St. Louis, MO – More than 125 years after his death, naturalist Charles Darwin is still a controversial figure to many Americans.
An exhibition on his life and work opens on April 17th at the Saint Louis Science Center.
Science Center Director Doug King tells St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is as significant today as it was 150 years ago, when Darwin first published his book, On the Origin of Species.
The exhibition will run through August 1st. More information is available on the Saint Louis Science Center's Darwin Web page.
DOUG KING: Few people in history have had as much impact on either the world of science or sociologically, and it's interesting to think about who's out there doing anything today that we'll talk about 150 years from now. The concept of evolution was pretty well accepted. The idea that things change over time was just very observable. What he came up with which was so controversial was the mechanism: How did things change? Why do they change? And a lot of people believed that they changed because God made them change. Darwin said there's a natural process by which they change. He didn't say that God isn't part of that, but that's the way a lot of people took it, and that's really still what we're arguing about 150 years later.
VERONIQUE LACAPRA: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because I did a little research and I found that some recent Gallup polls show that anywhere from a quarter to a half of Americans don't believe in evolution. Does this exhibit try to reflect that in any way?
KING: Well, there really isn't any scientific controversy. The idea that change happens, that Darwin's explanation of it was pretty well correct has been proven time and time again over 150 years, and so the Science Center wants to present: What is the science? The reason that polls like that happen, that people say, "I don't believe in evolution," is because people don't understand the science. It's not an argument within the scientific community, and the fact that the social controversy is still part of it is part of the exhibit. It was part of it before Darwin published the book, part of it 150 years later, we won't ignore that.
LACAPRA: Do you think this exhibit might help someone who is an evolution skeptic, if you will, have a better appreciation of what evolution's all about?
KING: I hope so, I mean, that's exactly the point. I'll quote Francis Collins, a much better scientist than I ever was, head of the National Institutes of Health. Francis Collins is a devout Christian, who says, "I can't explain everything in the universe, and there's plenty of room in that uncertainty for God."
LACAPRA: Do you think there's anything in this exhibit that might surprise people about Darwin himself, as a person?
KING: Yes, I think there is. His personal story is really fascinating. He wasn't an eminent scientist who went out to try to discover something to change the world. He was a guy on a boat traveling around the world as a fairly junior observer, and the things that he saw began to make sense to him. Why are the birds on one island different than the birds on another island? Why are the lizards swimming in the ocean here where they don't other places? He started asking himself a lot of questions about how this happened and developed this idea of natural selection before anyone else did. He was just the first person to put together a lot of the pieces. Once he did put together those pieces, he understood that it was going to be challenging sociologically, I mean, not just with other people with other scientific views, but even within his own family. His wife absolutely believed that if he published the book, they would be separated in the afterlife, which was really important to people who lived in the mid-1800's where your life didn't last very long and 40 or 50 years was a long lifespan, and so it took him 20 years to reconcile what he absolutely observed in the physical world with different beliefs that he had been taught. The answer for him was, "It's not up to me to sort those things out. It's my responsibility to report what I see," and the quote that I used from Francis Collins could practically be attributable to Darwin. He said, "I can describe the process, but I believe it took a divine hand to set it in motion."