October 8, 2009 — Charles Darwin boarded HMS Beagle in 1831 as a creationist and returned five years later as an evolutionist, says Mary Anne Andrei, a history lecturer at the University of Virginia and curator of a new Darwin exhibit at the U.Va. Library.
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"He really secularized society," she said. "And he's still controversial."
The exhibit, "'On the Origin of Species at 150': The Evolution of an Idea," commemorates not only the 150th anniversary of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection," published in 1859, but also the scientist's 200th birthday.
It will open Oct. 14 in the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library on U.Va.'s Central Grounds. The items on exhibit – including rare first editions, a watercolor of the HMS Beagle, and letters written by Darwin and his wife, Emma – are drawn from the Paul Victorius Evolution Collection at the Small Special Collections Library.
Kelly Miller, head of programs and public outreach at the Mary and David Harrison Institute of American History, Literature and Culture, said the exhibit sheds light on what led to Darwin's best-known book: "His epic voyage on the Beagle, his readings of the work of other naturalists, his obsession with his own ill health, and also his grief over the death of his 10-year-old daughter, Annie."
One of the artifacts is a list of ailments Darwin sent to Dr. John Chapman in 1865: vomiting, shivers, tinnitus and headaches, to name a few. Historians still debate whether the illnesses were psychosomatic or evidence of lupus or Crohn's disease, said Andrei, whose expertise is in the history of modern science.
"It started with sea sickness, which he suffered throughout the five year voyage of the Beagle," Andrei said. "The symptoms persisted throughout his lifetime, affecting his quality of life, even as he amassed evidence to support his theory of evolution. It became so severe he had to give up working for a time."
What also took a toll on Darwin was the effect he knew his theory would have on society, especially to the British upper class to which he himself belonged.
Evolution wasn't a new idea, Andrei explained – Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus promoted the idea that species changed over time – but the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection was new. By the time "Origin" was published, evolution was accepted by nearly every scientist. The controversy was that Darwin had argued that all living beings, including humans, originated through a natural process and alluded to the idea that there was no divine hand guiding nature.
Nearly everyone in Britain at the time was a creationist. "By excluding God," Andrei said, "Darwin knew that the notion of divine right that bolstered the British upper class could no longer justify their already tenuous hold on the lower classes." Darwin even confided to a friend that revealing his theory to the public was like "confessing a murder" and said of his book, "So much for my abominable volume."
What's really remarkable, Andrei said, is the staying power of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. "His theory remains at the center of modern evolutionary biology," she said. "No other scientific theory, not even Newton's, has fared as well."
Andrei said working with archival material is the best part of being a historian, and she enjoyed the chance to work with the Victorius collection at the Small Special Collections Library.
Prior to World War II, before he moved to Charlottesville and opened a popular framing shop on the Corner, Paul Victorius lived in London, where he began collecting items pertaining to Darwin, Miller said.
It was reputedly the largest and finest collection of material about evolution, with the exception of the one owned by Darwin himself. The University acquired the collection in 1949, partly as a gift and partly as a purchase.
Andrei said the collection's watercolors by Conrad Martens are amazing. Martens was the artist on Darwin's Beagle voyage. His sketches were included in the first and second volumes of "Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of the HMS Beagle."
"The images give you a sense of the rather small size of the Beagle," she said. "You can compare the published sketch to the finished watercolor."
Another highlight is Charles Lyell's copy of Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," given him by Darwin, who was influenced by the Scottish geologist. Penciled into the margins are corrections Lyell made, none of which were incorporated into subsequent editions, Andrei said.
She also uncovered a link between Darwin and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's description of a fossil giant ground sloth recovered from a cave in what is now West Virginia was read before the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia in August 1796. The fossil specimen is referenced in a book called "Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle, Vol. 1" by Richard Owen, in which he cites Darwin's description of a similar fossil species of giant ground sloth that he collected in South America.
The exhibit runs through Jan. 11. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 9 to 5 p.m. Saturdays. It is free and open to the public.