27 October 2007

Evolution In Action

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In Saturday's Guardian Steve Jones waxes skel-oquent about a new book by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu and Patrick Gries called Evolution in Action, writing:

"It was a great puzzle to me why the Grand Gallery of Evolution in Paris's Museum of Natural History was renovated at great expense in the 1990s to muddle what had been a classical display of the logic of life and replace it with a series of tableaux of mildly interesting but quite unrelated creatures (the British equivalent in South Kensington is, if anything, worse). Now, the Paris museum has returned to its roots with a marvellous evolutionary account of the skeletons in its huge collection."

As an employee of London's Natural History Museum in South Kensington, I wholeheartedly agree with Professor Jones. Random selections of specimens, no matter how spectacular, are no substitute for, as Jones puts it, "the logic of life".

The good news is that starting in 2008 the NHM in London will host the excellent Darwin exhibition (on loan from the American Museum of Natural History - does anyone else see the irony in this?), and has also already begun the process of developing a new permanent evolution gallery which will open sometime in the next five to ten years.

"Many popular books have tried to put flesh on the bare bones of Darwin's theory, but this one does the opposite," Professor Jones continues, "The stark photographs in Evolution In Action make an eloquent case for evolution."

"Charles Darwin, in The Origin Of Species, often refers to the great French anatomists such as Georges Cuvier," Jones reminds us. "Darwin's best-known adversary was Lamarck, a founder of the Museum of Natural History. Lamarck was a proponent of evolution, in that he believed in the 'inheritance of acquired characters' (if giraffes spend a lifetime stretching for leaves, they will pass on a longer neck to their offspring). Darwin believed this, too; he despised his continental cousin for a more subtle reason, for the Frenchman had that very French notion, the law of necessary progress - that every day in every way things are bound to get better and better, with the whole of creation striving to achieve, as Lamarck himself did, a place in the Académie Française."

Fittingly, Professor Jones ends with a lesson about the superior power of spectacular objects to inspire: "As I never tire of reminding people, UCL's biology department is on the site of Darwin's London home. Its building is now under renovation and the huge skulls of the Irish elk and various skeletons in the entrance hall are going into store - the molecular people resent what they call 'hunting trophies' distracting visitors to their shiny laboratories. They may not realise it, but most of their own effort is just comparative anatomy, on a reduced scale. The only difference is, it costs a lot more, and astounds a lot less, than the real thing."

We're all in favour of the astounding potential of real things over here at The Beagle Project.


Read the full Guardian article here and see more spectacular skeletons here.

2 comments:

Kevin Z said...

Nice little piece guys, I love the line "Oh Lamarck your such a Buffon" that was just nerdy and I love it!

Ann said...

Many popular books have tried to put flesh on the bare bones of Darwin's theory, but this one does the opposite," Professor Jones continues, "The stark photographs in Evolution In Action make an eloquent case for evolution.I love it.