Two reasons to fete Darwin

5 min read

Houghton and Cabot mark anniversaries with exhibits

Small is beautiful. Small may also be powerful. Judging from a copy on display at Harvard’s Houghton Library, the book that changed the world is only 8 inches high and 5 1/2 inches wide.

The first edition of what is now known as “The Origin of Species” appeared in 1859, dressed in a deep green cloth binding and printed on pulp paper. But its London publisher issued only 1,250 copies, little knowing that Charles Darwin’s book would go on to reshape science, challenge organized religion, and set off worldwide cultural tremors still being felt today.

If human evolution had included tortoise-type old age, Darwin would turn 200 years old this month, on Feb. 12. And 150 years ago this year appeared what Darwin called his “big book.” (His first few were on geological formations and his last on earthworms.)

The first five editions of “The Origin of Species” bore a more euphonious and revealing title: “On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

With both a Darwin bicentennial and sesquicentennial at hand in 2009, there is double reason to celebrate the English naturalist whose idea of natural selection provided a unifying explanation for the diversity of life.

Events are planned worldwide throughout the year, including a British fundraiser to replicate the H.M.S. Beagle, on which the young Darwin served — formatively — as a naturalist from 1831 to 1836. On Feb. 12 Harvard will do its part in celebrating Darwin, with a symposium, lecture, party, and a read-a-thon of all 502 pages of “The Origin of Species.”

In the meantime, Harvard ID holders are invited to peruse two exhibits celebrating Darwin the writer, scientist, and cultural icon.

In the Houghton’s second-floor Amy Lowell Room through March 28 is “‘There is grandeur in this view of life’: The Origin of Species at 150.” The display of 10 items — books, pamphlets, and letters — shows the evolution of the big book’s first six editions, and includes documents hinting at how Darwin’s ideas resonated at a 19th century Harvard.

On the first floor of the Cabot Science Library through May 22 is “Rethinking the Darwinian Revolution,” a wall of themed displays illustrating how the idea of Darwin has changed in the past 50 years.

The Cabot exhibit, organized by graduate students in the history of science, contains not only scholarly books, a looped movie, skulls, and somber bird specimens, but a Charles Darwin bobblehead. Next to it is an original bubble-wrapped Evolving Darwin Play Set — “From Fish-Man to ‘Genius’ in only 380 million years!”

Earlier this week, Janet Browne, Harvard’s Aramont Professor of the History of Science, dropped in at Cabot looking for a prized artifact she had lent the exhibit: a baseball cap with the legend “Voyage of the Beagle.”

Scouring archival nooks at Harvard for evidence is not the easiest assignment, she said of her students from a seminar last fall. “It’s been a steep learning experience for them.”

Browne, a biographer of the young Darwin and a world authority on 19th century biology, will deliver a Feb. 12 lecture looking back at Darwin commemorations in 1909 and 1959. It will show, in part, she said, “how Darwin became a celebrity.”

At Houghton’s Darwin exhibit, scholarly sobriety is the rule of the day. Yet the printed documents on view are a briefly intimate look at the shy Englishman whose “Origin of Species” remains a model of explanatory science and memorable literary style.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” the book’s final passage begins. Darwin evokes the natural world as “an entangled bank” teeming with bird, plant, and insect life — all interconnected, interdependent, and gloriously varietal. In the book’s last words, he marvels that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

At Houghton, viewers can see an original manuscript page from “The Origin of Species,” in Darwin’s small, feathery, wide-spaced script. The page is nearly clear of editing, a sign of his confidence in material he had been working on for over a decade.

The exhibit also displays evidence of Darwin’s connection to Harvard thinkers. An 1859 letter to naturalist Louis Agassiz, presumably accompanying a copy of the new book, tries to appease this famous opponent of the idea of natural selection. An 1861 treatise written by Harvard professor of natural science Asa Gray argues that natural selection is compatible with Christian theology.

Exhibit curator Heather G. Cole, Houghton’s assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts, began investigating the library’s Darwin material last year. She chose to display copies of four of the six editions of “The Origin of Species” that appeared in Darwin’s lifetime. The fifth edition, published in 1869, is the last to use the original long title and the first to include the resonant and durable phrase “survival of the fittest.”

In poring through Houghton’s Darwin-related letters, pictures, pamphlets, and books, Cole came to appreciate “the evolution of his ideas,” beginning with an 1842 essay, as well as the cultural furor that Darwin set in motion 150 years ago. “Everyone,” she said, “was reading this book.”