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Science museum honors a natural selection

Once upon a time, there was something called the Modern Age . It had three founding fathers, patriarchal-looking men with mighty beards and serious, searching expressions. They were the magi of modernity, like something out of a fairy tale almost -- except that fairy tales were at the furthest possible remove from the powerfully orderly systems each constructed.

The two most exciting and controversial were Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud . The other one, frankly, lacked the intellectual dash and cachet of the others. It could feel at times as if he were almost an afterthought, thrown in as a concession to the centrality of science in the Modern Age. He was Charles Darwin.

That's how things looked throughout much of the 20th century (the Modern Age was basically a fancy name the 20th century cooked up for itself). How different things appear in the 21st century. Marx and Freud have been rendered peripheral -- in the eyes of many, they have been effectively discredited -- by events ranging from the fall of the Soviet Union to the rise of psychopharmacology.

Darwin remains preeminent. More than that: As the most significant figure in the history of the biological sciences, which have increasingly come to dominate our lives and thought, he's become totemic. Darwin seems more relevant today than at any time, perhaps, in the nearly 150 years since he advanced his evolutionary theory of natural selection.

Darwin has become controversial, too, as he hasn't been since the first years after "On the Origin of Species" was published, in 1859 . That's thanks to religious fundamentalism (take that, Modern Age) and the emergence of intelligent design as a counter theory. So it's hard to imagine better timing for "Darwin," the handsome, comprehensive, and engaging exhibition on the great man's life and work that opened yesterday at the Museum of Science and runs through April 27.

Originating at the American Museum of Natural History , the show was presumably inspired by the imminence of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth (1809) and 150th anniversary of "Origin of Species." Now it carries an inevitable political dimension, as well. The show doesn't shrink from addressing that, with sections on "Evolution, Today" and a film in which noted scientists discuss the intersection of natural selection and religion.

Among the many virtues of "Darwin" is its taking in not just cultural controversy but also childlike wonder. It's highly accessible without being either trivializing or reductive. Some of the most publicized Museum of Science exhibitions in recent years, such as "The Science of 'Star Wars' " and "Body Worlds 2," excelled at crowd-pleasing (and crowd-drawing) but not much else. In contrast, "Darwin" succeeds on many levels.

A child is unlikely to value the beauty, let alone impact, of the several examples of Darwin's notebooks included in the show. (One sees he wrote in an elegant, flowing hand, fine but not at all fussy.) No matter: There are films and interactive displays that will appeal to young museumgoers. And children of any age will marvel at the iguana, two Galapagos tortoises, and four horned frogs that are on hand.

Darwin was an eminent (if unorthodox) Victorian, and there is a nicely Victorian sense of the overstuffed to the show. There are fossils, beetle specimens Darwin collected, mounted birds, facsimiles of letters, and such winningly mundane items as the Darwin family magnifying glass and the scientist's rock hammer. The study of his home, Down House , has been re-created, with everything from Darwin's books to his chemical bottles to a rather fetching wallpaper (it looks as if it could be a William Morris design ).

The crucial event in Darwin's life was the five-year voyage of HMS Beagle , on which he served as the ship's naturalist. Who knew that the ship, surely the most important vessel in human history, was only 90 feet long? Or that its captain, concerned that the Beagle's iron cannons might interfere with some of Darwin's experiments involving magnetism, had brass ones put in at his own expense?

We see the Bible and pistol Darwin took on the Beagle, and the single most beautiful display in the show is the selection of plant specimens he brought back. Their delicate tracery under glass is a wondrous sight, but nowhere near as wondrous as the "tree of life" drawing from one of his notebooks, his first known sketch of the idea of evolutionary relationships among different species.

There are trees and then there are trees. Even if it weren't apocryphal, we'd never get to see the one from which an apple fell on Isaac Newton , supposedly inspiring his formulation of the law of gravity. Darwin's tree was every bit as efficacious, and we do get to see it. It's so simple a child could have drawn it, yet its roots reach throughout all living history. To glimpse it is a humbling and extraordinary privilege.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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