Cabot Exhibition Examines the Darwinian Revolution

Darwin poster

"Rethinking the Darwinian Revolution," an exhibittion dedicated to Darwin's theory of evolution, opens
Feb. 6 at the Cabot Science Library. The exhibition
looks at Darwin's life and work, and the impact his
theories had on the world outside the scientific
community

February 6, 2009 - The scientific world will celebrate two landmark events this year - the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of his publication of "The Origin of Species," the revolutionary treatise which laid out the theory of evolution, and touched off one of the great social, political and scientific upheavals in history.

An exhibition opening Feb. 6 at Cabot Science Library, "Rethinking the Darwinian Revolution," takes a fresh look at Darwin's life and work, as well as the impact his theories had outside the world of science.

"We're using different themes, such as Darwinian myths and Darwin's impact in other cultures, to examine how aspects of his life have been regarded in one fashion, and we're using new scholarship and new research to illustrate that those characteristics can be viewed in different ways," said Myrna Perez, a second year graduate student in the History of Science Department, and one of the exhibition's curators.

"There are a number of things that are commonly associated with Darwin that aren't true," Perez said. "People believe the finches in the Galapagos prompted some great insight for Darwin, but in actuality it didn't happen like that. He didn't realize the finches were different species until he returned to England, and someone else classified them. There are other examples used in textbooks - like the story of how Darwin saw a finch performing some interesting tool use - that never happened. It wasn't until the 20th century that those behaviors were observed. All these bits get pulled together into one Darwin story, but that isn't quite how it happened."

In addition to tackling commonly-accepted myths surrounding Darwin, the exhibition focuses on his impact in other cultures and examines the ways in which Darwin has been represented in cartoons. The exhibition will also include a 1910-era educational film on evolution and a student-produced video about Darwin's life, as well as a collection of "Darwinania" - items which show how Darwin's image has been co-opted over the years.

For students, Perez said, creating the exhibit presented an array of educational opportunities, particularly when dealing with different libraries in an effort to locate items for the exhibition. The exhibition features items from the collections of Widener, the Museum of Comparative Zoology collections and special collections, and the Harvard University Archives. 

"As a grad student, you get pretty used to the main parts of the library," Perez said. "But I hadn't delved into the special collections in most libraries. Just learning how to contact the staff and how to borrow items is a useful professional skill. Due to the limited space of an exhibition, you also learn how to convey information clearly, interestingly and briefly."

The product of a fall 2008 graduate seminar taught by Aramont Professor of the History of Science Janet Browne and Associate Professor of the History of Science Marwa S. Elshakry, the exhibition is curated by students, with assistance from HCL librarians and other staff. The exhibition space was offered by Science Reference and Cartographic Librarian Reed Lowrie, who also worked with students to prepare items for exhibition.

"Reed has done much more than simply saying here's some space, do whatever you like," Perez said. "He's experienced with the space itself, so he's done a lot to help us organize things, and he served as the central contact person for us as we worked with other libraries and the University Archives."

Among the items that will be included in the exhibition: watercolor paintings, several photographs taken by Harvard University evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, several specimens from the Harvard University of Comparative Zoology, including finches and skulls, and a range of other items, such as Darwin tea towels, caricatures and even Darwin bobble head dolls.

"Rethinking the Darwinian Revolution" opens February 6 in the Cabot Library, and runs through May 22. Directions, Hours