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The origin of the controversy

São Paulo exhibition shows Darwin's path to the theory of evolution

eduardo cesarFor Darwin, traveling aboard the Beagle was the most important event in his lifeeduardo cesar

On December 27, 1831, the ship HMS Beagle left the port of Plymouth, in southern England. Charles Darwin, a 22 year old young man was on board. He had just finished his studies to become a clergyman. The expedition dedicated a substantial proportion of its time to exploring Latin America, where the young scientist collected a wealth of impressions in his diaries, as well as all sorts of plant and animal specimens, which he sent back to England from time to time: all in all, samples of more than 1,500 species. Preceded by the material, by his discoveries regarding tropical nature and by his correspondence with outstanding British scientists, the Darwin that disembarked in England five years later had become an investigative theoretician and renowned naturalist, rather than a clergyman. Those who visit the Darwin exhibition, an expanded version of the exhibition prepared at the New York Natural History Museum, on show at the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP) up to July 15, will be treated to a sample of the path of observation and enchantment that led the father of evolution to develop the theory that explains how species diversify in response to environmental pressures.

At the very start of the exhibition the visitor will see a range of skeletons, which were already studied back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Comparing them makes it obvious that there is a common structure to most animals. If one looks carefully one can see similarities even among quite different species, such as bats and horses: bat wing bones correspond to those of a person’s hand, which in a horse are joined together to form the paws. Nevertheless, despite a broad understanding of comparative anatomy and natural history, few people before Darwin looked into the reason for animals’ similarities and differences. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, published his ideas in the late 18th centuries, describing animals’ adaptation to the environment. But his were isolated views: in general, it was believed that live beings had been created one by one; the world was regarded as unchangeable and to doubt this point of view clashed with the religious canons in force at the time.

This was the context within which young Darwin departed on his exploration of a little-known world. Of the five years the Beagle spent sailing, Darwin spent roughly two thirds on solid ground. The expedition first arrived in South America by way of the port of Salvador, in the state of Bahia, where Darwin marveled at  the environment. (“The mind is a chaos of enchantment”, he wrote) and was horrified by the slavery. His letters describe a more serious argument he had with Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle, who advocated that slaves were happy with their lot. “He advocated and praised slavery, which I abominated”, wrote Darwin, telling of the argument he had had and that even led him to think he might have to leave the ship. After Brazil, he covered several South American countries – including the Galapagos islands, which posed a definitive challenge to the fixed views of the world.

São Paulo State expedition
The Beagle went round the world on its path of discovery. Those who leave  Avenida Paulista, more than 170 years later, and walk down the ramp leading to the basement of MASP may only walk five minutes, but they too will feel they are embarking upon a journey to another world. The noise of car horns and the hustle and bustle of the street give way, little by little, to the buzz of insects, the chirrup of birds, live iguanas, skeletons and orchids in a range of shapes and colors, immersing the visitor in a tropical environment.

eduardo cesarAfter astonishment, detailed work back homeeduardo cesar

Going round the MASP basement exhibition, the visitor realizes the same thing that Darwin observed: different species have intriguing similarities and the differences between them are equally inspiring. The shells of the huge Galapagos tortoises change slightly from one island to the next. The same is true of the beaks of finches, birds Darwin collected without any careful record of the precise place where each specimen was collected. When he realized that the birds’ beaks varied depending on the island each one came from, Darwin and his helpers had to reconstitute the information which later become one of the most striking examples of the connection between species and the environment that they inhabit. These similarities and differences between species, which become naturally obvious during the course of the exhibition, put Darwin on the path to explaining what he called the mutability of the species.

In addition to science, the exhibition – with reproductions of photographs, letters, diaries and manuscripts – brings back to life Charles Darwin, the man. He emerges as the 10 year old boy who counted the peony flowers in the garden, as he was asked to do by his father – there were 160 in 1819, 384 in 1820 and 363 in 1821. Darwin was also the young man who was dazzled by the natural exuberance of the tropics and who later listed in his notebook the pros and cons of married life, before choosing to ask his cousin Emma Wedgewood to marry him. To her, he wrote that “I believe that you will humanize me and soon teach me that there is a joy greater than constructing theories and accumulating facts in silence and loneliness.”

Perhaps marriage humanized Darwin, who enjoyed established routines, a well-kept home, games of backgammon and reading letters with this wife. The couple had ten children, who were observed by their scientist father and whose development he recorded as if they were experiments. Still, the heart of the father and scientist did not feed only off science: the death of his daughter Annie from tuberculosis at the age of ten caused him profound pain, shaking his faith in God definitively.

Solitary work
Nevertheless, the alleged humanization, if on the one hand it produced greater joys for Darwin, on the other hand did not appear to have detracted from his pleasure in “constructing theories and accumulating facts”. The theory of evolution required more than 20 years of work, with Darwin isolated in his office, whose replica is on show at the São Paulo exhibition. As one looks at his room with its furniture and objects, it is easy to imagine that Darwin has just taken a break from observing beetles or snails and stepped out for a reflective stroll along the sandy path that crossed the woods of his property – also reproduced at MASP in the form of moving photographs, so that the visitor has the impression that he too is going for a walk in the woods.

In contrast with the highly technological science of the 21st century, the theory of evolution by natural selection was shaped at the cost of much reflection and observation of animals and plants and with the help of little more than a magnifying glass.

During the course of these 20 years of work, Darwin laboriously gathered knowledge and evidence to explain how evolution operates by natural selection. Though it is his most famous work, The Origin of the Species is far from being his only work. Besides countless articles and monographs, Darwin was also the author of other books that had an impact on science, such as The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and The Origin of Man and Sexual Selection, both of which have been published in Brazil.

eduardo cesarNear human: the skeleton of a capuchin monkey provides clues to the relationship between the specieseduardo cesar

Formulating the theory took time, but the most difficult element seems to have been overcoming the fear of the uproar it would cause in scientific and social milieus, besides clashing with Emma’s religious faith. The meticulous collection of evidence was only gathered in a volume now known as The Origin of the Species because another, greater, fear exceeded the author’s caution: that of losing the authorship of his ideas, on which he had worked for so long. In 1858 Darwin received for evaluation a manuscript by fellow Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace, who, after some time spent in the Amazon region, was researching the nature of the Malay archipelago, between southeast Asia and Australia. During the course of his studies, Wallace reached the same conclusions as Darwin: the members of a species are not all identical and those that are better adapted to the environment in which they live will leave a larger number of descendents. Over time, such unequal reproduction may lead to changes in the species as a whole.

Darwin sought out his friends and mentors Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell, with whom he had discussed his ideas. Both influential scientists, they organized an agreement that went down in history as being controversial: Darwin wrote a summary of his work, which he presented together with Wallace at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London, where the crème de la crème of intellectuals gathered. Because he had influential contacts, Darwin managed to avoid falling by the wayside and to enter history as the father of evolution, whereas Wallace had to make do with a supporting role.

The idea that all species are actually related to each other really did shake up Victorian society, which refused to accept the kinship of primates. In 1859, Darwin published The Origin of the Species; its first edition of 1,250 copies practically sold out on the first day. His work had an immediate impact upon science and society. After the publication of The Origin of Man in 1871, a friend told Darwin that he had dined out three times in a week “and that at all tables one talked about evolution as an accepted fact and about the lineage of man with calmness.”

Natural selection continues to be the only scientific explanation for the biological diversity found on Earth, but some still regard it as an affront to religion. To this day there are religious movements, in particular in the USA, that attempt to replace the teaching of evolution by creationism, the idea that life such as it is today was created by God. The controversy, as well as the process of scientific discovery, is represented in Darwin, the exhibition – which also includes in its program the play After Darwin, played by the troupe Arte Ciência no Palco (Art Science on Stage). There, each one of us may carry out our own journey and reach our own conclusions.