Darwin Dumbed Down; The Royal Ontario Museum's new exhibition does a disservice to the man and his work
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 March 2008)

To see the Royal Ontario Museum's new exhibit, Darwin: The Evolution Revolution, which opened on Saturday and runs till Aug. 4, you go to the basement. That may surprise people who have read about Toronto's exciting new museum building. A major selling point of Daniel Libeskind's design was the plan to let natural light pour into an institution that's traditionally been shadowy.

It seems perverse to spend a fortune on a flamboyant new structure and then install marquee exhibitions below grade in a room that could have been part of the old building. It's the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, Level 2B, a place with a barren, unloved feeling. Large but awkward, it's marred by colossal pillars that support much of the upstairs weight.

This is where, last November, the ROM put Canada Collects: Treasures from Across the Nation, a disappointing and incoherent assemblage of objects from public and private owners. It looked pointless, and perhaps was, but it's hard to make an impression in the Weston Hall. For curators it must be an installation nightmare -- and it's no better for visitors. I walked through Darwin: The Evolution Revolution four times and never shook off the cramped feeling I experienced on my first go-round. I kept thinking I'd made a wrong turn and arrived at the end of a hall.

The exhibition's content turns out to be even more dismaying. The 40,000 words of wall text (far more than anyone will read) include this statement: "A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin offered the world a single, simple scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth: evolution by natural selection."

Simple? Did they say simple? It's possible that you can make it sound simple by glib summary. But its implications are the reverse of simple. They demand a leap of the imagination most of the world has always found extremely difficult. In order to grasp evolution as the central element in history, rather than a chapter in a biology text, we have to stretch our minds an uncomfortable distance.

The greatest scientist of modern times, Darwin is also the most provocative. In the 1860s, when the world was first compelled to deal with him, his theory was terrifying, world-shaking, religion-threatening. It still raises furious controversy.

Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, a passionate Darwinian who studies and preaches evolution's meaning, has tried to explain not only "the blind, unconscious, automatic process" Darwin discovered but also the reason we have trouble comprehending it. He's speculated on why nobody till Darwin (and his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace) came upon it. Certainly it never occurred to New-ton, Galileo or Descartes. A simplified version of the idea can be expressed in a few words. How could it have gone so long undiscovered?

The problem was time, geological time. Once you define evolution you can easily observe it among fruit flies in a lab. Anyone at the ROM exhibit can grasp the idea that seeing finches with different-sized beaks, living on different islands, suggested to Darwin that while they were closely connected, they evolved differently.

But consider a much more complex achievement, the human eye or the eye of any mammal. How in the world could that magnificently intricate instrument have been tugged into existence by chance? Common sense tells us it couldn't.

In this case common sense is dead wrong. "Our well-tuned apparatus of skepticism," Dawkins says, "misfires by huge margins." The truth of evolution is counter-intuitive. We teach ourselves to think in decades or maybe in centuries. Evolution requires processes so slow that they take millions of decades to complete. Our intuition doesn't deal in numbers that large. Those who hope to grasp evolution must wretch themselves free from the prison of familiar time scales and imagine what we might call "deep time." It's harder, even, than imagining deep space, which we can "see" through graphic images generated by signals from telescopes.

Explaining evolution, extending our feelings about time, is a museum's perfect challenge. It should fit especially well into the reimagined, renewed and rebuilt ROM. In that gleaming new palace of ideas and objects, we should expect that exploring a great event in intellectual history (Dawkins has called it perhaps the greatest of all events) should be an exciting and original process -- in its way, perhaps, as exciting and original as Darwinism.

Instead, Darwin: The Evolution Revolution limps through its subject, barely hinting at the great audacity of Darwin's thinking. The exhibition provides great piles of data about Darwin and Darwinism but at no point demands thought or response from those who view it.

For some hard-to-figure reason, the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where this show originated) and the other museums on its tour take a biographical rather than an analytical and exploratory approach to the subject. They deliver a mild, once-over-lightly account of Darwin's life. A reproduction of his office tells us not much of interest. In a wall text we read the sad story of his daughter's death. Parts of the exhibit amount to a souvenir collection -- Darwin's magnifying glass, his pistol, his Bible and the hammer he used when digging fossils out of rock. Through projected photographs we tour the unremarkable grounds at Down House in Kent, where he spent much of his life. We see the Sandwalk, where he strolled and, presumably, did a lot of his thinking.

Occasionally this approach is engaging. There's an actual-size reproduction of the deck on The Beagle, the tiny (by our standards) ship on which Darwin sailed for five years while gathering scientific samples, most famously at the Galapagos Islands off South America. It reminds us that Darwin did his essential work when ocean travel involved hardship and endless inconvenience.

But otherwise his life wasn't especially interesting. Except for the wonders he was unfolding in his mind, he was much like any Victorian naturalist.

The curators appear to believe that in 2008 evolution and everything connected with it have congealed into received wisdom, needing only to be articulated once more, in the style that museums have been using for at least half a century. Perhaps out of a belief that we couldn't deal with anything stronger, the exhibition gives us a cozy and harmless version of a painful, challenging idea that transformed science and the world.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image