The Evolution of Evolution

The scholars who were Darwin’s ancestors

By Heather Taddonio

It’s the age-old story of a true adventurer: a man enraptured by the world around him who disobeyed his father’s wishes when he accepted an offer to sail around the world pursuing his hobby in the name of science. His name was Charles Darwin.
Darwin is one of the most famed names in the sciences, but what about the evolution of the theory of evolution? Bryn Mawr College’s Special Collections Department’s exhibit titled Darwin’s Ancestors: Tracing the Origins of the “Origin of Species” profiles some of Darwin’s most influential but often unsung predecessors of natural history.
Housed in Canaday Library’s elegant Rare Book Room, the exhibition features artwork, books, and text incorporating specimens from notable – but unknown — scientists including Joannes Jonstronus, Thomas Burnett, John Gould, Erasmus Darwin, and Charles Lyell. These predecessors “laid the groundwork for our modern understanding of the nature of life on earth,” according to the exhibit.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

The exhibit, which opened on Oct. 22 and will run through Feb. 2010, was opened with a lecture titled “Disagreements Among Friends: How T.H. Morgan and E. B. Wilson’s Agreeing to Disagree Helped Establish Genetics and the Modern Synthesis” by Swarthmore biology professor Scott Gilbert.
Lost in the science-speak? Gilbert’s lecture hits close to home: Wilson and Morgan were Bryn Mawr’s two first biology professors and were prominent players in the 20th century evolution debates.

Darwin’s ancestors

Darwin’s Ancestors is curated by Director of Library Collections Eric Pumroy, art history graduate student Angelique Wille, and undergraduate medieval studies major Marybeth Matlack. The exhibit coincides with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his celebrated book On the Origin of Species.
Special collections chose to show a Darwin exhibit because of Bryn Mawr’s “fairly good collections on the history of natural history to support the show, and because we had recently had some conversations with faculty in the bi-co who are interested in the history of science and were willing to help us think about the topic,” said Pumroy. “And if we were going to do a Darwin-related exhibition, the anniversary seemed like the right time to do it to ensure a wider audience outside of Bryn Mawr.”
But even with the excellent timing, visitor numbers to the exhibit are minimal.
“Generally, the number of walk-in visitors isn’t very large,” said Pumroy, adding that this is actually true of most small museums. “Most of the people who see the exhibit are those who come to special events, like the opening, or classes.”
At least two faculty members plan on bringing their classes to visit the exhibit, with others encouraging their students to come on their own.

On the HMS Beagle

Despite the small number of visitors, the exhibit maintains a fascinating look into the history of natural history and how it has evolved over the centuries since Darwin’s ancestors.

John Gould’s ornate illustrations of hummingbirds demonstrate one of the earliest examples of utilizing detailed illustrations in books about natural history, which were, in his mind, “essential to a book about nature.”
The exhibit, of course, traces each scientist’s connection to Charles Darwin: Gould was a leading ornithologist who was chosen to examine Darwin’s bird specimens from his 1831 voyage on the HMS Beagle. Incidentally, it turned out that Darwin had incorrectly identified many of his bird specimens from his expedition.
Joannes Jonstronus, the 17th Century Polish scholar, was “innovative not in what he wrote, but in what he omitted from his text,” as he only wrote empirical observations in his books rather than including the mythology of the animals, which was a commonplace practice among natural historians of the day.
Books on natural history would often end up with fictional animals alongside real ones. It was not uncommon for exotic creatures, which the writers had only heard about, to end up together on a page in a natural history book.
For example, the exhibit houses a book open to a spread depicting illustrations of similar species: a pelican alongside a gryphon.