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Darwin’s Simulacrum

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by Rob Wallace

I see dead people. And you can too. The museums are full of them, reanimated in a shamanistic glow funded by real estate developer Jack Rudin or Target or whichever oligarchical consortium rules your city state.

When we visit the clearing in the gentrified jungle we hope we might at least be blessed with a vision of an ancestral shade nominally more illuminating than what’s projected by the man behind the tree line.

Three years ago I attended the Charles Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In a country where 40% of the population polled think evolution patently false and another 20% are unsure, the show proved a triumph. Despite friends’ complaints about its length, the exhibit, expertly curated by Niles Eldredge of punctuated equilibrium fame, encapsulated Darwin, his ideas, and many of their immediate implications in an easily understandable way.

There I was–cynic turned fetishist–thrilled to see Darwin’s pistol and Bible from his circumnavigation aboard HMS Beagle. Although he spent considerable time ashore, there is great appeal in summoning a young Darwin, before his health broke, astride a deck hauling himself from one intellectual port to another, from amateur enthusiast to professional naturalist. He had much help, of course, but on an autodidact’s schedule, at one and the same time a relaxed and fevered pace. In an irony still relevant today, his successes would render him the last of the artisan naturalists.

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