Evolution of a Scientist

On a December night in 1831, HMS Beagle, on a mission to chart the coast of South America, sailed from Plymouth, England, straight into the 21st century. Onboard was a 22-year-old amateur naturalist, Charles Darwin, the son of a prosperous country doctor, who was recruited for the voyage largely to provide company for the Beagle's aloof and moody captain, Robert FitzRoy. For the next five years the little ship sailed up and down Argentina, through the treacherous Strait of Magellan and into the Pacific, before returning home by way of Australia and Cape Town. Toward the end of the voyage, the Beagle spent five weeks at the remote archipelago of the Galapagos, home to giant tortoises, black lizards and a notable array of finches. Here Darwin began to formulate some of the ideas about evolution that would appear, a quarter-century later, in "The Origin of Species," among the most influential books ever published. Of the revolutionary thinkers who have shaped the intellectual history of the past century, two--Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx--are in eclipse today, and one--Albert Einstein--has been accepted into the canon of modern thought, even if most people still don't understand what he was thinking. Darwin alone remains unassimilated, provocative, even threatening to some--like Pat Robertson, who recently warned the citizenry of Dover, Pennsylvania, that they risked divine wrath for siding with Darwin in a dispute over high-school biology textbooks. Could God still be mad after all this time?

Unintentionally, but inescapably, that is the question raised by a compelling new show that recently opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Here are the beetles Darwin collected fanatically, the fossils and ferns he studied obsessively, two live Galapagos tortoises like the ones he famously rode bareback. And here are the artifacts of his life: his tiny single-shot pistol, his magnifying glass and rock hammer--and the Bible that traveled around the world with him, a reminder that before his voyage he had been studying for the ministry. The show, which will travel to Boston, Chicago and Toronto before ending its tour in London in Darwin's bicentennial year of 2009, coincides with the publication of two major Darwin anthologies. Britons will note that Darwin has replaced that other bearded Victorian icon, Charles Dickens, on the 10-pound note. "Even people who aren't comfortable with Darwin's ideas," says Niles Eldredge, the museum's curator of paleontology, "are fascinated by the man."

In part, the fascination with the man is being driven by his enemies, who say they're fighting "Darwinism," rather than evolution or natural selection. "It's a rhetorical device to make evolution seem like a kind of faith, like 'Maoism'," says Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, editor of one of the two Darwin anthologies just published. "Scientists," Wilson adds, "don't call it 'Darwinism'."

That doesn't mean the man himself is not fascinating. Darwin was an exuberant outdoorsman who embarked on one of the greatest adventures in history, but then never again left England. He lived for a few years in London before marrying his first cousin Emma and moving to a country house where he spent the last 40 years of his life, writing, researching and raising his 10 children. Eldredge demonstrates, in his book accompanying the museum show "Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life," how the ideas in "The Origin of Species" took shape in Darwin's notebooks as far back as the 1830s. But Darwin held off publishing until 1859, and then only because he learned that a younger scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had come up with a similar theory. Darwin was afflicted throughout his later life by intestinal distress and heart palpitations, which kept him from working for more than a few hours at a time. There are two theories about this mysterious illness: a parasite he picked up in South America, or, as Eldredge believes, anxiety over where his intellectual journey was leading him.

Darwin knew full well what he was up to; as early as 1844, he famously wrote to a friend that to publish his thoughts would be akin to "confessing a murder." To a society accustomed to searching for truth in the pages of the Bible, Darwin introduced the notion of evolution: that the lineages of living things change, diverge and go extinct over time, rather than appear suddenly in immutable form, as Genesis would have it. For evidence, he had his notebooks and the trunkloads of specimens he had shipped back to England. In Argentina he unearthed the fossil skeleton of a glyptodont, an extinct armored mammal that resembled the common armadillos he enjoyed hunting. Was it just a coincidence that both species were found in the same place--or could the smaller living animal be descended from the extinct larger one?

But the crucial insights came from the islands of the Galapagos, populated by species that bore obvious similarities to animals found 600 miles away in South America--but differences as well, and smaller differences from one island to another. To Darwin's mind, the obvious explanation was that the islands had been colonized from the mainland by species that then evolved along diverging paths.

Darwin's greater, and more radical, achievement was to suggest a plausible mechanism for evolution. To a world taught to see the hand of God in every part of nature, he suggested a different creative force altogether, an undirected, morally neutral process he called natural selection. His crucial insight was that organisms which by chance are better adapted to their environment--a faster wolf--have a better chance of surviving and passing those characteristics on to the next generation.

Although Darwin struggled with questions of faith his whole life, he ultimately described himself as an "Agnostic." William Howarth, an environmental historian who teaches a course at Princeton called "Darwin in Our Time," dates Darwin's doubts about Christianity to his encounters with slave-owning Christians, which deeply offended Darwin, an ardent abolitionist. More generally, Darwin was troubled by the problem of evil: how could a benevolent and omnipotent God permit so much suffering in the world he created? In any case, it all changed for him after 1851. In that year Darwin's beloved eldest daughter, Annie, died at the age of 10--probably from tuberculosis--an instance of suffering that only led him down darker paths of despair. A legend has grown up that Darwin experienced a deathbed conversion and repentance for his work, but his family has always denied it. He did, however, manage to pass through the needle's eye of Westminster Abbey, where he was entombed with honor in 1882.

So it's not surprising that fundamentalist Christians have been suspicious of Darwin and his works--or that in the United States, where 80 percent of the population believe God created the universe, less than half believe in evolution. Some believers have managed to square the circle by mapping out separate realms for science and religion. "Science's proper role is to explore natural explanations for the material world," says the biologist Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian. "Science provides no answers to the question 'Why are we here, anyway?' That is the role of philosophy and theology."

The Darwin exhibit was conceived in 2002, when the current round of Darwin-bashing was still over the horizon, but just in those three years' time museum officials found they had to greatly expand their treatment of the controversy--in particular, the rise of "intelligent design" as an alternative to natural selection. ID posits a supernatural force behind the emergence of complex biological systems--such as the eye--composed of many interdependent parts. Collins comments, in a video that is part of the museum show: "[ID] says, if there's some part of science that you can't understand, that must be where God is. Historically, that hasn't gone well. And if science does figure out [how the eye evolved]--and I believe it's very likely that science will... then where is God?"

That is the mournful chorus that has accompanied every new scientific paradigm since Copernicus declared God unnecessary to the task of getting the sun up into the sky each day. The church eventually reconciled itself to the reality of the solar system, which Darwin invoked in the stirring conclusion to the "Origin": "There is grandeur in this view of life... 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." For all his nets and guns and glasses, Darwin never found God; by the same token, the Bible has nothing to impart about the genetic relationships among the finches he did find. But it is human nature to seek both kinds of knowledge. Perhaps after a few more cycles of the planet, we will find a way to pursue them both in peace.