Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Beetle Mania That Opened Up Our World; AND INCIDENTALLY

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Beetle Mania That Opened Up Our World; AND INCIDENTALLY

Article excerpt


BUILDERS have started work on the Natural History Museum's dramatic new Darwin Centre, a "cocoon" that will house 28 million insect and spider specimens collected by explorers including Charles Darwin himself. Costing [pounds sterling]66 million, the extension reflects an enduring legacy of the Victorian era's boundless scientific enquiry and enthusiasm.

Driven by the urge to classify the natural world and show off the mastery of British science, the Victorians were both avid collectors and enthusiastic exhibitors. The Natural History Museum began life as part of the British Museum but moved to a different site in 1881 because the collection - and the interest from visitors - was simply too great.

Like the British Museum, therefore, it owes its existence to Hans Sloan, an extraordinary 18thcentury polymath whose hoard included thousands of books, manuscripts, coins and medals. Yet somehow Sloan also found the time to classify 800 new species of plants, establish the Chelsea Physic Garden and even invent the recipe for cocoa.

Like Sloan, Charles Darwin was a notable polymath, equally adept in biology, botany, zoology, anthropology, geology and even theology. True, he never managed to invent a hot drink, but his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle produced his theory of natural selection - an iconic moment in the history of human thought.

Yet he was also a typical product of his time. He spent his youth riding and shooting and initially believed in the literal truth of the Bible. Like many scientists of the day, Darwin was inspired by the desire to collect and identify the different parts of God's creation, and his enthusiasm was first kindled when, as students, he and his cousin William had a beetlecollecting competition.

This kind of naturalistic trainspotting was the norm, creating an invaluable database of the natural world without which many theoretical breakthroughs - notably the idea of natural selection - would have been impossible.

William Darwin, for example, took holy orders but kept up his zeal for collecting, becoming a renowned expert on dinosaur fossils. …

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