Human Flower Project
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Darwin: Mindful of Flowers
A major exhibition shows how flowers first lured Charles Darwin into science and filled his final days.
Charles Darwin, age 7
Through the end of May 2006, the American Museum of Natural History once more exercises curatorial power—a form of intelligent design—with Darwin, exploring the life and work of modern science’s “Mr. Natural.”
The online exhibition is extensive, too, with even a meditative video of the discoverer’s daily walk.
We had associated Charles Darwin (1809-1882) with primates and big turtles, but now learn that his first studies were of flowers: “meticulous records” of blossoms he made as a 10 year old boy. His still-controversial The Origin of Species (1859) advanced theories of evolution and natural selection that, despite detractors, undergird the natural sciences today.
Over time Darwin’s theoretical mindset steadied but his focus shifted “from geology to zoology to botany.” When his daughter became ill, he moved to Down House nearer the sea and became engrossed studying wild orchids. “Native species bloomed everywhere. This abundance delighted Darwin, who saw in the ‘wonderful creatures’ a perfect case of natural selection at work. He recognized the intricate shapes of orchid flowers for what they were: adaptations that allowed the orchids to receive their insect pollinators as a lock receives a key.”
Care to immerse yourself? Here is Darwin’s On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects published in 1862.
One species that inflamed his curiosity was Angraecum sesquipedale, of Madagascar, an orchid with a throat 12 inches long. “‘Astounding,’ Darwin wrote, of this strange adaptation. ‘What insect could suck it?’” He theorized an insect capable of pollinating this rare beauty and, yes, forty years after Darwin died, entomologists discovered the giant hawk moth that does exactly that. Xanthopan morganii praedicta “hovers like a hummingbird as its long, whip-like proboscis probes for the distant nectar.”
We also find interesting the form of Darwin’s workday. According to the museum’s curators, he “rose early and walked in the garden before breakfast. He worked until 9:30, when he spent an hour in the drawing room, listening to family letters being read. He resumed work in the study, then at noon walked, rain or shine, around the Sandwalk.” Afternoons were devoted to answering letters and reading.
“My life goes on like clockwork,” he wrote, “and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it.” Like a flower.