theory of evolution and am (obviously) a Darwin aficianado, but because it’s true. It is historically accurate. Darwin did indeed think that special creation could not explain the origin and distribution of species on Earth. His travels in the 1830s gave him firsthand experience in observing many plants and animals of the world. The claim that this passage is “partisan” is unfair.

The DI post then goes on to charge the author of Darwin: British Naturalist of “concoct[ing] a story about how the church and religious ideologues supposedly persecuted Darwin”:

Darwin was criticized by many scientists and denounced by the religious community who claimed his theory was blasphemous. … Articles and cartoons satirizing Darwin appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines. The most common images were of Darwin’s head on an ape’s body or Darwin crawling among worms or other simple creatures. Darwin did nothing about this deliberate misrepresentation of his theory. He only smiled sadly. He had no wish to waste time defending or explaining his ideas. Instead, he went on living his quiet peaceful life, taking daily walks through the woods and continuing his scientific research and writing. Nevertheless, in his heart he hoped that one day people would understand that his purpose had not been to overturn God and destroy their beliefs, but just to prove one thing — that life was always changing.

Was Darwin criticized by scientists? Yes. Was his theory considered by some in the religious community as blasphemous? Yes. Did cartoonists use Darwin and turn him into all manner of monkeys and apes? Yes. Did Darwin respond publicly to these cartoons? Not to my knowledge. Did he live a quiet life, take daily walks, and continue working on science? Yes. Did Darwin travel the world, collect data, correspond with folks from all over the world, conduct experiments, and write many books and articles to “overturn God and destroy their beliefs”? No.

And yes, while the image from the book they share in the post may be silly, this “concocted story” is by all means fair to Darwin historically. But, since it paints a positive light on Darwin the man, the Discovery Institute of course thinks it is rubbish. What Darwin did or wrote is only a good thing for the Discovery Institute when it lends to their purposes, no matter how misleading.

I just looked up the book in the catalog of the Multnomah County Library, and there is a copy of Darwin: British Naturalist at my local branch. Looks like I will have to stop by and check it out.