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Origins of ‘The Origin of Species’ On Exhibit at Linda Hall Library
Rare photo of Charles Darwin
Credit:  Linda Hall Library

We know so much about Charles Darwin; yet we know so little. His visage, that balding, bearded face with a serious mien, is as iconic as the one (supposed) portrait of Shakespeare.

It would be nice to think we can guess what he is contemplating, and why he is always frowning in photographs: perhaps because he knows what the world will be like after the publication of his book “On the Origin of Species.”

Like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Leaves of Grass,” published respectively in 1851 and 1855, when “Origin” was finally released in England by the prestigious publisher John Murray, in 1859, after a gestation period of more than twenty years, it proved to be the bombshell that both the Civil War novel and strange American poem were perceived to be, initially.

Darwin’s book went further. The other two books were fiction; this was fact, if one believed, of course. Two hundred years after Darwin’s birth, in Shropshire, to a well-off family that included Charles’ grandfather the pioneering zoologist and philosopher Erasmus Darwin, we are still rocked by the revelations of his crowning achievement.

Gravity, the Theory of Relativity, the circulatory system: however mysterious, such discoveries are taken for granted in our busy modern world, much the way Impressionism in art is now taken for granted, though at the time it was scorned with the devil’s ridicule. Natural Selection, in contrast, is in art terms Abstract Expressionism—people are divided whether or not they believe it is something of great importance or whether the “The Origin” is somehow tricking them.

A fascinating exhibition at Linda Hall Library, “The Grandeur of Life: A Celebration of Charles Darwin and the ‘Origin of Species’” (running through March 27, 2010), uses the old scientific standby of evidence to support the theory that Darwin’s ideas were built upon the backs of others. A magnificent array of some fifty tomes, ranging from such celebrated authors, artists and naturalists as Thomas Bewick and John Gould to John James Audubon, fill a dozen or more cases, leading up to a first edition of “The Origin.”

What a visitor learns from following the narrative of scientific and historical discoveries both printed and illustrated within these handcrafted books is that Darwin’s book was the summa of many years of research and romance on open water and in foreign lands—indeed, it truly was the survival of the intellectually fittest.

Despite the Internet and instant access across continents, languages and tangled pasts, it is curious how much we still get wrong and how much scientists and artists in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries got right, or mostly right, by corresponding the old way and making travel plans that took them into uncharted territories. (Darwin’s 1831 “Beagle” voyage lasted five years.)

The books on view at Linda Hall offer a sense of revolution without the hoopla.
In book after book, whether the ideas are proven or proven to be fantasies, the rigor of getting at something new, authentic if possible, is on view throughout. (The exhibition was curated by William Ashworth, Jr. and prepared by the Library’s rare book director, Bruce Bradley, with help from Nancy Officer and Cynthia Rogers.)

Darwin was not sui generis: his method of inquiry followed accepted rules—yet he was also an exemplar of his own theory. He reset the course. (Darwin called it “the long argument.”)

In his recent “Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life,” Adam Gopnik makes a point that we forget how graceful, how novelistic, Darwin was as a writer. Of “The Voyage of the ‘Beagle,’” Gopnik notes “how much pure observation, pure plain looking, there is”; the same can be said for the many different authors and illustrators of these books. Science is about discovery; discovery is looking; looking is about looking around at the world.

The fauna below, the insects within, the animals outside: together, they informed these naturalists and artists; they in turn gave the public its first look at an exotic kangaroo (James Cook) and the age-old flea (Robert Hooke, whose 1665 “Micrographia” is turned to a folding plate of a lovely bloodsucker).

As much as this is an exhibition about science, it is also an exhibition about books and bookmaking. By the time Darwin was publishing, printing and traveling had long been entwined. The results in this exhibition are a joy to see. Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), the famed engraver and ornithologist, is represented by his classic “A History of British Birds,” published in two volumes between 1797 and 1804; Bewick took advantage of improved printing processes to refine his illustrations.

Before naturalists or artists could travel, animals were often rendered in illustrations by mythological hearsay (most infamously, perhaps, Albrecht Dürer’s sixteenth-century drawing of an armor-plated rhinoceros resembling a creature out of a “Star Wars” movie). The multifariousness of the real animals drawn and discussed over several centuries, from sea anemones (by Phillip Gosse) and cucumbers (John Ellis) to amphibians (the miniaturist Rosel von Rosenhoff), quadrupeds and birds (Audubon’s glorious color plates), was equaled only by the scope of the scholars’ quest for knowledge.

Through the selected volumes on exhibit, the show lives up to its title “The Grandeur of Life.” It is a large world made both larger and smaller. If we now think little of James Cook collecting a thousand plants during his three-year excursion from the South Seas to the Great Barrier Reef, back then it had to have, well, perhaps not the significance of moon rocks or an Australopithecus skull but be a treasure nevertheless.

It is that sense of the mysterious, of thinking aloud, of a willingness to encounter failure and humiliation that pushed these individuals. John Updike once wrote of how science is ennobling and how “at the same time we shrink from what it has to tell us of our perilous and insignificant place in the cosmos.” In previous centuries, men were too busy to cower before the infinite; they were creating it.

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