Evolution explored from all angles

4 min read

Class of ’58 members bring exhibit to life; faculty fieldwork fulfills museum’s mission

From humanity’s close relationship to chimpanzees to the missing link between land and sea creatures, the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH) has capped off a year celebrating Darwin and “On the Origin of Species” with a new exhibit that puts evolution front and center.

Called simply, “Evolution,” the exhibit, which opened in April, looks at evolution from a variety of angles, from tree-of-life relationships between creatures, to convergence that causes distantly related species to develop similar traits, to anatomical, fossil, and genetic evidence that evolution underlies life around us.

As it does so, the exhibit takes pains to highlight the role of Harvard faculty in important discoveries in the field, fulfilling the museum’s mission to be the public face of the collections and research that goes on beyond its galleries. Among the faculty whose work is mentioned in the exhibit is Agassiz Professor of Zoology Farish Jenkins’ discovery of the missing link between fishes and terrestrial vertebrates. Called Tiktaalik roseae, the fossil was discovered in 2004 by Jenkins and colleagues from the University of Chicago and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, filling a blank in the fossil record. A model of Tiktaalik, gleaming as if still wet and peering out of a shallow, prehistoric stream or pond, is the first thing visitors see when they enter.

Among the many topics included in the displays are the evolution of anolis lizards on Caribbean islands, research conducted by Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America Jonathan Losos; the evolution of mammalian ear bones from analogs in reptilian jawbones, on which former Museum of Comparative Zoology Director Fuzz Crompton worked; and Anthropology Professor Maryellen Ruvolo’s work on the molecular roots of humankind. The exhibit includes an eye-catching “trophic pyramid” of beetles, conceived by Biology Professor Brian D. Farrell, with each specimen representing approximately 1,000 species, giving viewers a sense of the profusion of beetle species.

The exhibit tackles several major topics in evolution, including variation, which it terms the “raw material” of natural selection, natural selection itself, adaptive radiation, and convergent evolution, among others. It also presents a timeline of life, showing the progression from microbe to simple animal to complex animal to — very near the timeline’s end — humans.

The exhibit unequivocally highlights evolution’s central role in modern biological science, stating prominently that “evolution is a fact” and calling it “an essential truth supported by overwhelming scientific evidence.”

The evolution gallery is the first that visitors pass through when they enter the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), one of the HMNH’s three parent museums. Though that location is partly due to available space, HMNH Executive Director Elisabeth Werby said the location is important because “Evolution” underlies the exhibits visitors will find beyond, in galleries dedicated to the development and use of color in nature and to the enormous diversity of arthropods, and in halls dedicated to fossils, mammals, and other creatures.

The exhibit was paid for with a gift from members of the Class of 1958, which last year celebrated its 50th reunion. MCZ Director James Hanken, Agassiz Professor of Zoology, said there was tremendous interest from class members in having Harvard weigh in directly on the issue, which has been under scrutiny in broader society.

“The enthusiasm was really overwhelming,” Hanken said.

Michael Margolies, a member of the Class of 1958 who spearheaded the fundraising effort, said the donation to the museum was separate from the Class Gift typically made at reunion time and that a significant number of those approached agreed to give.

“What resonated a good deal — and surprised us — was that many people felt it was an important statement to make in the culture wars in this country,” Margolies said. “I was delighted to have the privilege to be part of it.”

Werby said the new permanent exhibit is the museum’s most significant achievement during Darwin Year, a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species” and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

In addition to specimens from the MCZ’s collections, the exhibition includes interactive video terminals and a small theater space, where visitors can hear Harvard faculty members talk about major topics in evolution and in their own work. Werby said the space will also serve to give the museum a place to host gallery talks on other topics. The exhibit includes several displays that are designed to be changed, allowing the HMNH exhibits staff to update the gallery with new developments or to highlight the work of different faculty members.

“It will evolve,” Hanken said.