So this is it; the Darwin Year. From blogs to books and lectures, lots of people are going to be talking about Charles Darwin and his scientific legacy. It was the same in 1909. (Alright, they didn’t have blogs, but you know what I mean.) Lectures were delivered, books were published, and monuments were erected to commemorate Darwin. You would think that some of these signs of homage would have some permanence, but while we are still talking about Darwin the tributes made to him have largely faded away.
Take, for example, the establishment of the 1909 Darwin Celebration at the American Museum of Natural History. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the New York Academy of Sciences presented the AMNH with a bronze bust of the naturalist which was to have a “permanent place” in the newly-minted Darwin Hall of Invertebrate Zoology. Even though the president of the museum, H.F. Osborn, thought natural selection to be of trifling importance to evolution, he still put the naturalist who sparked so much interest in evolution on a pedestal.
If you go to the AMNH today, however, you won’t be able to find the Darwin Hall. It was shut down and packed up in 1940. What’s more, the Darwin bust was re-gifted to the NYAS and now sits in an outdoor courtyard at the organization’s offices. (Whether the commemorative plates remain in the museum, I cannot say. Now I have another historical lead to track down when I visit the AMNH.)
It does not matter how we celebrate Darwin’s legacy this year; much of what we do is going to be forgotten (the Beagle Project may be a notable exception). This does not mean we should not make the most of this opportunity to share science with anyone inquisitive enough to take an interest in it, only that memorials are not always as permanent as we might like them to be. The true celebration of Darwin’s legacy, however, is the ongoing interrogation of nature being undertaken by scores of scientists around the world. We best honor revolutionary thinkers not by making florid tributes to their memory, but continuing to investigate the ideas that so enthralled them.