The Libraries opened its new exhibition Darwin’s Legacy in the National Museum of Natural History on Sept. 10. The exhibition cases feature the first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), a revolutionary book that changed the course of modern science. November 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication. This exhibition will be on display through Sept. 12, 2010.
On the Origin of Species is widely heralded as the foundation for evolutionary biology. After graduating from Cambridge University in 1831, Darwin signed up as an unpaid naturalist for a five-year scientific voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. As he sailed around South America and the Galápagos Islands (1831-36), Darwin made notes and observations, collected animal fossils and plant specimens and studied the geology of islands and coral reefs. His work led him to think deeply about the distribution of animals and plants over place and time.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection grew out of his work aboard the Beagle. “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.” In 1857, he outlined his theory of evolution in a letter to American botanist Asa Gray, his greatest U.S. advocate. On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and soon found supporters at the Smithsonian Institution. Joseph Henry, a famed scientist and the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, held the book in high regard. Darwin’s theory continues to guide research at the National Museum of Natural History to this day.
The exhibition also showcases Darwin’s silk neckerchief, Joseph Henry’s desk diary, beautifully illustrated volumes from Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (edited by Charles Darwin and published from 1838-43), a background map of the track of the H.M.S. Beagle, and Galápagos land iguana and mockingbird specimens from the collections of the National Museum of Natural History.—Liz O'Brien