Sunday, September 28, 2008

Darwin at the California Academy of Sciences

After nearly 10 years and $500 million dollars, the California Academy of Sciences reopened on Saturday. Living about two blocks away and with two young dino fans, we trekked over for opening weekend festivities. Like most people, I was expecting to be impressed by the indoor rainforest and the so-called living roof. The latter, as most of you have probably read, houses sixty-thousand photovoltaic cells to provide up to 10 percent of the building’s electricity from solar energy. Additionally, the rooftop should absorb 3.6 million gallons of rainwater per year for use in the building and on its grounds. Of course, that’s all largely irrelevant to our Charles Darwin course. Yet, once inside the Academy, it’s clear that Darwin owns the place. His footprint runs throughout, and he essentially has an entire wing dedicated to his work on the Galápagos Islands. In the Academy’s previous building, Darwin's presence felt more like an historical footnote, running as agate type at the bottom of an exhibit card. Now, his name and thinking is dominant across even the floor:
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change." -- Charles Darwin

Though the exhibit tracks Darwin’s trail after he disembarked the Beagle and waded ashore the Galápagos Islands in 1835, it focuses most on the continued work stemming from his particular areas of interest and impact: bathtub-sized tortoises and well-beaked finches. As we know from Darwin’s autobiography, the thirteen species of Darwin's finches all had unique beaks that developed depending on what they ate, a phenomenon that would shape Darwin's theory of evolution.

Now, these famous finches are under attack by blood-sucking flies, according to the Academy of Sciences. Apparently, fly larvae live in the finches' nests, emerging at night to sample the blood of chicks by burrowing into their flesh. The flies arrived on the islands via shipments of produce from the Ecuadorian mainland. Currently, the pest larvae are being targeted with insecticides; however, Academy researchers hope the finches will somehow adapt. Meanwhile, kids visiting the Academy of Sciences can literally stamp out flies or lure larvae-toting ants to insecticide-tainted finch nests, and anyone can try out models of differently designed finch beaks or compare life-size models of Darwin’s tortoises.

The Academy of Sciences also houses a naturalist center with various Galápagos resources that are open to the public. The Academy's Science Council is also pushing what it calls the reaffirmed importance of evolution as "the critical organizing principle in modern science." In other words, as the council highlights throughout the museum, "evolution belongs in school curricula and textbooks."

Not surprisingly, the Academy is planning lots of festivities come Darwin’s big two-hundredth birthday. The Academy kicked off its run-up to the February event with a public nod to the reading of the joint communication by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to the Linnean Society of London.

Laura Moorhead

Please, resist all jokes regarding the shocking family resemblance!

1 comment:

Michael D. Barton, FCD said...

Thought I'd share my post about that quote from Darwin on the floor: