Happiest at home with his notebooks and his microscope, he shunned the public eye. Controversy made him ill. This brilliant observer of nature kept his most original and revolutionary idea under wraps for decades. Yet today, two centuries after Charles Darwin's birth, nearly everyone knows his name. What did Darwin do, and why does he still matter so much?
Keenly observing nature in all its forms - from fossil sloths to mockingbirds, primroses to children - Darwin saw that we all are related. Every living thing shares an ancestry, he concluded, and the vast diversity of life on Earth results from processes at work over millions of years and still at work today. Darwin's explanation for this great unfolding of life through time - the theory of evolution by natural selection - transformed our understanding of the living world, much as the ideas of Galileo, Newton and Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the physical universe.
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection underlies all modern biology. It enables us to decipher our genes and fight viruses, and to understand Earth's fossil record and rich biodiversity. Simple yet at times controversial, misunderstood and misused for social goals, the theory remains unchallenged as the central concept of biology. Charles Darwin, reluctant revolutionary, profoundly altered our view of the natural world and our place in it. These attitudes reflected a broader view of the world as stable and unchanging. There was a natural order to things. Most English people lived in farming communities and did not travel far from where they were born. Their lives were much like the lives of their parents. Soon the Industrial Revolution and democratic reforms would remake society-but before Darwin, it was still possible to see the world as timeless, eternal and unchanging.
The world before Darwin
Before Darwin was born, most people in England accepted certain ideas about the natural world as given. Species were not linked in a single "family tree." They were unconnected, unrelated and unchanged since the moment of their creation. And Earth itself was thought to be so young-perhaps only 6,000 years old-that there would not have been time for species to change. In any case, people were not part of the natural world; they were above and outside it. These attitudes reflected a broader view of the world as stable and unchanging. There was a natural order to things. Most English people lived in farming communities and did not travel far from where they were born. Their lives were much like the lives of their parents. Soon the Industrial Revolution and democratic reforms would remake society-but before Darwin, it was still possible to see the world as timeless, eternal and unchanging.
With a setting of classic naturalisti illustrations and mounted animal skeletons representing the well-ordered but unchanging Victorian view of nature this section puts Darwin's finding into contest giving an historical rapid overview of the way in which scientists had been looking to the natural world up to that moment.
Birds'eggs and sea shells, beetles and coins, moths and minerals-as a child, Charles Darwin collected all of these and more. Born in 1809 to a wealthy family in rural England, he spent hours watching birds and lying under the dining-room table, reading. He was an indifferent student, though, and school bored him. He despaired of learning Latin and memorizing verse, "for every verse was forgotten in 48 hours." But he never tired of studying the details of the natural world. As a teenager, Darwin was thrilled by chemistry, biology, botany and geology. Yet all the while he dutifully pursued the careers his father had selected for him: doctor and then clergyman. As he studied at the University of Cambridge, though, Darwin was singled out by an elite circle of academics who recognized his potential.
Finally, his true talent for natural history blossomed. In the young naturalist section, you see the story of the family and of the school years of the young naturalist: an avid collector and observer of plants, insects, and rocks all presented with original documents, specimen collected in his youth and drawing on archival photographs and new images of Darwin's journals, manuscripts, and homes.
We have here the story of how Darwin grew up and how he developed from an indifferent student into a great naturalist obsessed with beetles.
Voyage around the world
In 1831, Charles Darwin received an astounding invitation: to join the HMS Beagle as ship's naturalist for a trip around the world. For most of the next five years, the Beagle surveyed the coast of South America, leaving Darwin free to explore the continent and islands, including the GalÃ¡pagos. He filled dozens of notebooks with careful observations on animals, plants and geology, and collected thousands of specimens, which he crated and sent home for further study.
Darwin later called the Beagle voyage "by far the most important event in my life," saying it "determined my whole career."
Voyage around the world (part 2)
When he set out, 22-year-old Darwin was a young university graduate, still planning a career as a clergyman. By the time he returned, he was an established naturalist, well-known in London for the astonishing collections he'd sent ahead. He had also grown from a promising observer into a probing theorist. The Beagle voyage would provide Darwin with a lifetime of experiences to ponder-and the seeds of a theory he would work on for the rest of his life. In August 1831, Darwin rushed home from a geology trip to Wales, eager to begin two weeks of partridge shooting with the Wedgwoods. But a letter was waiting for him from his Cambridge professor and mentor J. S. Henslow. It contained a chance of a lifetime: an invitation to go on a trip around the world as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. Darwin was elated-he was longing to travel and explore natural history in tropical lands. The voyage is the central section of the exhibition where you can trace the evolution of Darwin's thinking throughout his five-year voyage around the world to map the oceans and islands of South America and the South Pacific. The exhibition here presents original letters and documents, notes and letters Darwin sent to friends and family. Live animals play a starring role here: green iguanas, armadillo and turtles. You will follow voyage and his studies looking at fossils and mounted specimens of the unique plants and animals that captivated him: rheas, giant sloths, and armadillos (including the unique reconstruction of a huge glyptodont, an extinct armadillo-like creature the size of a rhino); Galapagos tortoises with different shell shapes adapted to their specific islands; mockingbirds, penguins, and blue-footed boobies, and other animals and plants that helped to reconstruct a 3D voyage setting.
London - the idea takes shape
Within months of stepping off the deck of the Beagle, Darwin settled in London, the nerve center of Britain. Now on fire with the ambition to join the "real naturalists," Darwin plunged into the work of writing up his Beagle research. Meanwhile, a huge idea was taking shape in his mind. Had those first shipboard insights been right? Could new species arise from old? If they could, how did it happen?
Darwin's London years were intensely, feverishly creative. Here he would make a name for himself in science. Here he would marry Emma and have his first two children. And here he would begin another voyage-this one inside his mind. It was in London that Darwin brilliantly put together the pieces of his theory of evolution by natural selection. And then, within just five years, he abandoned the smoky city for his beloved English countryside-still keeping his revolutionary thinking largely to himself.
Down House - a life at work
In 1842 Charles Darwin and his family fled London in search of peace and quiet. They found it in a tiny village 16 miles outside the city, and for the next 40 years their home - called Down House - was Darwin's retreat, research station and the hub of his vast scientific network. Working in his study, greenhouse and garden on barnacles, pigeons, and plants, corresponding with scientists around the world, Darwin patiently completed the puzzle of evolution by natural selection.
But for nearly two decades Darwin kept his secret from the world. It took a letter from the Malay Archipelago - a letter outlining another man's version of natural selection - to push him into print. Shutting himself in his study, working feverishly, Darwin finally produced the Origin of Species. That book - and its companion volume, the Descent of Man - would spark a revolution. They would also make Darwin the most revered, and controversial, scientist of his time.Animals, plants, documents, original objects can be seen; there is also a painstaking reconstruction of Darwin's study, and a realistic and evocative reconstruction of the sandwalk, a path where Darwin often strolled - observing, experimenting, and contemplating as he walked.
A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin offered the world a single, simple scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth: evolution by natural selection. Since then, countless scientists-whether fighting viruses, decoding DNA or analyzing the fossil record-have found that Darwin's work is fundamental to their own. Modern scientists can now answer questions about the natural world in ways Darwin never could. New tools and technologies, such as DNA analyses, can reveal unexpected relationships between seemingly dissimilar groups.
Accurate fossil dating methods show that evolution proceeds at variable rates and is not always gradual. And sophisticated studies of wild populations provide insights into how new species are formed. Darwin would be amazed-and delighted-to see how our new knowledge has helped advance his theory. The section shows the science of evolution and the refinements it has undergone since Darwin's time is explored as new research methods showing its development. Looking at times and modes of evolution you can learn more about the workings of natural selection and some of its recent applications focusing on developmental biology, homologies and the study of genomes and the reconstruction of evolutionary trees.New tools and technologies, such as DNA analyses, can reveal unexpected relationships between seemingly dissimilar groups. Accurate fossil dating methods show that evolution proceeds at variable rates and is not always gradual. And sophisticated studies of wild populations provide insights into how new species are formed. Darwin would be amazed-and delighted-to see how our new knowledge has helped advance his theory. The section shows the science of evolution and the refinements it has undergone since Darwin's time is explored as new research methods showing its development. Looking at times and modes of evolution you can learn more about the workings of natural selection and some of its recent applications focusing on developmental biology, homologies and the study of genomes and the reconstruction of evolutionary trees.
Charles Darwin and Italy
All throughout his works we can see many times that Darwin speaks about our county or about studies done by Italian scientists. Niles Eldredge and other historians of biological thought believe that the fact that Darwin got to know the theories of the Italian geologist Giovanbattista Brocchi, through the Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, was in fact fundamental for the dawn of his evolutionary ideas (documents on his new research are on show in the section Voyage around the world).
The section on the reception of evolutionary theory in Italy shows how our country has been involved in the evolutionary revolution and how many Italian scientist were in contact with Darwin and how the theory was received in the country at that time. In the section there are on show many originals (from Cambridge University Library mainly) like letters sent or received by Darwin that link him to many important Italian scientist (Federico Delpino, Paolo Mantegazza, Giovanni Canestrini, Anton Dohrn). The correspondence between Darwin and these Italian scientists has been important for the elaboration of his theories. To testify the strong link between Darwin and his teories and Italian science you can see diplomas and membership and awards sent by some of the most important Italian Accademies (Reale Accademia dei Lincei, SocietÃ Italiana di Antropologia, Regia Tauriniensis Academia, Scuola Italica, Accademia Pitagorica). In this way the exhibition is settled in the county background and it shows how Italy was among the first counties that received Darwin's ideas translating his works very early but most importantly in active researches.
The new section on human evolution shows the extremely diversified and pluralistic side of the history of hominids, including the African origins of our species and our close evolutionary kinship with chimpanzees and gorillas, which have been confirmed by archeological and paleontological, as well as genetic and molecular, data.
There will be a up-to-now complete frame of the human evolution tree with casts of the most important human fossils. Particular attention will be given to Italian paleontological findings and for the first time on show here there is the Ceprano Skull. The section will be completed with the latest update on the cohabitation of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, the representation of the extraordinary diversification of our species' populations and of the consequent crisis in the biological idea of human race.
Darwin first saw this astonishing orchid from Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale, in 1862. Its foot-long green throat holds nectar - the sweet liquid that draws pollinators - but only at its very tip. "Astounding," Darwin wrote, of this strange adaptation. "What insect could suck it?" He predicted that Madagascar must be home to an insect with an incredibly long feeding tube, or proboscis. Entomologists were dubious: no such insect had ever been found there. Charles Darwin died in 1882, and more than 40 years later, his insight was confirmed. A naturalist in Madagascar discovered the giant hawk moth, which hovers like a hummingbird as its long, whip-like proboscis probes for the distant nectar. The moth's scientific name, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, honors the prediction of the scientist who never saw it, but whose theory told him that it must exist.
A PREDICTION - Orchid plants, members of a vast and ancient family, enchanted Darwin late in life and intrigue us still, more than a century later.
With over 20,000 species in the wild today, each astonishingly adapted to its habitat and its pollinator in shape, size, color or fragrance, orchids embody life's richness. And it is that richness that Darwin's work allows us to understand. Two centuries after Darwin's birth his insights remain fresh and vital. As a young man, he dared to ask how the natural world came to look as it does. How can we explain the amazing diversity of life all around us? And his answer-it had happened through evolution by natural selection-only increased his sense of wonder. "There is," he said, "a grandeur in this view of life," a life in which "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."