True Believers Take a Look at Darwin

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A new exhibit at the Museum of Natural History examines the life and thought of Charles Darwin. The ambitious show was planned years ago, but comes at a time when objections to Darwin are gaining force in several corners of the United States. WNYC’s Fred Mogul has this report.

REPORTER: Beneath piped-in bird calls and animal sounds, visitors to the show gather around an eye-catching model of Jenny, a small young orangutan wearing a dress -- thanks to the keepers at the London Zoo in the 1830s. In a sense, it was Jenny that got Charles Darwin into trouble. He visited her while writing “The Origin of Species.” Randall Keynes is Darwin’s great grandson.

KEYNES: He watched it very closely to see how similar it was to a human child. A year later, he had his own first son, and began watching the son to look to see how close he was to he orangutan. He was completely unafraid of the possibility they would prove to be close. He saw that as something exciting about human and animal nature.

REPORTER: Dressing primates like people is one thing. Saying we’re descended from them is another. After 150 years, many still are not persuaded. More than half of Americans say God created humans in their present form, and in different surveys between 20 and 40 percent say creationism should be taught instead evolution. Curator and paleontologist Niles Eldredge says western civilization still has not “metabolized” the change in mind-set that Darwin’s discoveries demand.

ELDREDGE: Some people just really do not like the idea that we’re connected to the natural world. They want to see us as created by God in God’s image. Most religious people I know do not feel there’s a conflict there, but some insist that there is.

REPORTER: But the show’s main drama comes not from controversy, but from Darwin’s life and studies of nature. If you’re not familiar with his biography, there are many surprises: his mediocre record as a young student; his father’s letter opposing his expedition on the HMS Beagle; his plan to become an Anglican minister after returning, represented in the display by the Bible he brought with him to Latin America. Eldredge’s favorite ‘moment’ in the show is an entry in Darwin’s multi-volume journal:

ELDREDGE: He has on Notebook B, page 36, he says, “I think...” and he draws the first evolutionary tree of life. That’s thrilling. That does really remind me of when we had our Einstein exhibit, you can see “E=MC²” right there in his own handwriting, so this “I think...” and the tree – that to me is absolutely spine-tingling thrilling.

REPORTER: Many, of course, marvel more at the show’s animal pleasures:

VOICE 1: These poisonous newts – they’re most poisonous animal in the world. We always wondered how a little animal like that could kill 10 human beings.

VOICE 2: A little skeleton of some creature -- Darwin looked at that, and he thought, “Wow, that really images a human body!”

VOICE 3: The evolution of the skulls -- reading it in the books you don’t appreciate it. When you see it in person, it’s great.

REPORTER: Museum contributor Christopher Raxworthy says he hopes visitors will get a powerful sense of Darwin’s thoroughness and curiosity and of how fact-based science contrasts with faith-based religion. He takes issue with “Intelligent Design,” which allows for evolution by natural selection but says it must be guided by a supernatural creator. Raxworthy and others says the problem with “putting God in the gaps” is…

RAXWORTHY: That’s not the way scientists proceed, when we find complicated issues or structures or things we cannot understand, we ask questions and develop hypotheses and we actually test them, but the whole progress of science is specifically to go after those gaps in our knowledge and fill them.

REPORTER: And yet many museum-goers keep putting “God in the gaps,” even after viewing a succession of skeletons and a menagerie of moths. Margaret Wengren from Lexington, Massachusetts, thinks it’s absurd to read the Book of Genesis literally. But she thinks natural selection still needed some guidance from above.

WENGREN: I think there had to be some sort of intelligence that made evolution come to pass. It’s all one little bundle. But it’s not the sort of intelligent design that plunked it down in a week. -Mogul: What kind of intelligence? The kind we will never find a name for. And I don’t think all the world’s Darwins will find a name for it, either.

REPORTER: Many visitors to the Darwin show shared Wengren’s opinion still that God’s role in Creation should not be a biology class discussion. But several others said, Why not teach both, and let the chips fall where they may…as long as the teachers are true believers…in science.