Magazine article The New Yorker


Magazine article The New Yorker


Article excerpt

On Election Day, as the Kansas school board was voting to allow the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution, a couple of fifty-pound Galapagos tortoises were settling in to their temporary new Manhattan home, at the American Museum of Natural History. For the next six months, the tortoises will be the star attractions (along with five Argentine horned frogs and a green iguana) in a major exhibit on Charles Darwin.

The exhibit opens later this week, but last Wednesday museum workers were allowed a preview. The tortoises, made famous when Darwin wrote, in "The Origin of Species," of riding atop their shells, are positioned at the end of the Hall of Amphibians and Reptiles, just outside the exhibit's entrance, and a few employees had stopped to observe them while waiting for Michael Novacek, the curator of the Division of Paleontology, to arrive for a tour.

"Uh-oh, he's discovered the lock," one said as a tortoise gnawed repeatedly at a piece of metal in the corner of the terrarium, a kind of reptilian studio apartment.

"We're lucky to be seeing them now," another said. "Once they get acclimated, they'll stop moving around and they won't do anything."

The tortoise abandoned his gnawing and started padding away, just as Novacek arrived. "When do they become sexually active?" an onlooker asked.

"Let's see, they're sixteen?" Novacek said. "I don't want to call them teen-agers, but right about now, as a matter of fact."

Novacek, who was wearing a conservative suit and a neatly trimmed beard, led the way into the exhibit and stopped in front of an encased magnifying glass, Darwin's own. "It's a very simple instrument," he said. "We want people to get the sense that he defined biology, and yet he used very simple tools."

Novacek proceeded through several installations devoted to Darwin's childhood, and a picture gradually emerged of the biologist as a young man: by no means an elitist egghead but, rather, an aimless, God-fearing everyman. Pausing in front of young Darwin's beetle collection, Novacek noted the sign above, which read "Beetle Mania," and said, "Darwin was not very attentive at school, not a good student. We want kids to relate to that."

"He liked the notion of being a clergyman," Novacek went on as he continued past Charles's rock hammer and arrived at a glass case featuring a Bible and a small pistol: proper red-state accessories for a long sea voyage, in this case aboard the famous H.M.S. Beagle.

Novacek stopped in front of a painstaking re-creation of Darwin's study at Down House, in Kent, where he wrote "The Origin," complete with his walking stick and his whiskey, and then moved to a couple of low video monitors. …

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