On the origins of Darwin at Fernbank

Exhibit traces the life and work of a scientist with a serious 'to do' list

Charles Darwin was never too keen on boats; seasickness was a problem for the 19th-century British scientist. He realized as much after signing up for what would become a seminal three-year mission as naturalist on board the HMS Beagle in December 1831. Various mishaps added a few extra years on to the trip, but had Darwin not taken the time to disembark at every available stop and check out the strange lands along the way, modern man's view of the world and its living inhabitants would be dramatically different. Fernbank Museum of Natural Science's Darwin exhibit tells the story of Darwin, from his early years as a restless schoolboy to his final days at Down House, his British country manor. Much of the exhibit is built around his epic sense of curiosity and the observations he made along the way around South America, to the Galapagos Islands, Australia and ultimately back to England.

Throughout the journey, Darwin filled more than 1,600 notebooks with sketches of the exotic species he encountered, along with his observations and speculations. These notebooks formed the backbone of his life's work, which culminated in two groundbreaking books, 1859's On the Origin of Species and 1871's The Descent of Man.

Both books remain in the exhibit's periphery, the show instead keeping a tight focus on Darwin's life and his theories of natural selection and evolution. Darwin provides such engrossing details about the scientist's obsessive scrutinizing, it almost seems offensive to call them "theories." Darwin's work ultimately provided the foundation for modern biology, but at the time of his findings, plants and animals were believed to be unchanging — at least since God put them on the Earth. Darwin knew his findings conflicted with Christianity, and he was in no hurry to publish his work before spending ample time making his conclusions airtight.

Nearly 180 years later, religious zealots still don't buy it, as evidenced by the Cobb County Board of Education stickers on display at Fernbank: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. The material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." Never mind the lifetime that Darwin spent doing just that.

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