Next year, as you may know, is both the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. To celebrate, the Natural History Museum recently opened an exhibition on Darwin, which has travelled to London from the American Museum of Natural History.
The exhibition has three parts. The first is devoted to Darwin's voyage on the Beagle. Most of this room is full of specimens of the plants and animals he saw on his travels. This meant a lot of dead stuffed animals, which aren't my favourite thing to look at. But there were also a live green iguana and ornate horned frog, which seemed unfazed by the visitors peering into their enclosures. I was most impressed, though, by the display of dried plant specimens collected by Darwin himself.
In cases along one wall were letters and other documents relating to Darwin's voyage. I was quite surprised that the museum glossed over the reason he was on the Beagle in the first place -- I thought the story was well-known by now, but the boards merely said he went along as "a naturalist." True, but he wasn't the official naturalist. That was Robert McKormick, who, in accordance with naval tradition, was also the ship's surgeon (think Stephen Maturin).
The real reason Darwin was asked along was to serve as company for the ship's captain, Robert Fitzroy. Fitzroy's family had a history of mental illness and suicide. The class divisions of the time meant that a captain could not socialise with those lower down the chain of command, and Fitzroy feared that enforced solitude over a long voyage would drive him mad. He needed someone of respectable social standing to share his meals with, and the young doctor's son seemed an ideal choice. (Ironically, in later life Fitzroy, a devout Biblical literalist, became consumed by guilt over the results of Darwin's voyage with him. Fixated on the idea, he sank into depression and cut his throat.)
I believe it was Stephen Jay Gould who first made this story famous, in his wonderful essay "Darwin's Sea Change" (collected in Ever Since Darwin), which goes on to reflect on the importance of social class in the history of science. Peter Nichols has also written a book about Fitzroy, Evolution's Captain, which I haven't read.
The Beagle portion of the exhibition could have used more direct quotations from Voyage of the Beagle, a really marvellous book that makes fascinating reading quite aside from its scientific importance. Many of the explanatory boards throughout the exhibition had a clunky tone and were too obviously written for an American audience (using "England" as if it were synonymous with "Britain," for example). For some reason the designers also chose to highlight key phrases in the text, as if they wanted to make sure everyone got the point.
The second part of the exhibition was devoted to Darwin's life at his home in Downe. I found a lot of charming objects here, such as Darwin's list of the pros and cons of getting married ("Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa"), a discarded page from the manuscript of Origin of Species that he gave to his son to draw a picture on, and an envelope containing hairs from his beard. The final portion explored the theory of evolution itself, and it was here that the exhibition's American-ness came through the most: there were video montages of scientists explaining that "theory" doesn't simply mean "guess" and why intelligent design isn't a scientific methodology, and one exhibit showed the warning label that schools in Cobb County, Georgia, were required to put on their biology textbooks until this was ruled to be unconstitutional in 2005.
Besides this, however, the museum had an impressive range of fossils illustrating the mechanisms of evolution, with emphasis on Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium. (I found myself a little sad, by the way, that Gould had not lived to see this exhibition -- I'm sure he would have been very involved in commemorating the anniversary.) And the exhibition closed with the final words of Origin of Species, which I have always loved:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. ... There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.