25 April 2008

Darwin's Garden, reviewed by the New York Times

Earlier this month I highlighted the impending opening of a new exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden called Darwin's Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure. The exhibition opens today, and to mark the opening there is a review in the New York Times by Cornelia Dean, complete with audio slide-show.

Though most people associate [the Origin of Species] and Darwin’s ideas generally with his voyage to the Galápagos and his study of finches there, his work with plants was far more central to his thinking, said David Kohn, a Darwin expert and science historian who is a curator of the exhibition.

Even in the Galapágos he focused on plants, said Dr. Kohn, who is general editor of the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History. “He did not even label the finches,” he said. “He was fascinated by plants,” particularly the way their variation and sexual reproduction challenged the idea that species were stable, a key idea in botany at the time.

As Dr. Kohn writes in the exhibition catalogue, “plants were the one group of organisms that he studied with most consistency and depth over the course of a long scientific career” of collecting, observing, experimenting and theorizing.

Yes, at long last, an exhibition in appreciation of Darwin the botanist.

As visitors walk through the Botanical Garden they will be able to follow an illustrated maps of the tree of life — the plant part of it, anyway — that tell them where the plants they can see fit in the evolutionary framework.

Oh, I am going to love this (did I mention I am going to New York next week?).

The tree of life exhibits, comprising an unusual mix of living plants, laboratory expertise and historical documents, show that many plants are surprisingly close relatives of others that seem quite different, a concept that helps botanists when they look for likely sources of useful plant chemicals or worry about maintaining biodiversity.

For example, “squashes and oaks are related,” said Dennis W. Stevenson, the garden’s vice president for laboratory science. “Who’d a thunk it?”

But while many branches move off simply and neatly in ways botanists understand — they are “totally resolved,” Dr. Stevenson said — other evolutionary branchings occur in clumps called polytomies, areas where the family history of plants is still unknown.
Read: this exhibition is clearly not afraid to put the realities of living science on display. Hurrah!

Garden officials recognize that there are those who challenge Darwin’s ideas, but for them there is nothing controversial about them. “Our whole science is based on evolution,” Gregory Long, the Botanical Garden’s president, said, as he surveyed the team of horticulturalists installing the flowers that replicate Darwin’s experiments.

“It’s the heart of our science,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for Darwin.”


Michael D. Barton, FCD said...

Oh, great for you, getting to go to New York. You'll have to share with us your thoughts on the exhibit and reproductions... If they have any kind of brochure, or exhibit guide, send one my way! What's bringing you to NY, by the way?


nunatak said...

Now, now, don't be envious, ye who live in big sky country just a two-hour drive from Yellowstone National Park...

*coughing as chokes on pollution and/or catches respiratory virus from one of my 12 million neighbours*

I'm going to New York on two official museum businesses:

1. with botany research hat on, to attend a two-day conference at the NYBG about a new campaign to "DNA barcode" the world's trees, called "tree-BoL" (tree barcode of life)

2. with Darwin200 hat on, to join in on the special curator's tour of Darwin's Garden (whee!)

I'll definitely pick up a memento for you (perhaps the catalogue mentioned in the NY Times article?)

Michael D. Barton, FCD said...

Surprisingly, I don't get to Yellowstone as much as I should, nor even the beautiful hiking areas surrounding Bozeman. It's been snowing again (I am not motivated to go outside in the winter), and I am very much anticipating this summer. I want to take Patrick to see some geysers in Yellowstone... plus do a few hikes in the area I have not done - we may not be in Bozeman forever...

Thanks for the memento in advance!