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Opening of Darwin exhibition

Dr Barry Jones introduced by Dr John Hirst, 9 December 2008

DENNIS GRANT: Ladies and gentlemen, to introduce our guest speaker tonight, may I introduce the deputy chair of the National Museum of Australia, a wonderful scholar of Australia history and the scholar emeritus at Latrobe University - Dr John Hirst.

Dr JOHN HIRST: Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, the Darwin exhibition that we are opening is in this direction. This way are the permanent exhibitions, and the first gallery you come to is called Old New Land. That gallery displays how the first European settlers in this place found the flora and fauna so puzzling. The scientists found it puzzling. Darwin when he was here found it puzzling. He wrote that ‘if you were an unbeliever’ - this is a wonderful play with himself - ‘you might think there had been two creators’. But then he rapidly went on to say in his diary ‘that of course there was only one creation but there was a great amount of variety within it’. He was still a long way from developing his theory on evolution but you can see - and we all know this about the voyage of the Beagle - that the thinking had begun. We have a particular reason for being very interested in Darwin and we are very pleased to have this exhibition from the American Museum of Natural History and pleased to have Alan Draeger and his colleague Katy McDonald here. I also welcome Robert McKay and Carol Henry from Art Exhibitions Australia. The staff of the Museum also deserve our thanks not only for putting this exhibition in place but for creating a sort of annex which discusses Darwin in Australia. We can’t be too proud about Darwin in Australia. Though he found the flora and fauna fascinating, he was half disgusted by the people and he didn’t think this place had much of a future.

As you have heard, Dr Barry Jones is to open the exhibition. He is well known to most of you. For our foreign visitors and guests, he was previously the Commonwealth Minister for Science. He was also, and I am sure he is prouder of this, one of the first if not the first writer to tell us about the new world of IT, which he did some decades ago in a book called Sleepers, Wake!.

I learnt recently a new thing about Barry Jones. He is the only single person to be a member of the four learned academies of technology, science, humanities and social science. These are not honorary positions. He has earned his right to them all. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Barry Jones.

BARRY JONES: John, Alan, Dennis and friends, thank you very much for the generous introduction. I am particularly excited to be here and very flattered to be asked to open this exhibition because Darwin is a real hero. If you think that this speech sounds like a work in progress or, as we sometimes say, ‘winging it’, it is. But I don’t need to explain that in Canberra because this is what politicians or ex-politicians habitually do. But until I actually saw the exhibition itself, which I had the opportunity to do from mid-afternoon on, although I thought endlessly about Darwin and continued my reading a good deal, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say because I didn’t know exactly what it was that I would be reacting to.

You have to understand the significance of what you are about to see which is not one but two exhibitions folded into one: the first, Darwin, which comes from the American Museum of Natural History and has been curated by Niles Eldredge about whom I will say something in a few minutes; and then next to it is the very interesting but smaller exhibition called Darwin in Australia, which Michael Pickering has curated. It is fascinating to see the two exhibitions together.

It is interesting that Darwin sometimes claimed that it was his observation of slavery in South America which was a major factor in his interest in natural selection. One of those nice coincidences that life abounds in - although it appears in Niles Eldredge’s book, you wouldn’t pick it up from the exhibition itself - is that Abraham Lincoln, who effectively freed the slaves in the United States, was born on the same day as Charles Darwin, 12 February 1809. In February we will be celebrating the 200th birthday of two of the great seminal figures of the nineteenth century. Each, I am sure, must have been aware of the other and must have been aware of the coincidence of sharing the same birthday in the same birth year, but I don’t recall any reference to the fact in his letters.

In this excellent book by Niles Eldredge called Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life, he begins with these words:

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 - the very same day as Abraham Lincoln. Both men shook the world in their own time. Both detested slavery. And both now have their images on the low-denomination (hence more common) paper currency of their natal country. Lincoln, of course, is on the five-dollar bill. Darwin is on the British ten-pound note - where he replaced another prominent Victorian figure, Charles Dickens, in 2000.

The ranks of towering nineteenth-century figures who retain a firm grasp on twenty-first-century collective consciousness are rapidly thinning. Darwin replaced Dickens on the ten-pound note, it was joked, because he had the nicer beard. But the truth is that Darwin, like Lincoln, retains a relevance to life in the twenty-first century that Dickens has all but lost. So too have Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud begun to fade - astonishing given the amount of controversy they both engendered well into the latter half of the twentieth century.

… Lincoln survives as the savior of the Union - and symbolizes at home and throughout the world the deeply humanitarian impulse that is still far from fully realized in the modern body politic. He is an icon of hope for social decency as yet not realized, yet thankfully far from forgotten.

So, too, with Charles Darwin. In a recent poll in Great Britain, in which BBC viewers voted for their top ten all-time British figures, Darwin came in fourth [behind Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Princess Diana].
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The reason why Darwin placed higher than [William] Shakespeare, [Isaac] Newton, Elizabeth I, and Queen Victoria remains unexplored. Eldredge continued:

For what Darwin did was to transform the prevailing view of stability - of the earth, of all the species on earth, and not least the stability of society’s strata - into a picture of motion. Let enough time go by, and the laws of biological transformation will inexorably and inevitably transform life on earth. Old species will go, replaced by new ones.

Darwin was a prodigious worker. He was also a great organiser of material. I couldn’t help thinking about one of the parallels between the work of Darwin and the work of James Murray, the editor of the great multi-volume OED [Oxford English Dictionary], and their period of work overlapped. Both developed a great network of correspondents who would carry out work in entomology and etymology respectively and send specimens to be catalogued.

Janet Browne, one of Darwin’s great biographers, estimated that Darwin’s postal bill - and I apologise for not checking the figures - was around 800 pounds per annum for stamps. That was a time when penny post was absolutely standard. He used his family effectively. He had ten children, and they all were set to work to help catalogue the material.

Darwin’s great work was initiated and stimulated to a large extent by his travelling around on the Beagle in that great voyage from 1831-36. The most significant site that he went to was the Galapagos Islands because he couldn’t help but be struck by the astonishing species variation between the various islands in the Galapagos. Even though the distances between them were not very great, they were great enough to have a process of being undisturbed over a long time where species could develop factors which were specific to the actual environment that they were in.

Then Darwin travelled across the Pacific, went briefly to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand and then came on to Australia. In the 61 days he spent in Australia he began in Sydney, went from Sydney up to Bathurst and looked at the Blue Mountains. He then went down to Tasmania and spent quite some time in and around Hobart - he climbed up Mount Wellington. He then went off to Western Australia to what we now call Albany but to the area that was then called King Georges Sound. And then back to England collecting, collecting, collecting all the time.

There was a number of very powerful intellectual influences. One was his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a very powerful speculative thinker, who wrote a book called Zoönomia in which he speculated about something very much like what Darwin came up with: the idea of the survival of the fittest, the struggle for survival and what we now call an evolutionary process. While his grandfather had the speculation he didn’t have the hard data - it wasn’t a process driven event, as we would say under the Rudd regime, and there hadn’t even been an inquiry into it. But he had the idea.

An interesting writer and publisher called Robert Chambers wrote quite a useful speculative book around 1844 [Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation] which anticipated some of the ideas involved in evolution but not the techniques, not the way in which it actually worked. Robert Chambers’ work also wasn’t based on any kind of empirical data or on observation, it was simply based on speculation. In the exhibition you will find some useful material which will enable you to understand about Robert Chambers’ work in the 1840s.

Darwin was also very much influenced by the important pioneering economist and authority on population, Thomas Robert Malthus. In the film treatment he is described as ‘Malthouse’, but JM [John Maynard] Keynes, who knew a lot about these things, was very emphatic that the pronunciation was ‘Malthus’ because it is really a corruption of the words malt and house, although I concede it is a bit more awkward to say ‘Malthousian’ rather than ‘Malthusian’ which we are so used to. I think Malthus is really right. Perhaps in the next iteration of the exhibition you might give some thought to changing it. In Malthus’s very famous essay on population, he took the view that species produced more than the ecology was able to support and as a result those that died were those that were weaker. You have a process of the survival of the fittest.

Anyway, Darwin had this mass of material but, because he was independently wealthy, he didn’t need to publish or perish. There are probably very few scientists with as strong an economic background as he had. His father had been a very successful investor. When Darwin died he left a fortune. Darwin had in mind the idea of publishing something very much like On the Origin of Species but then was overcome with anxiety about what how his work would be interpreted. He was particularly sensitive that he would become subject to attack and that his work would seem as overturning the conventional views about the immutability of species.

The result was that he postponed and postponed - this is very well set out in the exhibition here - until his hand was forced in 1858 by the revelation that Alfred Russel Wallace, working independently in Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies, had come up with virtually the same conclusions but not in quite the same detail as Darwin. This meant that unless Darwin published what he was working on then all the credit and the recognition was going to go to Wallace. Darwin found that excruciatingly painful.

The result was that on 30 June 1858 at the Linnaean Society in London there was a joint presentation of two papers on evolution and the process of natural selection - one by Wallace and the other by Darwin. Interestingly, the two authors didn’t attend the presentation - they had people doing it for them. In the case of Darwin, his paper was presented by the great geologist [Charles] Lyell and the great botanist [Joseph D] Hooker. But from the beginning Wallace very generously conceded that, although Darwin had been very slow to publish, the detail of his observations and the work that he had put in his notebooks was far more sophisticated, detailed and advanced than the work that Wallace had himself done.

I should draw your attention to an interesting passage in the 20 November 2008 issue of Nature which had Darwin as its figure on the cover. Janet Browne, the biographer of Darwin whom I mentioned before, wrote a very interesting essay in which she was making the point that at various times Darwin’s history has been recognised or commemorated in different kinds of ways.

For example, in 1882 when Darwin died, he had originally wanted to be buried in the graveyard next to the church in Down close to where he lived in Kent. But a group of three Thomas Henry Huxley, Francis Galton and an interesting figure John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury - the man who coined the words ‘paleolithic’ and ‘neolithic’ - organised and persuaded the Dean of Westminster Abbey that Darwin was important enough to be buried in the Abbey. But not only that he was sort of Christian and, as he had no clear theological position, was even more appropriately buried in an Anglican institution. But the emphasis at the time was to say that Darwin was a good man, that he wasn’t an atheist and that his teachings were absolutely no threat to religion or moral values. That was the view taken about Darwin in 1882.

The year 1909 is interesting because it is the centenary of Darwin’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication On the Origin of Species. Oddly, in 1909 Darwin’s theory was seen as being under a bit of a cloud. People perhaps took the view then, ‘Well, it was an interesting theory and very courageous, but it’s been overtaken a bit by subsequent scientific research.’ It was seen to be threatened by the new science of genetics, which suggested that in fact species were much more mutable than Darwin had recognised. You didn’t need a long period of time; you didn’t need generation after generation; with Drosophila and other species it could happen comparatively quickly so it could be a short process.

The other factor was that the interpretation of the geological record seemed to suggest that evolution was rather a simple process, a kind of a straight line process. One might even call it intelligent design; that is, it was aiming in a particular direction and each new species that comes out is better than the one before. There were so many different forms of fragmentation - it was popular for people to come out with their own varieties of emphasis in biology - the result is that Darwin’s one big idea seemed to some extent to be a bit sidelined and wasn’t as important. So 1909, the centenary year, represented a bit of a doubt.

By 1959 Darwin is on the upswing again with the impact of the concept of biological systematics and the integration of three elements - genetics, population statistics and selection theory - and the argument that evolution can take place at three levels: at the molecular, at the genetic and in the environmental world of organisms. It also meant the end of Lamarkism, which was blown out of the water, and was also an attack on directed evolution. After 1959 you have this heavy revival of interest in the extraordinary variations in species going on in the Galapagos.

In 2009 Darwin’s reputation in most parts of the world is probably at its highest point. It is true that polling suggests that 57 per cent of US citizens appear to accept the intelligent design alternative and that Darwin has to fight to keep his place in the sun.

One more point before I wind up, which is not mentioned in the exhibition but which I think is very interesting and the historians here tonight might be interested in this, is the connection between Darwin and Marx. It is not even mentioned in the index of Eldredge’s book. The connection between Darwin and Marx is complex, and not all is known. Marx sent Darwin a copy of the second German edition of Capital in 1873 and received a courteous, if somewhat opaque, acknowledgement. Although Darwin could understand what was written in German, he wasn’t fluent and certainly wasn’t very comfortable reading German.

Then when Marx died in 1883, a year after Darwin, at his funeral, Friedrich Engels compared the two great evolutionists as one was the evolutionist who worked in human nature and the other worked in human history. It is also true that Darwin corresponded with Marx’s son-in-law, Edward Aveling, who was very unhappily married to the tragic but remarkable figure Eleanor Marx, who was Karl Marx’s favourite daughter. Isaiah Berlin had it wrong. Darwin wrote a letter which at one stage was thought to be directed at Karl Marx, but it is almost certain now that it was aimed at Edward Aveling, the son-in-law.

We have a remarkable record of a great life, somebody who really transformed our thinking about the world; somebody who for much of his life had a debilitating illness, although we are not quite sure what it was. One view is that he suffered from Chagus disease, which you pick up from a parasite in South America and has symptoms like sleeping sickness, and he certainly had long periods of melancholia and periods when he couldn’t work. Nevertheless he produced no less than 16 books.

When we look back at Darwin’s achievement, we can see he is not only one of the great figures of the nineteenth century but one of those figures whose thinking absolutely shaped the twentieth century and well on into the twenty-first. I have been warned by Dennis [Grant] that all costs I have to use the magic words: I now declare the exhibition open.

Date published: 18 December 2008