Tearing down Darwin Hall


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.


  1. #1 Raptor Lewis
    January 13, 2009

    Bravo!! Bravo!! Encore!! Encore!! lol. Nice speech, dude! I mean that and I 100% agree! I honor Darwin, paleontologists, the prehitoric orgnaisms being studied with my blog. That’s the highest honor, I think,and the one that lasts forever. That is the ONLY tribute that is Eternal!!

  2. #2 Raptor Lewis
    January 13, 2009

    When are the Boneyards? Uh..if possible, can I host it some-time?

  3. #3 Raymond Minton
    January 13, 2009

    I’ll be making a big deal out of Darwin’s 200th, and every birthday after that, because I cherish two things that many of my fellow citizens hold in contempt: science and rational thought (and Darwin, of course, made immense contributions to both.)

  4. #4 Dartian
    January 14, 2009

    It was the same in 1909.

    Not sure I agree. People did not appreciate the importance of natural selection, Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) main intellectual contribution, like they do today. In fact, I suspect that if you had asked people in 1909 who was the greatest naturalist of all time, quite a few would have put Mendel before Darwin. (Heredity was the ‘hot’ topic in biology in the early 20th century.) The theory of natural selection wasn’t seriously incorporated with the theory of evolution until the late 1920ies/early 1930ies.

    Osborn…still put the naturalist who sparked so much interest in evolution on a pedestal.

    Could that partly be because he liked and respected Darwin, at a personal level? After all, Osborn met Darwin when he was visiting England as a young student in 1879-1880. And if contemporary accounts are anything to go by, most people who met Darwin took a liking to him.

  5. #5 Laelaps
    January 14, 2009

    Dartian; People were definitely talking about Darwin, but (as you suggest) it primarily had to do with whether he was right or wrong about the mechanism for evolution. Natural selection was not appreciated as it was today, that is true, but many scientists did use the Darwin anniversary to hold lectures and discuss his work. Even natural selection was not fully appreciated, many scientists still felt the need to commemorate Darwin (as this post shows).

    The speeches and materials (follow the links) distributed at the AMNH event show that Darwin was primarily celebrated for stirring wide interest in evolution. Osborn did admire him in at least this capacity, and I think that, to some extent, Osborn wanted to be the “second Darwin” he mentions in the event’s promotional materials who further updates evolutionary theory. I’m sure meeting Darwin reinforced Osborn’s feelings, but many scientists admired the English naturalist for popularizing evolution if nothing else.

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