U of M exhibit celebrates 200 years of Darwinby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
If you've been looking for a way to observe today's 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, it's not too late. A new exhibit opens this evening at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It's the North American premier of nature photos by award winning photographer Frans Lanting and the opening includes talks by U professors about the theory of evolution.
Minneapolis — Speed dating, Darwin style is how the U of M is promoting the event. You can walk through the Bell Museum exhibit and drop in on comments by university scientists. History of science professor Mark Borrello is one of them.
As clumps of grade school children on field trips took in the museum's dioramas recently, Borrello explained that Darwin behaved like any modern scientist. He was a compulsive correspondent, a keen observer and filled with questions.
"Darwin got mail three times a day and he had a rear view mirror set up on his desk so he could look out and down his path so he could see the postman coming up," Borrello said. "I mean thousands of thousands of letters."
On his walks and in his letters, Darwin wanted to know what others were doing and why said Borello.
"He asked everyone questions from the pigeon fanciers and domestic cattle breeders and the farmers and the gamekeepers to the most well established in the U. S.," Borrello said, "Harvard and Yale and these other universities, exchanging samples, in that way he was collaborative and networking in a way that modern science is."
Darwin, Borrello points out, rarely, if ever, used the 'e' word. Evolution as defined by Darwin is descent with modification. Just as it is now, in Darwin's time the theory was a lightning rod for controversy.
Darwin doubters and detractors link him, or even use him, to advance ideas Darwin never espoused; eugenics, racism, the Holocaust.
On how life began on earth, Borrello said, Darwin had a straightforward response.
"'I don't know,'" he said. "There's in the 19th century a debate over spontaneous generation, we don't know where life forms come from. The idea for Darwin is that some simple form or a few simple forms arose at some point."
When U of M students study evolution, one of the professors they encounter is Randy Moore. Moore said about 70 percent of the students he teaches have heard about or studied evolution in high school.
What Darwin could not know, and what Moore said he tells his students, is how the theory of evolution is the basis for a wide array of modern science today.
"The development of resistance by pests and antibiotics," Moore said. "It's now used in applications in medicine, some applications in psychology, geologists use some principles of it all the time. It has had a vast impact."
Moore said a survey he and other biologists did a few years showed more than 20 percent of the Minnesota high school biology teachers who responded don't teach evolution, and some instead teach creationism.
One reason may be a problem some people have with how evolution treats humans. Moore said evolution doesn't give humans special status.
"We come from animals," Moore said. "We aren't any more special than the skunks or the robins in the trees or anything else. We're a part of a vast fabric and a vast history of life."
So instead of a great big family tree growing straight and tall with humans at the top, Darwin experts say it's more helpful to think of evolution as a bush. Mark Borrello describes it this way.
"Things branch and go extinct and contingent things happen, there's an earthquake or there's a volcanic eruption and a lineage gets cut off so we don't sort of know where it's going," he said.
Borrello and other U of M professors will be at the Bell Museum opening tonight as part of an exhibit which runs through mid April.
- All Things Considered, 02/12/2009, 4:50 p.m.