The Darwin Celebration

Cover of the March 1909 issue of the American Museum Journal, the predecessor of Natural History, featuring the new bust of Charles Darwin

The one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Robert Darwin and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species” were celebrated by the New York Academy of Sciences on February twelfth at the American Museum of Natural History. The occasion was made memorable by the unveiling of a bronze bust of Darwin, the Academy’s gift to the Museum; also by the dedication of the Synoptic Hall of the Museum as “The Darwin Hall of Invertebrate Zoölogy,” with the unveiling or bronze tablets thus inscribed at either side of the entrance from the Hall of Forestry. The bust was presented by the Academy’s president, Charles Finney Cox, and was accepted on behalf of the trustees of the Museum by President Henry Fairfield Osborn.

The bust is pronounced by those who knew Darwin personally, and by his sons in England, who have seen photographs of the clay model, the best portrait in the round of the great naturalist ever made. It is the work of William Couper, sculptured from photographs taken when Darwin was fifty years old, at the time of the publication of “The Origin of Species.” President Osborn’s acceptance of the bust, as a valuable work of art and as an expression of appreciation by the New York Academy of both the technical and the directly educational work of the Museum, gives this impressive likeness of Darwin permanent place in the Darwin Hall of Invertebrate Zoology. Here it will stand to testify to Charles Darwin’s method of scientific study, namely, a humble and direct approach to nature, in self-reliance and with independence of thinking. The speakers of the afternoon, representing Geology, Botany and Zoölogy, and each claiming Darwin as the inspiration to freedom or thought in the given science, were Professors John James Stevenson, Nathaniel Lord Britton and Hermon Carey Bumpus.

But a few years ago, even to consider the question of evolution was held to be irrational and immoral, not only by the world at large, but also by the intellectual world, with the exception of a small body of scientists. The change has come since the appearance of “The Origin of Species” in 1859, and outside of the scientific centers at Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, New Haven and New York, it has seemed to come slowly; but the effect has been cumulative, and to-day thinkers in all lines accept the fact of evolution. In the first ten years after 1859, many of the older scientists ignored or fought the doctrine bitterly. Even Agassiz remained on the side of the creation of each species as we find it. Asa Gray, however, who knew Darwin personally and who had published a review of “The Origin of Species” before a copy reached America, stood firmly not only for the theory of evolution, but also for that which Darwinism signifies, the theory of Natural Selection as the working process of evolution. He inspired the younger men in the Boston scientific center, Shaler, Verrill, Packard, Morse, Hyatt, Mien and Scudder, and through their influence enthusiasm for Darwinism grew until a climax was reached in 1876. Since that date every biological worker in the country has found [in] his research an item to strengthen belief in evolution, and also, it is true, often to expose some weakness or mend some flaw in the doctrine of Natural Selection.

Front view of Darwin bust. To learn the fate of the bronze bust, see Chapter 16 of John Woram's book about the Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin Slept Here: Tales of Human History at World’s End (Rockville Press, 2005), or visit “Portaits in the Round” on Woram’s fascinating Web site (galapagos.to).

Darwin, however, did not consider his work faultless, final or complete. In his day the general theory of evolution was already well established in many scientists’ minds, due to the work of anatomists such as Lamarck and Cuvier. Darwin marshalled the facts that the world could then give, to formulate dearly and boldly a possible explanation of the method by which evolution had produced existing life forms. From the geometric increase in numbers due to the normal rate of reproduction of plants and animals, there resulted a struggle for existence, a three-fold struggle (1) with the environment, which not only brought the animal the ordinary exigencies of life, but also perhaps presented suddenly wholly new problems due to some geological change during the earth’s history, (2) with members of the same species in search of homes and food and (3) with direct enemies. Since all forms vary at birth, some were less well fitted for the struggle than others; they died for lack of food or were killed by enemies; those better fitted survived. Thus the best fitted for life in a given region became the parents of the next generation, and, if the environmental conditions remained unchanged for many generations, heredity brought about a better adapted race, a “nature selected” race, and, what is the important and contested point, a new variety or species, that is, a race different from the ancestral one. Thus, according to Darwinism, new species come about through slow, minute and cumulative changes. One of the strongest pieces of work done since Darwin’s time, that of Hugo de Vries, proves that species may come into existence abruptly also, by large changes or “mutations,” de Vries holding that the mutation theory supplements Natural Selection but does not supplant it.

Whether, however, Darwinism lives in the future, or fails under the critical scrutiny of the army of working scientists and in the light of a vast aggregation of new facts, Darwin’s position of eminence cannot be assailed. He stands for supreme service to mankind in that he forced into the world of organized knowledge love of truth and abhorrence of slavery to tradition. He was a great seer in a scientific world where practically all was new ground. He was a “naturalist,” one of the few deserving the name, with masterly grasp of all known facts in the various branches of natural science. Since his time each of these branches, botany, zoölogy, geology, has grown until it seems that no one mind can comprehend the details of even one of them. The result is that to-day every man is working on his chosen problem, and often the field of that problem is extremely limited, though it involves weighty principles.

Will there come a second Darwin, again to grasp all nature in clear mental vision? His task would be the same as was Darwin’s, though far more difficult because of the larger body of knowledge,—to accept and organize all accumulated information, while at the same time holding his own opinions and formulating his own theories. The work of the new Darwin would marshall to the front or banish to oblivion the many tangled theories of the present, and all so clearly and convincingly that there would be forced upon him who reads a repetition of the effect of “The Origin of Species,” the conviction that, after all, the task was an easy one for there could be no other conclusion.

An important feature of the celebration is the special exhibition in the Hall of Forestry and the new Darwin Hall comprising carefully selected specimens and groups of specimens bearing upon the Darwinian theory of Evolution through Natural Selection; also a valuable collection of Darwiniana consisting of letters, writings and portraits of Charles Darwin, as well as a series of photographs of Darwin’s contemporaries. The exhibition is open free to the public and will remain in place till March 12.

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