September 14, 2009
By HOLLY K. HACKER
The Dallas Morning
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species is one of the world's most discussed, debated, lauded, ridiculed and misunderstood books – just like when it was published 150 years ago.
An exhibit opening today at Southern Methodist University tries to put the seminal scientific work into perspective to help people understand the ideas that shaped the book and its author.
The exhibit's title reflects that goal: "On the Origin of Species: Texts and Contexts for Charles Darwin's Great Work."
"It's an idea with a history, and you really can't understand it without understanding the history," said Russell Martin, director of SMU's DeGolyer Library and the exhibit's curator.
Housed at DeGolyer, SMU's special collections library, the exhibit features copies of all six editions of Origin published during Darwin's lifetime; he died in 1882.
The display sets the scientific and philosophical stage of the time, with materials from Darwin's predecessors and peers. Reflecting the tension between religion and science, a Geneva Bible from 1616 shares space with Sir Walter Raleigh's 1614 book History of the World, an essay both sacred and secular. Nearby sits a copy of the first scientific journal in the English-speaking world, Philosophical Transactions, from 1665. Also on display: works by Charles Lyell, a British geologist who influenced Darwin.
Overall, the exhibit contains more than 100 books, maps and other documents from 1532 to the late 19th century. Most of the materials already belong to DeGolyer Library – Everette Lee DeGolyer Sr., was a geologist and bibliophile.
Many people may picture Darwin as an old man with a long white beard, but he made significant scientific contributions in his younger years. In his 20s, he spent five years traveling the world with the HMS Beagle, collecting fossils, plants, rocks and other specimens. On the Galapagos Islands off the cost of Chile, he saw birds found nowhere else, even on the nearby mainland.
That trip and 20 years of research resulted in On the Origin of the Species in 1859. Darwin presented his idea that humans and other species evolved from common ancestors and that through natural selection, they changed over time and adapted to their environment. This challenged the long-held belief that each species arose independently. He wrote: "I think it inevitably follows, that as new species in the course of time are formed through natural selection, others will become rarer and rarer, and finally extinct."
Martin said Darwin knew his book would be controversial and carefully revised it as more evidence and criticism came in.
"He wanted it to be the best book possible," Martin said.
The DeGolyer display presents cartoons and images depicting popular reaction to Darwin at the time.
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